Northeast Wisconsin superintendents say rural schools face funding crisis

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Wisconsin’s public school funding system for rural schools is broken and must be fixed. That was the message Thursday (October 30, 2014) from more than a dozen northeast Wisconsin school district superintendents, rural school supporters, parents and labor advocates.

“We are here today to focus attention on the need for a school funding formula that’s fair and equitable and doesn’t favor wealthy districts over our rural districts and a formula that stops subsidizing unaccountable private and parochial schools at the expense of public schools,” said Dave Polashek, District Administrator for the Oconto Falls School District.

All school districts in Wisconsin are affected by local school district revenue caps and drastically reduced state funding.  In rural schools, those difficulties are compounded by declining enrollment, limited flexibility, voucher school expansion, increasing transportation costs, rising special education needs, and increased competition for fewer teachers.

Rural schools are struggling to keep the doors open, to hire and retain highly qualified teachers and to offer equal opportunities to students.  Throughout the state, rural schools are experiencing significant transportation issues, technology challenges, buildings in disrepair, fewer teachers, sharing of resources with other schools and reduced programs and courses.

“Our rural public schools are being devastated in Wisconsin with huge reductions in operating funds and subsequent reductions in programs that are desperately needed for our youth to be successful upon graduation.  At the same time our local property taxes continue to rise each year,” said Wayne Johnson, District Administrator at Tigerton.

Ben Niehaus, District Administrator at Florence County School District and Goodman-Armstrong Creek School District, explained that the last budget investment in public education of $100 million only yielded $104 for Florence and $38 for Goodman-Armstrong Creek.  The combined budget for these two school districts is $10 million dollars, and they received $142 in additional state aid for the education of more than 500 students.  Niehaus went on to talk about the significant transportation issues for a 500-square-mile school district and the inability to purchase new buses.

Seymour School District Administrator Pete Ross called upon state government to stop the expansion of taxpayer-subsidized vouchers for private schools.  Stopping vouchers would be one immediate solution that would restore tens of millions of dollars to rural schools.  “We can’t afford to fund two school systems,” said Ross. Additionally, Ross talked about the importance of their community families having access to family-sustaining jobs, which would help to reduce the free and reduced lunch programs.

According to Ross, “the State of Wisconsin is not meeting its obligation of following the State Constitution of providing fair and equitable funding of public education to all public school districts in the state.  We are now forcing local property taxpayers to pay when the State of Wisconsin hasn’t paid enough through its constitutional obligation.”

Advocating for the Fair Funding for Our Future plan and a halt to voucher expansion, WEAC President Betsy Kippers agreed with many of the panelists who spoke about vouchers and the negative impact to the general fund and to school funding in general.

“Rural school funding must be fixed as our rural schools are the heart of Wisconsin and they must remain viable in order to move Wisconsin forward,” Kippers said.