Bills target rural schoolsDemocratic legislators from rural districts, collectively known as the Democratic Rural Caucus, introduced a flurry of bills aimed at bolstering rural school districts Wednesday in the midst of Superior Days activities. “These are six bills that will provide much-needed flexibility to districts right here and right now,” said Rep. Kristen Dexter, D-Eau Claire.
By: Maria Lockwood, Superior Telegram
Democratic legislators from rural districts, collectively known as the Democratic Rural Caucus, introduced a flurry of bills aimed at bolstering rural school districts Wednesday in the midst of Superior Days activities.
“These are six bills that will provide much-needed flexibility to districts right here and right now,” said Rep. Kristen Dexter, D-Eau Claire.
In particular, they will help rural districts dealing with declining enrollment. Alma School District, said Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, is the state champion in that arena.
“In the last eight years, their fuel bill has gone from $18,000 to $80,000 during a time when they lost a quarter of their enrollment,” she said. They and other districts with similar problems are looking at eliminating programs like foreign language and extra-curricular activities like sports, drama and FFA.
The package of bills includes one that would cushion the funding deficit caused by declining enrollment. Current law allows a district to have a one-year adjustment made to their revenue limit authority if their three-year rolling average falls below the previous three-year rolling average. The proposed bill would add an additional one-year adjustment equal to 50 percent of original adjustment.
One of the options available to schools in financial duress is consolidation. Another proposed bill would restore funding for consolidation studies and/or efficiency studies to find places where costs can be cut while maintaining a quality education.
“They basically need a business plan in order to be able to merge their operations,” and must hire a consultant to do a study said Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo. This bill would provide up to $10,000 for such studies.
The package includes a bill to revamp the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education program, which was intended to provide small class sizes in grades K-3. It would increase the student to teacher ratio from 15:1 to 18:1 in all SAGE classrooms per school building. Two teachers could share a space, but the limit would remain at 30:2 in such cases. The bill also opens up SAGE enrollment for one year to all districts in the state, something that hasn’t been offered for more than a decade and restricts the Department of Public Instruction’s ability to allow waivers for higher class sizes. Current waivers would be permitted.
Transportation issues are also addressed. Proposed bills would send $1 million in excess state transportation aid to be redistributed to school districts instead of dumping it into the general fund, preclude public school districts from transporting private school students before Sept. 1, and close a loophole that allows parents of private school children to receive double reimbursement when for two children go to the same school.
The caucus members admitted that these were not long-term solutions to the issue of school funding.
“We understand there are much bigger problems,” Vinehout said, but the group is in this for the long haul. “We will be back.”
Too often groups have tackled the issue of school finance reform to let it drop, caucus members said.
“We are here today simply because we decided not to walk away from the table,” Dexter said. “Because we were able to find common ground and because we decided that a lack of money was just no excuse for inaction.”
The caucus was assembled this summer to do much the same thing Superior Days does, said member Nick Milroy, D-Superior.
“We want to make sure rural Wisconsin has a voice in the political process,” he said.
The bills were introduced Wednesday in search of co-sponsors, Milroy said. They will be assigned to committees in the near future.