Walworth County’s smaller schools optimistic of future

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Kevin Hoffman
Friday, June 24, 2011
— After a borrowing referendum failed last spring, officials at Reek Elementary School were looking for options.

One idea explored: merging Linn Joint 6 School District, which oversees Reek Elementary, with the Fontana Joint 8 School District, which oversees Fontana Elementary.

Both districts have only one school, and officials wondered if merging the districts might save money.

It never evolved into a formal proposal, but the message was clear—schools are hurting, and all options are on the table.

“The only thing we could have agreed upon was building a school between us,” said Mark Wenzel, administrator at Fontana J8 School District. “But they wanted to keep the identity of their school, and we wanted to keep our identity. It didn’t progress further than that.”

Fiscal constraints have forced some Wisconsin schools to talk consolidation and cost sharing, especially in Walworth County, where school districts are smaller than average.

Walworth County is home for four larger unified school districts—Delavan-Darien, Elkhorn, East Troy and Whitewater—that enroll between 1,700 and 3,100 students each, according to Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction data.

But the lakes region has 11 additional districts:

-- Two union high school districts—Badger and Big Foot, which have only high schools and are fed by smaller joint districts.

-- Eight joint districts—Sharon J11, Walworth J1, Fontana J8 and Linn J6, which feed into Big Foot; and Lake Geneva J1, Genoa City J2, Linn J4 and Geneva J4, which feed into Badger.

-- One unified district—Williams Bay School District, which enrolls 557 students in an elementary school, a junior high and a high school.

Joseph McHugh, a Fontana J8 board member, said the smaller districts have advantages and disadvantages.

“I like the elementary district, but it does make a difference because your school feeds into another high school for which you have no control,” he said.

The Fontana J8 School Board oversees 272 students at Fontana Elementary, but students there move on to Big Foot High School. Big Foot has its own school board, budget and cash flow.

McHugh said having a separate board for the elementary school gives more local control.

“With an individual board at the elementary level, we can focus our attention entirely on K through 8,” he said.

His board was able to keep class sizes to about 15 students and didn’t have to make the staff cuts some of the larger districts made in recent years, he said.

Wenzel said they let one teacher go for next year. They had hired the teacher the year before, and Wenzel said he tussled with the idea of making the position a one-year contract because he knew there was a chance it wouldn’t be renewed.

“I think our board is trying to work with teachers very cordially,” he said.

In addition to consolidation, Linn J6 and Fontana J8 considered sharing resources to split costs of language teachers and other staff. Merging districts, however, doesn’t appear likely anytime soon.

A lesson in history

Not since the 1950s and ’60s has there been mass consolidation of school districts across Walworth County. The county once had 98 one-room schools, which were assigned a number that became their district name, according to records from the Walworth County Historical Society.

Townships each had about six schools, which housed 15 to 25 students. One teacher at a now-defunct schoolhouse was paid $13 a day, according to historical records.

As time wore on, schoolhouses began to merge with others. Some were going through financial troubles, and buses were becoming more common, which meant students no longer needed schools within walking distance, said Doris Reinke, former president of the historical society.

Records show many parents fought against consolidation, while others preferred it, potentially to strengthen the quality of education. Those smaller schools helped create unified districts, such as the Delavan-Darien School District in 1979, records indicate.

Uncertain future

Williams Bay School District for months has been grappling with financial problems. It cut programs and staff while raising fees to address its estimated $600,000 deficit in next year’s budget. Meanwhile, the board still is considering whether to pay for repairs at Williams Bay Elementary School or invest in a new building.

Those are issues the joint districts aren't burdened with—at least not yet.

Bill Leonard, president of Linn Joint 4 School Board, said he’s still keeping an eye on what develops in Madison. The district is in sound financial shape now, but anything can happen, he said.

“We wish the state legislature would get everything settled so we know where we are,” he said. “We think we know, then all the sudden they throw a curveball at us … We’re confident in our position right now and hope the state will decide exactly what they want so we can move forward.”

Board leaders agreed one of the best solutions to overcoming economic hardships is not consolidation, but collaboration. Leonard said boards don’t often meet jointly, but administrators constantly are in contact.

“I think standing on our own is good,” Leonard said. “Unless (the state) squeezes us harder than they’re talking about, I don’t see anything we can’t work through financially short-term to keep us in a strong situation.”

Last updated: 5:34 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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