Northern Wisconsin’s Decline in Children
In last five years, number of children dropped 3.2% statewide, but more than 10% in many northern counties.
Most counties in Wisconsin have fewer children than they did five years ago, with some of the biggest declines occurring in counties in northern Wisconsin, according to new population figures released by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. The decrease in the number of children has led to declining enrollment in many rural school districts, presenting those districts with a host of financial challenges that stem from trying to pay for fixed costs with diminished resources.
Between 2010 and 2015, the number of children in Wisconsin declined by about 42,000, from 1.34 million to 1.30 million, for a decline of 3.2%.
The decline was most severe in the northern part of the state, with virtually every county in the north experiencing a drop in the number of children. The counties with the largest declines in percentage terms between 2010 and 2015 included:
- Adams County, -16.0%;
- Iron County, -15.5%;
- Lincoln County, -14.1%;
- Bayfield County, -13.3%; and
- Rusk County, -11.9%.
Nearly all counties had fewer children in 2015 than in 2010, but a few counties – mostly in the southern or western part of the state – experienced increases in the number of children. Counties with the largest increases in their child populations between 2010 and 2015 included:
- Grant County, +10.9%;
- Dunn County, +6.5%;
- Eau Claire County, +6.3%;
- Pierce County, +5.1%; and
- Dane County, +5.1%.
A decline in the number of children in an area can pose financial hardships for the school districts there. To a large extent, student enrollment determines the amount of state support a school district receives as well as the amount of money the school district is allowed to raise from property taxes. If student enrollment goes down, so too does the school district’s budget.
The problem is that some school district costs are fixed and don’t go down when student enrollment goes down. For example, school districts face the same heating bill regardless of how many students occupy a building. Likewise, a school district may have to run the same bus routes, have the same costs for insuring its buildings, and pay the same amount to have its parking lot plowed regardless of the number of students inside the building.
School districts with declining enrollment may consider consolidation with a bordering school district, but that’s no cure-all: transportation costs and bus ride times for students may increase after consolidation. Closing a school can also be a devastating blow for a small community.
State lawmakers have taken some steps to address the challenges faced by school districts with declining enrollment and rural districts. The state limits the drop in general aid that a school district can have from one year to the next, and provides extra resources for school districts that have students spread out over large geographic areas. In addition, Wisconsin State Superintendent Tony Evers has said he will ask Governor Walker to approve new resources in the next budget to help rural school districts retain their teachers.
Despite the steps taken so far, areas with declining child populations will continue to face challenges educating their children as well as ensuring that their communities remain vibrant, with good employment opportunities. We should make it a priority to ensure that northern and rural Wisconsin gets what it needs to thrive.