“What can be done to help our schools?” the woman asked. She traveled to Madison from rural Eau Claire to participate in a citizen lobby day on another topic but was concerned about funding schools.
“Just this morning,” I said, “rural legislators gathered to announce a package of bills to assist schools. Schools are struggling and we are working together to bring them help – despite the fact the state doesn’t have any money.”
Solving the problems facing schools is especially difficult given the state’s lack of financial resources. But rural legislators are committed to finding solutions for cash strapped schools.
Over the past several months, my fellow rural legislators and I met with school superintendents, teachers, school board members and taxpayers. We asked what we could do now to ease the financial problems facing schools.
The state’s current fiscal condition meant sending more money was not an option. So we looked at ways to reallocate existing dollars and give school districts much needed flexibility to address budget troubles.
The result of our work is a six-point plan that eases some of the mandates schools face; adds flexibility for schools that want to consolidate; provides assistance for schools seeking efficiencies; offers a cushion for schools facing declining enrollment; and makes more dollars available to schools for transportation.
Transportation costs are much higher for rural schools than their urban counterparts. For example, in Durand, the district pays $1 million on transportation out of an $11.5 million district budget. The state only reimburses the district $80,000 – less than ten percent of the transportation bill.
We snagged some unused transportation dollars and make sure the Department of Public Instruction distributes those funds to rural schools.
Flexibility was a common request of school superintendents and teachers. One particular request was to ease the mandated number of students per teacher in primary grade class rooms under the SAGE program.
Wisconsin’s SAGE (Student Achievement Guarantee in Education) program mandates smaller class size in grades K through 3. Research tells us young students are well served in smaller classes. The state currently limits the number of students to 15 in a classroom and some schools struggle to keep that class size because of the lack of classroom space.
Working with our superintendents and state education officials, we determined allowing class sizes up to 18 children would keep more schools in the SAGE program and still meet young students’ needs for one-on-one learning.
Our six-point plan also focuses on giving flexibility to the over sixty percent of Wisconsin schools losing students.
My home school district, Alma, has been the state champion of declining enrollment – losing a quarter of its students in eight years. During that same time the fuel bill increased from $18,000 to $87,400. With state aid tied to the number of students, schools are losing funds faster than they can make cuts. Districts are being forced to cut extra-curricular activities, foreign languages, art and music programs and staff.
Our proposal would help schools with the loss of students by expanding the state’s declining enrollment relief to add an additional year to the adjustment given these schools.
We also give flexibility to school districts considering consolidation. These districts requested flexibility in when a vote on consolidation could be on the ballot. We propose allowing districts to call for a vote in April or September as well as November elections. We provide additional money for planning efficiencies, sharing services or consolidation studies by reallocating dollars.
Times are difficult for Wisconsin families and our schools. Teachers, administrators and schools boards are working hard to find ways to provide a quality education with fewer dollars. State government also struggles with less money and more need for services. I am grateful my rural colleagues joined to fashion solutions achievable now – without adding additional money – to ease problems facing schools.
As members of the Rural Caucus, we share the goal of providing our children with a quality education, regardless of whether children live in urban, suburban or rural areas. We are committed to working to reform our school funding system and – as soon as these bills are law – will be back with teachers, school boards and administrators to work through longer-term solutions.