Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Rural Schools Want More Funding

Will this cut funding for urban schools like Milwaukee?

By - Jan 27th, 2014 11:37 am

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 those districts together.

Those stories continue at 1:30 Tuesday, January 28, when the Speaker’s Task Force on Rural Schools holds a hearing in Pepin. While legislators pay heed, urban systems like Milwaukee will of course worry that a state funding increase for rural schools will reduce money for city schools.

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 it hasn’t been helped by falling natural gas prices. It paid $122,000 for heating oil last year – $100,000 more than in 2000.

It’s also seen one of the biggest enrollment drops in the state – 44%, 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 notes 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 one-way to and from school. 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 school anchors their community.

Antigo has eliminated one out of every five jobs since the 2004-05 school year, says 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 held 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 Quinton says.

What bothers him 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 says he plans to tell Assembly members tomorrow 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,” he says, 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?”

City Schools like Milwaukee can point to to their problems, like class sizes that can have as many as 40 or 50 students.

The cochairs of the Assembly panel looking at rural schools, Republican Rep. Rob Swearingen and Democratic Rep. Fred Clark, will report on what they heard, and possible solutions, when the hearings end.

But they agreed on the most troubling thing 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

6 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Rural Schools Want More Funding”

  1. Dan says:

    Districts have cut to the bone and a surplus is being shifted to a tax cut and another structural deficit. Sound policy.

  2. Heidi says:

    I grew up in a rural school district. I was always envious of kids in Eau Claire who could take more interesting, varied, and advanced classes. We had nothing like AP in our school, though we did have a college prep English course, it did not offer advanced credit. We had an active tech ed program and agriculture program, with capstone courses in auto mechanics, accounting, and food service/restaurant management shared among several schools in the area.

    However, the smaller the district, the worse it gets. Alma and Pepin are very worthy examples of this. I could name numerous others up in that area of the state (Gilmanton, Independence, Arcadia, etc) where poverty is a huge factor. That area is also home to a growing Hispanic (Mexican) population, mostly due to farm work and a couple of large manufacturers. The closer to Eau Claire the district is, usually, the better off the districts are, because they’re bedroom communities for higher-paying jobs. That was the case with my district, Osseo-Fairchild. Both of my parents were commuters to Eau Claire at some point in their careers.

    In places with no large manufacturing or job center–for example, Antigo–they have more of a problem. In other places, like Park Falls, most of the parents work at one manufacturer or another (paper mill). And as stated above, tiny districts like Drummond, White River, Gilmanton, Turtle Lake, etc. are more than a half hour drive to the nearest larger district’s schools because of the sizes of their districts.

    This is not a new problem. It isn’t the city of Milwaukee that they complain about, however; it’s the suburban school districts. The difference per pupil in a district like Independence versus one such as Hartford or Wauwatosa can measure in the thousands. There is no parity; and no one seems to want to bother to fix it. Rural school districts aren’t much better off than the Milwaukee city schools when it comes to the basics. Rural districts often have to implement K3 or Head Start programs in order to get the kids in for early childhood evaluations. This costs money, but the parents couldn’t afford a private program if they wanted it.

  3. Tim says:

    The 2014 property tax rate for the Antigo public school district is $8.43 / $1,000. Currently, MPS is $12.49 / $1,000. If they want better schools in Antigo, maybe they should spend their money better or raise their taxes.

  4. Heidi says:

    Tim–that’s easier said than done. New taxes generally are not acceptable ways of raising funds because they want the free education without having to pay for it, too. All they see is $$$ on their tax rolls, rather than $$$ that can help their school district. Especially hard to convince will be the retirees who moved up there to their cabins and don’t want to pay for education they aren’t using.

  5. jeff Jordan says:

    One would have to wonder if these rural districts have looked in to the “tool box” full of opportunities to cut costs and lower taxes for districts, that were offered by Governor Walkers office,when he got Act 10 passed.
    There is little doubt that rural districts have real and different problems providing education to their pupils. It’s also true that their tax base is different. If you think Alma has a proliferation of second home and retirement homes in it’s district, take a look at Door County and other popular “up North” retirement districts. With this high value tax base and no students, they have the opposite situation of an inner-city district with low value tax base and a large student population.
    This city mouse/ country mouse argument is informative, but you would have to have unified representation from the metro area’s in the state to have fair fight. Good luck with that scenario.

  6. Tim says:

    There are people in Milwaukee that are ok with a poor school system as well, they would prefer lower property taxes too. MPS is not doing great or barely even well in all schools, but it could be worse.

    The voters in northern WI school districts have chosen not to invest in their schools, who are we to meddle in their local affairs. They can reap what they sow.

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