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Rural Wisconsin Communities Vote Tuesday Whether to Pay More in Taxes for Education

Schools leaders in some rural communities their schools are strapped for cash and have cut to the bone. A state task force is examining the situation.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos formed the group of legislators last year, to recommend solutions to problems observed. The Rural Schools Task Force has toured dozens of Wisconsin districts. They face unique challenges, according to Republican Assemblyman Rob Swearingen, chair of the task force.

Swearingen says for one, schools in sparsely populated areas have to spend a good deal of money transporting students, long distances. Then, some regions have limited access to the internet. He says it can compromise students’ education.

"They have a great connection in the school, but if they're going to do any sorts of downloads or get any homework done, a lot of these kids are still based on dial-up connections just outside of the school district," Swearingen says.

Yet Swearingen says perhaps the biggest challenge rural districts face, is retaining teachers.

"Some of these districts feel they're being used as training grounds for teachers coming out of college. In other words, they'll spend one or two years there, and then get enticed away from that rural district into a bigger district that can offer them more money," Swearingen says.

While those dilemmas may be the result of geography, Jerry Fiene says the big culprit behind rural schools’ problems is Wisconsin’s formula for funding schools. Fiene is executive director of the Wisconsin Rural School Alliance. He says things started changing in the early 1990s, when the state restricted how much money districts could get from property taxes. There had been cries, to keep a lid on them.

"The biggest issue that rural schools are facing is that after twenty years of revenue limits and declining enrollments and allowable increases in their budgets that is less than what inflation is, they have had to cut many opportunities for their students," Fiene says.

The situation deepened for some districts in 2011, when the state slashed aid to schools and capped property tax increases. At the same time, it passed Act 10, allowing districts to control teacher salaries and benefits. Some school leaders say they've cut as much as they can.

Democratic state Representative Fred Clark says not only is student education at stake, so is the essence of some rural communities. Clark also serves on the state task force.

"The schools are literally what binds those communities together, and if we allow those to go away, or to force them to close and put kids on the bus for an hour and a half to go to some larger city, we're really destroying the fabric of rural Wisconsin and that would be very unfortunate if allowed that to happen. We can't allow that to happen," Clark says.

The option school districts have, if they need more money, is to ask voters if they’d paid higher property taxes.

Dale Knapp is research director of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. It studied the success of such referenda. Knapp says voters usually say yes, only if their school district desperately needs cash.

"You're asking voters to vote themselves a property tax increase when maybe their incomes haven't been rising, etc. And so, a lot of times what they're saying to the districts is, "We're making sacrifices at the household level. We want to see you trimming your belt—trimming things a little bit at the school district level first, and then come back to us," Knapp says.

Some districts are asking residents for a short-term increase in taxes, others, for years.

Jerry Fiene of the Wisconsin Rural School Alliance says what districts ultimately need is a new formula for funding rural schools.

"(A mechanism) that takes into consideration such things as declining enrollment, increasing poverty, sparsity – few students per square mile in rural school districts—a formula that would take all those factors into consideration with adequate resources that would increase at a predictable level," Fiene says.

The task force examining the challenges rural districts face, will release is findings and recommendations, later in April.