Arcadia, a small town in western Wisconsin, near the Minnesota border, has seen a huge influx of immigrants from Latin America in recent years. Some 40% of the town’s 3,000 residents are Latino, according to the Census. In surrounding Trempealeau County, where immigrants make up the bulk of the workforce on local dairy farms, the Latino population surged from 240 to 1,667 between the years 2000 and 2010.
Many of Arcadia’s immigrant residents were drawn here to work for Ashley Furniture Industries and their presence can be seen throughout the town.
There are two Mexican grocery stores on Arcadia’s Main Street, beneath the red, white and blue bunting that hangs from city light poles. The local school district’s website features the smiling faces of its predominantly Latino student population; 70% of the kids in Arcadia’s schools are Latino, says Superintendent Lance Bagstad.
And while 76% of Trempealeau County voters chose Donald Trump in 2016, an April 2017 article in the La Crosse Tribune headlined “Despite national tensions, Arcadia embraces diversity,” quotes area residents who see the immigrants as an economic boon to a rural region that would otherwise be suffering from population decline.
The influx of immigrants has not only boosted the local workforce, it has helped increase enrollment in the school district, keeping Arcadia from having to cut programs and shrink services as other rural school districts have done, former Superintendent Louie Ferguson told the LaCrosse Tribune.
But Arcadia has also been the target of a series of ICE raids that have terrorized the immigrant community. And recently, the school board’s decision to cut school-bus service within a two-mile radius of the school led to a heated discussion of how the district views its mission “to ensure ALL children learn.”
Cutting back on school bus rides
Suzanne Vazquez, a former reading and special ed teacher, who owns the Draft Horse Inn and Suites, is raising her own children within the two-mile radius of the Arcadia school. Vazquez was upset when she learned of the new school bus policy, which took effect at the start of the current school year. She started a petition, signed by 630 other residents, asking the district to reconsider.
Part of the issue, Vazquez explains, is that “when you talk about ICE, our attendance drops. We have parents who are not leaving home.”
Wisconsin made it illegal for undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses in 2007. Not having a school bus pick up their kids puts these families, who live in fear of arrest, in a particularly stressful situation, Vazquez says.
“If we’re being culturally responsive and receiving grant money to be a trauma-informed school, this is something we’d consider,” Vazquez adds, “rather than adding an additional barrier.”
Objections to bus policy go beyond concerns about ICE raids. “I don’t know any parents who are comfortable sending a 4-year-old walking two miles to school with no sidewalks,” Vazquez says.
Her petition called on the district to take advantage of a state policy that allows districts to receive state funds to transport students who live within two miles of school if the children would otherwise have to navigate unusually hazardous conditions — like a particularly busy street.
Only 72 of Wisconsin’s 446 school districts do not have such a plan. Arcadia is one of them.
A busy street near the Arcadia elementary school with no sidewalks could qualify as unusually hazardous, Vasquez and the other petitioners assert.
As local citizens, they have the right to notify their district of unusually hazardous conditions they feel should be included in a transportation plan, “and if they’re not satisfied with the response, they can appeal the decision directly to our department,” says Benson Gardner of the Department of Public Instruction. “Local sheriff’s departments often help evaluate possible hazards.”
Vazquez’s petition, and a contentious school board meeting on the issue, may have pushed the district to reconsider cutting off school-bus service. =
‘To me, that’s not fair’
Bagstad, the school superintendent, said he decided to enforce a more limited bus route simply to conform to a state regulation and that the cost of the old route was not a factor in his decision.
“We sent a message to all the families to say we’re going to go back to upholding the policy that’s been on the books for all these years. We felt it was important that we uphold the policy itself,” he said.
Transporting 160 children to school on the bus was not the issue, school board president Paul Servais explains. It was the principle.
“Over the years, somebody calls and complains they couldn’t get picked up. So the administration says, ‘OK, we’ll pick that family up.’ And then a couple of days later, someone else calls,” says Servais. “We started asking ourselves, ‘What should we do? We’re picking up these kids, not others, we shouldn’t be picking up any of them.’”
“To me, that’s not fair,” Servais adds. “Over many years this family got added, that family got added, no one really knows why. What’s fair? What’s equitable? What can we do within the budget?”
