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Rural educators struggling with high transportation costs, old buildings and the loss of staff told state lawmakers studying the issue that their employees and budgets have been stretched to the limit. Without more money, they will have to close schools and could see massive deficits and their best teachers leave for better-paying jobs elsewhere. But lawmakers on a special task force said an overall funding increase is unlikely, although some money might be found for specific needs.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos created the rural schools task force in September after seeing districts like Rhinelander fail repeatedly to get more money by appealing directly to voters. Rhinelander residents rejected referenda in 2005 and two in 2008, preventing the district from upgrading its buildings and forcing it to consolidate some schools.
Rob Swearingen, a Rhinelander Republican and task force chairman, said the committee initially aimed to get rid of inefficiencies and find cost saving measures, not dish out more money to schools. He was surprised during visits to rural schools to see them stripped to bare bones. Dozens of rural districts are slated to ask voters April 1 for money just to keep operating and avoid closing schools; many are likely to fail.
"Referendums are just tearing these schools apart," Swearingen said, noting the votes in Rhinelander were narrowly split.
Wisconsin law requires referenda for districts to exceed statewide revenue limits. Eighty percent of such votes are held in rural districts, said Jerry Fiene, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance.
"Eighty percent of school districts are not rural, so there's your de-equalizer right there," Fiene said.
Rural schools nearly across the board spend more on transportation than those in suburban or urban areas. The state funding formula doesn't account for that.
The state also provides less aid to districts with high property values, like Rhinelander, without considering that incomes are low, Swearingen said. High poverty rates add to the burden on rural schools to provide education at a manageable cost.
Given the state cap on property tax increases, school districts have no choice but to go to a referendum to raise more money.
Cuba City passed three referenda to rebuild its high school and elementary school and to exceed state tax caps by $600,000 to stay afloat, school superintendent Roger Kordus said.
The Unified School District of Antigo, one of the state's largest geographically, wasn't as fortunate. Three referenda there to consolidate three elementary schools into one to save money have failed. The district has cut 88 employees, 10 bus routes and reduced employee benefits and maintenance projects in the last decade, school board president Mike Boldig said.
"There have been years when for our particular district we've had to look at making over $1 million in cuts just to make the budget," Boldig said. Rhinelander faced similar cuts.
Rep. Mandy Wright, a Wausau Democrat and former teacher, was less surprised than Swearingen by the dire straits uncovered during the tours. She compared the way the state gives aid to patching a leaky roof, with lawmakers reacting to need as it arises.
"One of the critical flaws of the funding formula is that it's more focused on balancing property taxes than it is providing an equal education for every child," Wright said.
Swearingen said the committee has found that to be mostly true but it's unlikely to include a major funding overhaul in the recommendations released later this month or in early April. More likely, the committee will suggest the state increase aid to districts that have higher transportation costs or ease requirements on how sparse a district must be before it qualifies for aid, so more districts can qualify.
There are some Democratic-led proposals that have yet to gain traction in the Legislature. They would change the way the state would provide aid, but for schools like Mineral Point, which is looking at a nearly $800,000 deficit within five years without significant change, time is running out.
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