Rural schools are facing declining enrollments, reduced revenues and higher transportation costs.
These struggles were among the topics discussed at a meeting of the State Superintendent’s Advisory Council on Rural Schools, Libraries and Communities on April 22, at Waupaca High School.
“Raising public awareness of the challenges that are now facing public rural schools is the key,” said Jerry Fiene, executive director of Wisconsin Rural Alliance.
Wisconsin Rural Alliance is an organization of rural school districts, technical colleges, universities, CESAs, public libraries, businesses and individuals focused on sustaining and strengthening rural school districts throughout the state.
According to Fiene, these schools have typically offered excellent educational opportunities, but now are struggling with declining enrollment and reduced revenues.
The Wisconsin State Assembly put together the task force to study how to create partnerships among school districts, explore new avenues to share innovations and best practices, address future transportation needs and develop strategies for long-term financial stability.
“The task force traveled across Wisconsin, visiting rural schools and holding five public hearings throughout the state and one in Madison,” said Fiene. “As a result of these hearings, a report of finding and recommendations will be released in early May. It is hoped that these recommendations will be incorporated in the next state budget or future legislation.”
Testimonies from these hearings may be found at www.wirsa.org.
“This will provide us a platform and basis to continue our task force and find solutions for rural schools,” he said. “We need to have action as a result of this work.”
Waupaca District Administrator David Poeschl said the Waupaca School District does not belong to the Wisconsin Rural Schools Association.
“While some of our issues are the same, I don’t believe Waupaca shares the same concerns to the degree some of the smaller and more rural districts do,” Poeschl said.
Transportation aid is the most important rural school issue impacting Waupaca.
“The School District of Waupaca is approximately 160 square miles and students are spread out to all corners. As a result, our transportation requirements are much greater than the average school district,” Poeschl said.
“There has been an attempt by the legislature to relieve this burden for rural school districts by increasing transportation aid to districts like ours,” he said. “While this is a beginning, there is still more room to go before rural school districts are not unduly burdened, because of their location verses more compact districts.”
“We face many challenges not unlike many other rural districts from around the state. These include transportation and facility costs, along with the impact of less state aid resulting from a declining enrollment. Perhaps the biggest challenge is being resourceful and creative with our community’s dollars in maintaining the level of programs and services our students need and deserve,” Iola-Scandinavia District Administrator David Dyb said.
“I believe it comes down to getting people to recognize that the challenges of rural schools are real and different from our urban partners,” he said. “Furthermore, investing in education for rural school districts is vital to maintaining the high quality of education our state is known for. The 250-plus districts fitting the description of a rural school would support that notion loud and clear.”
“I do believe our district can best be described as ‘rural,’ but economies of scale work in our favor,” Poeschl said. “I don’t wish to speak for the WiRSA, but it appears to me their initial attempt to inform legislators of the rural school issues is taking hold and will ultimately be successful.”
“Administrators, teachers and staff work hard to serve every child that comes through their doors,” said Fiene. “They embrace innovation and are willing to implement the Common Core standards, new teacher and administrator effectiveness systems and new accountability requirements. It takes adequate resources to accomplish the task. Without a strong commitment to public education and adequate investments in our rural schools, it cannot be sustained.”
Fienne said maintaining quality rural schools is critical for the future of the children and an essential component of the economic and social well-being of the rural community it serves.
“It is important for all community members to carefully monitor how rural schools are being affected by legislation and policy decisions being made in Madison,” Fienne said.