Servais and Bagstad say the board and school officials are working on answering those questions.
“The transportation people are really working on what does it look like if we get some stops in place and pick up some people this winter,” says Servais. “What we heard loud and clear was pre-K through 4th grade parents do not want their kids walking very far.”
‘We’re not bad people here’
As for the concerns about ICE, neither Bagstad nor Servais see that issue as related to the bus concerns.
“In my mind, it’s totally separate,” said Servais. “ICE doesn’t come to town and pick up kids. It does disrupt families. I get that, and that’s disappointing. I don’t think it involves the busing. No.”
“We had some parents call last time ICE was in the community, about a week ago,” says Bagstad. “But we did not see a significant change in the number of students coming to school that morning. We did have some parents come and pick up their kids early from school, because they wanted them at home.”
“I can’t pretend to know what any of that population is thinking,” Bagstad adds. “Is any family affected when some event they perceive as traumatic happens? Certainly. We have no knowledge of, interest in, nor will we ask if families are documented or undocumented.”
The community is working things out, says Servais, and apart from “activists who showed up from out of our community to get everybody riled up” people are determined to find a solution and “get it right for the kids.”
Activists who showed up to get everybody riled up
As she was trying to get the board to change its mind about the school bus route, Vazquez reached out to Mireya Sigala, who works with El Centro de Conexión de Chippewa Valley, a nonprofit organization that supports the local Latino community and has been in contact with Arcadia families whose relatives were swept up in ICE raids.
“We run a rapid response team out of Eau Claire,” Sigala explains. “ICE was in Arcadia and picked up five individuals. Four of them have children. Co-chair Dave Anderson and myself headed down there to see if we could find them.”
“Suzanne had seen our social media postings, so she reached out,” Sigala continues. “This is affecting Latinos, ICE is in the community, people can’t get driver’s licenses. She didn’t know if the school board was aware of all the barriers the immigrant community has that are unique to them.”
Sigala tagged along to a school board meeting on Sept. 30, intending just to listen and find out more about what was going on, she says.
“The first thing I noticed was the enormous amount of Latinos in the room. The second thing was the session was being held in English and there was no interpreting being done at all. That was so strange given the dynamics of that school district.”
The more she watched Latino parents whom she felt were being ignored and intimidated, the more upset Sigala says she felt. After watching the soccer coach, who was not fluent in English, struggle to express himself, she decided to speak up.
“Shame on you,” she told the all-white board, for holding the meeting without an interpreter. “Someone said, ‘We didn’t think of it,’ and I was like, ‘Yes, but you’re still excluding them from the conversation. You guys could have called someone.’”
Sigala says she was thinking of a family of four in Arcadia. The father was arrested by ICE outside his house in front of his children. “The wife barely drives,” she says.
ICE had been in the community watching the family for weeks. “Any day they walk out of their house to take their kids to school could be the last day they see their kids,” she explains. “So having a bus is really important.”
Sigala did not think the board was deliberately targeting Latinos. Rather, she says, “You’re looking at it from your point of view, if you have a steady job, a stable apartment, you’re not viewing it from the perspective of 70% of the kids. You have no idea what it is to live that fear on a daily basis.
There’s just such a disconnect between the board and its population.”
After addressing the board, Sigala turned to the audience and said, “If you look up on the panel, you don’t see yourselves up there. And I strongly suggest that when the time comes around you run for a seat, because your concerns are not being heard and you’re not being represented.”
Getting it right for the kids
Last week, after meeting one-on-one with Bagstad, Vazquez, is optimistic. “At this point, I am extremely hopeful we will come up with a solution ensuring student safety without adding an additional barrier,” she said.
The school board will hold its annual meeting on Oct 21, at 6:00 pm at the high school. There, the board will likely announce an interim transportation plan for the winter months.
“We’re not bad people here. We’re not monsters. We’re all neighbors trying to work together,” says Servais. “We’ll get it right for the kids.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this story said superintendent Bagstad “rewrote” Arcadia’s bus policy. The story was updated on Oct 16 to reflect that Bagstad’s decision was to revert to a more limited state policy while other superintendents had allowed exceptions in the past.