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Democrats, Republicans don't agree on Rural Schools report

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School funding graphic (properly sized)
School funding graphic (properly sized)

MADISON, Wis. (WSAU) --  The issues surrounding public school funding and possible solutions appear to have Democrats and Republicans divided.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos organized the Speaker’s Task Force on Rural Schools. A few hours before the Republican Chairman, Representative Rob Swearingen released the report, the Democrats released their own version.

Democrats say several issues have not been adequately addressed, such as repairing sparsity aid formulas for rural districts, re-evaluating transportation aids, and the school aid formula in general which often penalizes smaller, rural districts and districts with a large number of vacation properties that are taxed differently.

Kelli Jacobi is the Rhinelander District Administrator. She says while the state urges districts to get leaner and be more efficient, her district is beyond cutting for efficiency and is cutting into necessary expenses and student learning.  “Rhinelander has been making drastic cuts for over a decade. Since the 2002-2003 school year, Rhinelander has made 11.5 million dollars in cuts just to keep our budget balanced.”  Jacobi says the Rhinelander district already cut things like supplies, out of district transportation, and other non-essential costs, but it only got more difficult to balance the budget.  “As the years passed, those cuts started looking like child’s play. We had to start making cuts that had a much more negative impact on students, the district, and the community.”

85th District Representative Mandy Wright from Wausau is a former school teacher that served on the task force.  She said the issues facing the smaller more rural districts shocked her.  “I thought I understood some of the challenges facing public schools, and then I signed up for this rural schools task force, and my heart broke over, and over, and over again, as I realized the extreme disparity in opportunities for our rural students compared to the students that were just in my classroom.”

 

Wright says small schools are at a disadvantage, as they can’t afford the programs that make their graduates successful in the workplace.  “We don’t have Tech Ed classes in a lot of our rural schools and everyone’s asking for more welders, and we don’t have agriculture programs in a lot of our rural schools, and everybody’s concerned about the lack of future agricultural leaders. And, a lot of our students don’t have access to higher learning opportunities in their high schools, so they start at a great disadvantage if they go to college.”

One of the areas Democrats and school administrators say needs serious change is the school aid formula. Jacobi says districts like Rhinelander come out on the short end of the deal because of the large number of second homes in their district.  “Much of the high-value property in the district is owned as vacation property by people that live outside of our community. This type of situation wasn’t taken into account when the original school funding formula was established. We need it to be looked at again. We need changes to be made.”  Jacobi says the state has special aid for districts with excessive mileage travelled by school buses, and for low-population density, but they are so restrictive that the districts that need the aid are often disqualified.  “Our district membership is approximately six students per square mile, which is less than the town member criteria for sparsity aid. Our poverty rate is more than double the criteria set for the aid, but we don’t qualify for the aid because our district has too many total students.”

Jacobi says the two reports do have several common findings, and our lawmakers need to address the problems rapidly.  “There are many similarities between the two reports, and I urge all legislators to work together to find solutions to the school funding issues in our state. Public education should not be a political issue.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos commented Wednesday after the Democrats released version of the report.  “What I’m disappointed in, is that the press conference they had today, they really didn’t even bother to ask the chair, who’s worked in a bipartisan fashion the entire time. He shared the report with them before hand. He wanted to seek their input.”

(Bob Hague from Wisconsin Radio Network contributed to this report.)

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