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Education
Falling public school enrollment means less money for schools, programs

The number of students attending Wisconsin public schools is expected to decline in the coming school year. School administrators and union representatives are concerned that the decline could lead to gaps in funding for special education, mental health resources and activities to address the needs of low- income students and racial and ethnic minorities.

Since 2014, enrollment rates in Wisconsin public schools have been declining across the board, and the 2020-21 school year was no exception. Enrollment declined 2.9%, which was the largest single-year decline in public school enrollment in at least 25 years, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

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Dan Rossmiller, government relations director for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said each school district faces limits on the amount of money it can take in through property taxes and state general aid, resulting in differing amounts from district to district.

Those revenue limits are tied to enrollment. So if enrollment in a district goes down, the amount of revenue available to that district is reduced accordingly, Rossmiller said.

This year, the Legislature provided more state aid to districts but did not allow any adjustment in districts’ revenue limits. As a result, the increased aid will go toward reducing property taxes, not more spending by districts.

“That’s a hard thing for most people to understand,” Rossmiller said. “When they hear that the state is increasing aid to schools, they think schools will have more money. Revenue limits mean that isn’t necessarily the case.”

Michael Jones, president of Madison Teachers Inc., said some school officials believe the money allocated to them will not be enough to meet their student and staff needs.

“It’s like we are punting again on an opportunity to do what’s right,” Jones said.

Special education remains one underfunded area that could benefit from more state and federal support, Jones and other school administrators said. Both state and federal law require districts to provide special education services to students with disabilities.

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“Although the state provides what is called ‘special education categorical aid’ in an attempt to reimburse school districts for the costs of providing those mandated special education services to students with disabilities, reimbursements are calculated based on eligible costs incurred in the prior year,” Rossmiller said.

The state currently covers roughly 28% of school districts’ special education costs. Because of revenue limits, when a district’s special education costs increase faster than the aid that reimburses those costs, the districts must cut other programs and services or dip into their fund balances.

These programs could include ones that offer mental health resources to help students cope with the ongoing effects of the pandemic. Activities to address the needs of low-income students and racial and ethnic minorities are also where many administrators say they would like to see more funding but instead often get cut.

“Unfortunately, especially here in Wisconsin, we are just naturally inclined to talk about cutting. When you see a decrease in enrollment, that obviously means decreasing revenue, which means, ‘Oh, well, we’re going to have to cut something then,’” Jones said. “What can we do to increase that investment as opposed to figuring out ways we need to decrease the investment?’”

Sue Today, president of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said administrators, teachers and staff are always searching for the best ways to invest in students with the funds that school districts do have.

“We’re looking at the money that is coming to us and how we can best use that to address gaps in academic learning and the social emotional needs,” Today said. “Everyone is looking at how they can best utilize those funds to ensure that we support our students in the best way possible.”


Education
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Online learning still a viable option for Milton and Janesville students

Konnor Fink, an eighth-grader enrolled in the ARISE Virtual Academy, an online learning option available to Janesville students for the past 15 years, has not been in a “traditional” school program since he started taking advanced math classes in third grade.

Bored with the slow pace of the in-person curriculum, Fink was deemed a talented gifted student. But Fink was also the target of bullies.

“Kids can be really mean,” said Erin Colson, Fink’s mother. “I pulled him out of traditional school in third grade when it became clear that the school was no longer a safe space for Konnor.”

Colson home-schooled Fink for two-and-a-half years before enrolling him as a sixth-grader in ARISE. Her son is able to work independently without constantly feeling threatened.

Prior to the pandemic, Fink went to the ARISE Lab located in Franklin Middle School once or twice a week. There he made friends in the Dungeons & Dragons club and went on field trips.

“I don’t think Konnor had referred to any student being his friend before then,” Colson said. “What they have built over there is something amazing for kids like Konnor who don’t always feel like they fit in.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic put nearly everyone’s life on pause in 2020, schools had to pivot quickly to serve students on lockdown in their homes. Since then, the majority of young people have returned to their brick-and-mortar schools, albeit masked.

