Working for Schools

“I remember going to a one room school house,” the Buffalo County man told me. “Judging by those buildings, I’d say the schools were doing mighty fine.”

“Things might look good on the outside, but it’s tough on the inside,” I told him.

It doesn’t matter which school district you visit, once you step inside the building the story is the same.

School administrators and school boards are trying to do more with less. Their state aid drops but costs keep rising. Many dip into reserve or “rainy day” funding but that fund has seen too many rainy days and what used to be a healthy fund balance is now going dry.

They are forced to balance deep cuts in program and staff with how much the school district will levy in property taxes.  Caught in that balancing act are students who strive to achieve and local people who cannot afford to pay higher property taxes.

At the heart of the problem is a system that makes local property tax payers foot more of the bill when school enrollment declines. State general school aid is tied to the pupil: fewer students mean fewer state dollars. 

Across the state – especially in rural areas – there are fewer children in school but that doesn’t mean a reduction in the cost to educate those children. It costs almost as much to educate a classroom of 17 as a classroom of 20. But state aid is cut by $27,000 when three students leave the class.

Although not intended, the effect of our current school financing system is that rural property tax owners are picking up more of the tab for rural schools with declining enrollment and wealthy suburban schools with growing enrollment are receiving more state aid.

It seems odd to local property tax payers – they are paying more and more – and the schools are in worse financial shape. To complicate matters, changes in local property values also affect school aid. Some areas – along the Mississippi River for example – have seen as high as a 7% increase in property values. The combination of declining enrollment and rising property values is devastating for schools.

My own school district, Alma, has lost almost $1,000 per pupil this year. Some of the cuts are because of the state’s serious financial condition, but much is do to the combination of declining enrollment and rising property values.

This past week members of our Rural Caucus met to talk about solutions to the problems facing our schools. Long and short term ideas were tossed around. Some pointed to proposals to relieve the revenue caps local schools have in place. These caps – part of state law – limit the amount a local school district can raise property taxes.

However, Rural Caucus members agreed the answer to school funding is not an increase in property taxes. Local property owners are already struggling to pay their property taxes. The money must come from somewhere else and the Rural Caucus invited groups to share their ideas.

Tom Beebe, of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES), came to share an idea. To address the school funding crisis, WAES is calling for a one-cent increase in the state sales tax – which is one of the lowest in the country.  Tom explained their proposal would immediately raise $850 million “to stop cuts in classrooms and give relief to property taxpayers.” 

The WAES membership is still focused on comprehensive change in the school funding formula.  But they argue the current school funding crisis must be addressed immediately to protect the education our children receive now while we work together to provide for their future educational needs.

The WAES proposal is just one idea.   My fellow Rural Caucus members and I will continue to meet with others who have ideas about school funding in the near term and long term.  To accomplish our long-term goal, we must reduce our reliance on property taxes; we must recognize that some students cost more to educate than others and school districts face different costs and we must base funding schools on an adequacy study of real costs in specific circumstances.

Achieving our goal is not optional - our children and communities are counting on us.