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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — As Gov. Scott Walker is set to propose a $19 million increase in money for rural schools, education officials say it doesn't go far enough to help struggling districts in less populated parts of the state.
As state aid to schools has dropped in recent years — including a $1.2 billion cut four years ago — schools have struggled to make ends meet. Rural schools have faced their own challenges, with fewer students spread out over a larger distance.
The plight of Wisconsin's 259 cash-strapped rural schools was the focus of a bipartisan task force that traveled the state last year, hearing concerns from teachers, superintendents, parents and students.
Its report and myriad recommendations came too late for the Legislature to act on last year. But Walker is picking up on two of its suggestions — spending more on transportation and broadband access.
Walker is calling for spending $6 million more to expand broadband access, something rural school advocates have said is a particular need.
"That will at least help us catch up to where we need to be," said Jeff Jacobson, superintendent of Dodgeville School District.
Walker also said he would propose $5 million more to help pay for transporting students more than 12 miles to school.
The transportation issue is a particularly difficult one for rural schools, said Jerry Fiene, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance.
An urban school district might spend just $50 per student a year on transportation, while a rural school might spend $1,500 per student, he said. That takes money out of the classroom, Fiene said.
Kurt Lindau, superintendent of the remote Winter school district — the state's geographically largest located about 250 miles north of Madison — said the district spends roughly $300,000 a year on transportation. He said the additional aid to pay for getting students to school would free up more money to be used in the classroom.
Walker also said he would propose adding $8.4 million in spending for districts with a small number of students who are scattered over a large geographic area. That is known as sparsity aid.
While more sparsity aid and money for transportation will help, more important is whether Walker will loosen revenue limits that restrict how much money schools receive from property taxes and state aid, Lindau said.
His district has seen flat enrollment levels in recent years, but because of low revenue limits last year the district cut a bus route to balance its budget, Lindau said.
"A few-student decline has a pretty substantial impact on a $4 million budget," Lindau said.
Fiene also said that for districts with declining enrollment, increased funding for transportation and technology may be nice, but it may not be enough to balance a budget. He said many schools face declining enrollment, which in turn means loss of state aid. With revenue caps set, districts have to rely on property taxes to break even.
"(Declining enrollment) can be a real downward spiral," said John Forester, lobbyist for the Wisconsin School Administrator's Alliance. "I think rural school administrators look at the fiscal challenges they face and conclude that the children they serve are being short-changed."
State Superintendent Tony Evers said he was pleased with Walker's willingness to address concerns of rural schools, but said he hoped to speak with Walker about the need for more money, and spending authority, for schools.
Walker said last week that school aids would remain "largely intact" in his budget, but he didn't go into detail. With the state facing a projected $2 billion budget shortfall, school leaders are worried that Walker will look to cutting the roughly $5 billion a year schools get now.
Rep. Rob Swearingen, R-Rhinelander, who chaired last year's rural schools task force, declined to comment on which of its recommendations he may propose. Swearingen said he wanted to wait to see what Walker puts in his budget to be released Tuesday.
Swearingen last year called for more funding for broadband access and transportation — which Walker is backing — as well as forgiving student loans for certain rural teachers and tweaking the funding formula to use a five-year enrollment high as opposed to the current three-year average.
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