Yet some semblance of the virtual learning programs that the schools set up remain for kids who, for a variety of reasons, still wish to take classes online.

In Janesville and Milton, the majority of students logged into an online platform for most of 2020. Fortunately, the Janesville School District already had ARISE in place.

“We’ve always had a virtual charter school where all our students have access,” said Allison Degraaf, director of learning and innovation at the Janesville School District. “Last year, prior to the start of the school year, we had about 2,500 students enrolled in ARISE.”

This is in comparison to the 250 to 300 students per year who typically utilized ARISE before the pandemic.

Virtual offerings retooled

A couple years ago, a virtual charter school was established for the Milton School District. This was also before the pandemic hit.

“We found that we had students leaving our district to seek out a virtual experience,” said Tara Huber, principal at Milton Edgerton Community Alternative School. “We added JEDI (an online learning charter school) and this is our third year of having a contract with JEDI.”

Milton school officials realized quickly that JEDI didn’t meet the needs of some students, and that the cost of the program was too high for some families.

After further discussion, the Milton Wired program was created by Huber and teacher Matt Smith. The program is a fully digital learning option for students in seventh through 12th grade.

Seventh-grader Daniel Olsen decided to stick with online learning last year when students had the choice to return to in-person learning or stay virtual.

“I ended up choosing to stay virtual,” Olsen said.

Olsen said the Milton Wired program is better organized this year. He said he can find all of his assignments in one place “instead of across 30 different programs” like last year.

Now homework assignments “just take half the time for me,” he said.

There is also one teacher for all the Milton Wired students, which further streamlines the program.

The Milton Wired program currently has about 60 students in seventh through 12th grade. Students in kindergarten through sixth grade may use JEDI if they are interested in learning virtually.

“We are giving our families the choice based on how their student learns best, but we recognize the importance of making connections and building relationships with teachers,” said Ryan Ruggles, director of curriculum and instruction for the Milton School District. “With that in mind, we are developing a plan for all of our 6K virtual learners to maintain a connection with each of their home buildings.”

The reasons Milton students are now choosing online learning over in-person instruction are varied. Some are going the virtual route to lessen the likelihood the students will carry the coronavirus from school home to their families.

“We’ve only got a few because of the mask switch” to mandatory use, Huber said. “With most students, it’s because they just enjoyed it and were successful with virtual learning last year.”

Best of both learning worlds

Some Milton students have chosen a hybrid option, which allows them to be both virtual and in-person this upcoming trimester.

“We do have a handful of kids that have chosen that, who are here in person for math electives or whatever they want to be inperson for,” Huber said.

One student who chose the hybrid option for this school is Aurora Dull, a sophomore in the Milton School District. Dull chose the hybrid option after realizing that long lectures do not fit her learning style.

“I was better off working on my own,” Dull said. “With online learning, it gives me the ability to read the book and do the assignment without having to wait on anyone else.”

On the other hand, Dull said she enjoys going to school for some of her “hands-on” classes such as theater and art.

In the Janesville School District, most students are back for in-person learning this fall. However, some students have selected a virtual or hybrid option. Through ARISE, those who choose online learning can view classes live, especially in core areas such as reading and math. Janesville schools have recently adjusted the virtual curriculum at ARISE to align it more with state standards.

Prior to COVID-19, 2% to 3% of students were enrolled in ARISE. It is now back to that percentage of students this 2021-22 school year.

Many students have a variety of reasons for choosing virtual learning.

“It could be that they work better in an online environment, self-paced and have support at home,” Degraaf said. “It could be they prefer to have a mask or don’t have a mask or that’s just the type of instruction that they feel is best for their child and learning environment. We can’t say that there’s one specific reason families choose that.”

Other ARISE students have found success in the online format, including Naleighna Clark and Tanya Allen.

Clark is a recent graduate of the high school program at ARISE. Using the program, she was able to graduate in August—a year early. This month she started pursuing cosmetology at Tricoci University of Beauty Culture in Janesville.

“I was able to get more financial aid since I’m younger,” Clark said.

