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Rural schools need attention

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Rural schools need attention
Superior Wisconsin 1226 Ogden Ave. Ste. 1 54880

The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram

The issue: The future of Wisconsin’s rural schools.

Our view: They face many challenges, but the solution lies in innovation and cooperation, not partisan sniping.

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State lawmakers continue to dance around the growing challenge of rural Wisconsin school districts trying to keep their doors open — never mind being innovative.

We all see the trends — declining enrollments (and populations) in many rural areas, particularly in northern Wisconsin. Rising energy and transportation costs, lower average family incomes, fewer advanced course offerings, and concerns about keeping faculty who can make more working for larger and “wealthier” school districts.

Recently, an Assembly task force on rural schools released a set of recommendations, some of which make sense, the most crucial being to revisit or replace the existing state equalization school aid formula that just about everybody agrees no longer works.

The idea behind the formula is that property-rich districts get less state aid while districts with lower property values get more to help ensure the aid per-pupil is equitable. But even when the formula appears to be fair on paper, many rural school districts start from a disadvantage because of their larger areas and smaller enrollments.

A 2011 study of the challenges facing rural schools by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance is instructive. Legislators should read it and other information so when they return to Madison early next year, they might actually be bold and innovative in trying new approaches to address the problem.

Politicians can’t change geography. The WTA noted in its 2011 report the average rural school district covers nearly 170 miles, compared with 116 miles for non-rural districts. Five rural school districts, all in northern Wisconsin, are larger in area than 25 of the state’s 72 counties, the WTA found.

Even with extra state aid rural districts receive to help cover higher busing costs, rural districts still spent nearly $200 more per student in busing costs in 2010 than their non-rural counterparts, the WTA said.

State-imposed revenue limits also take a toll on rural districts, seven of which had lower revenue limits in 2010 than 2001 because of declining enrollments. Twenty other districts saw their revenue limits go up less than 1 percent annually.

Staffing is also a problem. The 27 districts with the largest enrollment declines from 2001 to 2010 had median enrollment of fewer than 40 students per grade. Staffing in those schools is already at a minimum, making it harder to cut staff.

This issue calls for more bipartisanship and less bickering in Madison. The school aid formula needs revising, but the challenges go beyond that. Technology could be a big help, but another liability is that some rural areas lack high-speed Internet. If that hurdle could be overcome, perhaps rural schools could get grant money for laptop or tablet computers and offer courses online two days a week, for example, thereby cutting transportation costs. It also could offer more courses online taught by faculty shared with other schools. Other ideas abound.

We can’t write off rural schools, which are the backbone of their communities. There isn’t an easy fix, but it’s important to our state’s future, whether you’re a Tea Party Republican or a bleeding-heart liberal.

Copyright 2014, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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