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The challenges of rural schools
Assembly committee hears from superintendents
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CUBA CITY — State legislators who are members of a rural schools task force visited Benton and Cuba City Wednesday to discuss rural schools’ needs.

Rep. Travis Tranel (R–Cuba City) invited Rep. Rob Swearingen (R–Rhinelander) and the 12-member Rural School Task Force to visit schools in Southwest Wisconsin.

The task force has gone throughout the state in the last month gathering information from other rural communities about the schools’ needs for funding and how other statewide programs impact them.

“I represent a very rural part of the state,” said Tranel. “I have 14 school districts in my Assembly district. … All of our schools in Southwest Wisconsin do a phenomenal job with the resources they are given, and it’s because of educators and administrators that care. It’s not unique to the State of Wisconsin, but it certainly is a nice part of Southwest Wisconsin where we’re all in this collaboratively. When we look at the challenges we face in this state, especially when we look at rural areas, I think we’ve done a great job here in Southwest Wisconsin.”

Tranel said the purpose of the task force was to allow rural schools to explain how legislation that was implemented has affected schools and share the challenges rural schools face.

“There are a number of rural legislators on the panel, but all of our districts are going to be involved in making legislation for the state as a whole, and that includes Southwest Wisconsin,” he said. “A lot of times we feel in this part of the state that nobody in Madison is paying attention.”

The representatives toured Benton and Cuba City schools before the public hearing in the Cuba City High School cafeteria. Giving testimony were Cuba City School Superintendent Roger Kordus, Benton School Superintendent Kyle Luedtke, Mineral Point Unified School Superintendent Luke Francois, Potosi School Superintendent Ronald Saari, and Wisconsin Innovative School Network speaker Darlene Machtan.

Kordus discussed the challenges the Cuba City School District faces, both financially and academically.

“The issues center upon recent changes to the Fund 80 levy, state equalized aid formula, revenue limit calculation method, new state educator and learner initiatives, along with transportation costs and the common core state standards,” said Kordus.

Kordus encouraged legislators to consider legislation that would once again allow local school districts the ability to levy the amount of revenue to support all of their community service activities, funded by Fund 80. He said Fund 80 should not be capped at rates of prior years.

Kordus believes a referendum may be necessary in the future to continue to provide the same services to Cuba City students if state funding is not improved.

“If the funding formulas for Wisconsin’s public schools are not improved, I believe this will leave rural schools with fewer and fewer resources that are needed to address students’ diverse learning needs, the new education initiatives that are being put into place across our state, along with the new associated technology investments that are needed by school districts to meet each of the requirements for the new educator initiatives,” said Kordus.

“I don’t believe that one funding system can work for the entire state,” said Luedtke. “It’s difficult to provide the equity we need for our schools across the state. It’s just too vast.”

Transportation costs are another large concern for the Cuba City School District. With the school district spanning more than 200 square miles, the district pays more than $300,000 for transporting its students, as well as transporting private school students who attend St. Rose Catholic School in Cuba City or Holy Ghost–Immaculate Conception School in Dickeyville.

“The Cuba City School District only receives about $36,500 from the state through the transportation categorical aid,” said Kordus. “I ask members of this committee and your fellow legislators to support the increasing of the state categorical aid funding for pupil transportation. That would free additional revenues to be applied directly to student learning.”

Luedtke said rural schools require more financial aid to offset traveling further to collect and drop off students.

Technology was another concern.

“Broadband access should be equal for all students across the state,” said Luedtke. “Legislation that insures that all students have adequate access would level the playing field for our students.”

Other shortfalls Benton faces include not being able to afford setting up a distance learning lab to allow students the opportunity to take a wider range of courses, even earning AP credits; retaining quality teachers because after they’ve gained experience they move to a larger school where they can earn a higher income and prepare for fewer classes; and going to referendum to ask the community for more money than state funding provides for the school to operate.

Luedtke had several possible solutions to assist his school: allow schools to determine when school starts each year as well as the number of days of instruction to allow schools to save on utility expenses; have the state pay equalized aid sooner to prevent short-term borrowing to pay bills; offer incentives for teachers who are certified in more than one area; and re-evaluate the state funding situation.

Francois said the bottom line is that it doesn’t make sense to apply statewide regulations to small school districts. Rural school districts need as much flexibility as possible to manage their finances and operations.

The Benton School District has one teacher per grade level in the elementary school and one teacher per subject area in the high school, as well as one administrator, one bookkeeper and one secretary.

“We are as streamlined to the bare bones as we can get in the district,” Luedtke said. “I do not feel like this is unique to the Benton School District, but it is probably very common in rural schools.”

Luedtke said the school is the largest employer in Benton and is the heart of the community. Many people likely would not continue to live in Benton if the school wasn’t there.

“Schools are the heart of communities,” said Tranel. “It’s important to keep their unique identities.”
Luedtke explained that college credits aren’t available for students in Benton, meaning they’re already behind when they get to college and other students have been able to take college coursework in high school.

When asked about the voucher program for charter schools, Luedtke said, “I don’t understand why any money from Benton School District should go to Racine or Milwaukee. I know they say it’s best for the whole state if the money goes there, but we don’t see any benefits in Lafayette County and Benton.”

Francois said the smaller schools are financially hurt by the funding for the voucher program being taken off the top of the funding formula.

“The idea of vouchers on the back of rural schools is just something that we cannot find palatable on any level,” said Francois. “Milwaukee’s issues are not necessarily Mineral Point’s issues. How we attack that problem should not be used as a carte blanche way to attack all problems.”

Rural schools are challenged to do more with less while having a smaller population to tax for more money.

“It makes a difference where you go to school,” said Francois. “We have separate and unequal schools in Wisconsin. The amount of money spent per child on education in public schools varies. Despite the funding formula being constitutionally sound, it is evident to me that the funding formula is fundamentally broken. A student from Mineral Point does not have the same opportunities as a student from Middleton.”

Saari said he enjoys the rural school community where everybody knows everybody and it’s more difficult to fall through the cracks. However, without the same resources other larger school districts have, it’s difficult to teach all levels of students to provide the education they need.

“Our goal is to meet the individual needs of every student, because they come to us with a lot of baggage,” said Saari. “We’ve got kids with parents who are in prison. We have kids with parents who give them drugs as rewards. We have kids that come from a lot of different backgrounds and they have a lot of different needs. Those classroom teachers have a lot that they face when they try to meet the needs of these individual students. We no longer can teach to the middle and expect everybody to be successful.”

Technology has helped transformed the teaching and learning at schools. Providing financial support for rural schools to increase technology within the smaller schools would help provide an equal educational opportunity.

“The needs of the students has to be the top priority,” Saari said. “Many small rural schools are fighting to survive.”
He asked legislators for more creativity and flexibility to allow the rural schools to succeed.