Allen is currently in 10th grade in the ARISE program. It was her parents who decided to have her continue her schooling online.

“They just thought it was better for my grades so I could stay focused on school,” Allen said. “About halfway through seventh grade, I made the switch.”

For Allen, the one-on-one interaction with teachers has had an impact.

“They have to teach differently than a public teacher would,” she said. “A lot of teachers will sit with you in Google Meets for an hour if you really need the help.”

The decision by Janesville School Board on Aug. 24 in favor of mandatory masking for all students and staff did not result in a spike in students and families signing up for online learning. Degraaf said the district saw some students transition to virtual learning, but no more than was typical prepandemic.

A hybrid approach is also possible for students who want to be in some actual classrooms online but pursue other interests independently and at their own pace.

“Together we develop a schedule for the students,” Degraaf said. “Some students may be 50% virtual and 50% face to face. Or they may want to do their literacy and math online and attend their physical education, music or welding class at the school. They create the schedule together with the student and family.”


Obituaries and death notices for Sept. 17, 2021

Harold “Dewey” Anderson

Taylor E. Brandt

Gerald Arthur Focht

Janet Marie (Rutledge) Goldwood

Renee Dawn Hamilton

Frank Quinn Hayden

Karen Elizabeth (Havel) Hess

Mary Jo Irwin

George Mark

Glenn R. Reed

Roger D. Schave

Carol A. Vesely


Government
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Rock County Clerk denies New London man's request for voting system IP addresses

JANESVILLE

The Rock County Clerk’s Office is denying part of an open records request by a New London man who, among other things, is seeking IP addresses for servers linked to the county’s electronic voting system as part of an apparent personal investigation of the November 2020 election.

In a response released this week, Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson told New London resident Peter Bernegger the county has denied his June 8 and June 26 requests to obtain Rock County voting system IP addresses for election servers that funnel ballot data to a computer router that manages the county’s central ballot count.

According to a July 5 Associated Press report, Bernegger has made similar requests of county clerks throughout Wisconsin. In an editorial in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this summer, he wrote he was suspicious of election fraud because he had heard of claims that voters had been turned away from some polling places after they had been told registration records show they had already voted.

In her response, Tollefson said the county is denying part of Bernegger’s request because he asked for IP addresses that would be stored on a computer router that the county had not installed or used until a few months after the November election.

Tollefson also wrote that the request is being denied because divulging electronic addresses tied to county servers would result in the county releasing individual voter data that could identify voters—something that is prohibited under federal voter privacy laws and homeland security rules designed to protect voting machines as “critical infrastructure.”

Tollefson said she believes other counties have declined Bernegger’s requests to collect IP addresses for voting servers. She said Bernegger didn’t explain in his request why he is seeking the records, but Tollefson said she believes he is attempting to conduct an independent count of 2020 presidential election ballots.

She said the request seems to raise the question of whether the county retained election results for the legally required time. Tollefson said the county has retained voting records from the election. The data has since been input through a new central router put in place late last year, weeks after the election.

The county has repeatedly certified the results, and county canvassing has confirmed an accurate vote count, she said.

Making copies of 85,000 ballots

The clerk’s office intends to comply with another portion of Bernegger’s request: to make available photocopies of each ballot cast in Rock County in the November 2020 election.

Tollefson said it has taken weeks and “hundreds of hours of redaction time” to fulfill that part of the request because it requires the county to go through photocopies of all 85,000-plus ballots cast in the county in the election by hand.

Tollefson said that is because clerks are required by law to redact all the routing numbers for each voter’s ballot to protect individual voters’ privacy. She said some routing numbers are printed on different locations of the individual ballots, which makes it necessary to go through all the ballots by hand.

Tollefson said her office has worked through about 65,000 ballots cast, but the county is still going through all the absentee ballots cast by Janesville voters.

“If the voter numbers are not redacted from the ballot images, then the voter’s ballot could be directly linked back to the voter who completed the ballot,” Tollefson wrote. “All voters deserve anonymity when voting, and the images of the absentee ballots will not be released until the redaction is completed.”


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