Steven Walters: Rural school administrators pleading for state's help

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Steven Walters
Monday, January 27, 2014

Up to 40 percent of all Wisconsin K-12 students attend rural schools. For three months, their administrators have told legislators how they have cut and cobbled together programs to hold the districts together.

Those stories continue at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, when the Speaker’s Task Force on Rural Schools holds a hearing in Pepin.

Here’s a look at four rural districts.

Alma (Buffalo County)

The superintendent of Alma’s K-12 school, Steve Sedlmayr, is also the high school principal and driver’s education instructor. The district’s head custodian is also the director of transportation, assistant boys’ basketball coach and directs the annual school play.

Alma’s school must heat with fuel oil, so falling natural gas prices haven’t helped it. It paid $122,000 for heating oil last year—$100,000 more than in 2000.

It has also seen one of the biggest enrollment drops in the state—44 percent, falling from 440 students in 2000 to 245 this year.

Because the state school-aid formula considers it a property “rich” district, it will lose 15.9 percent of state aid in each of the next three years.

But, Sedlmayr noted in an interview, that’s only because so many deer hunting or second-home cottages have been built in the picturesque hills overlooking the Mississippi River—cottages often nicer than the homes of permanent district residents.

Antigo (Langlade County)

In the Antigo district, some students spend one hour and 20 minutes on buses twice a day. The district covers 540 square miles; three students per square mile is the district average.

Antigo district administrators have closed three rural elementary schools and have asked voters three times to combine the seven remaining elementary schools into one next to the high school. Local residents have refused, saying the local elementary schools anchor their communities.

Antigo has eliminated one out of every five jobs since the 2004-05 school year, said Mary Jo Filbrandt, district director of business services. And, “We continue to reduce opportunities at our high school in order to balance our budget.”

White Lake (Langlade County)

White Lake district voters have had to pass referendums every year since 2000 to exceed state-imposed spending limits and avoid gutting classroom programs, Superintendent Bill Fisher told the Assembly task force. The next referendum will be in April.

Fisher, who also oversees the Elcho district, showed legislators a list of programs offered in three districts—Elcho, Eau Claire and Pulaski.

Fisher’s point: “It does make a difference in where you go to school and where you live, in terms of what access you have to the learning process.”

Fisher said the four biggest problems facing rural schools are transportation costs that can be as high as 9 percent of a district’s budget, low-speed or unavailable Internet service, the loss of veteran teachers to better-paying districts, and poverty.

Pepin (Pepin County)

The Pepin district used to offer high school students six technical education classes; now, it offers three. Recently, the district created a “donations” page on its website, begging anyone for cash to continue elementary, high school or athletic programs.

“We’re struggling to survive,” Pepin Administrator Bruce Quinlon said in an interview.

What bothers Quinlon is that rural high school students don’t have the same educational programs as he did when he graduated from Shell Lake High School 20-plus years ago.

“I’d like to think we could do as well for students today as we had,” Quinlon said.

Quinlon said he plans to tell Assembly members Tuesday that calls for rural districts to merge is not a solution.

For the 329-student Pepin district, “The most logical district to consolidate with is a 30-minute drive from our community,” Quinlon said, adding:

“Would students participate in extracurricular activities when parents would have to drive one hour round-trip to pick up their children from practice? How long of a bus ride would that be for our students in the morning and afternoon? What time would students need to get on the bus in the morning? What time would they arrive home?”

The Assembly committee’s co-chairmen, Republican Rep. Rob Swearingen and Democratic Rep. Fred Clark, will report on what the panel heard, and possible solutions, when the hearings end.

But they agreed on the most troubling thing they have heard so far: The Antigo district has one librarian for nine schools.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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