Like many rural school district superintendents, I’ve been fixated on the fate of the Palmyra-Eagle School District in southeastern Wisconsin. Since 1993, rural school districts have been in a bind.
Many of us were low-spending in 1993 and then locked into that level by the revenue limit caps placed on our districts. If we had been spending more back then, we were then blessed to continue that with revenue cap for the past 27 years.
However, like us, Palmyra-Eagle is stuck in a cycle of requesting operational referendums parallel to the deduction we receive for declining enrollment non-recurring exemptions. In many rural school districts bordered by wealthier or more populated school districts with state-of-the-art facilities, preschool programs, auditoriums or gymnasiums — through no fault of our own — we lose kids to open enrollment. This additional hit makes budgeting year to year difficult as our local school boards struggle to put the funding puzzle together.
The money follows the student, and the amount that taxpayers pay is based on their value “per member” — which is the amount our property taxes are shared among each student. When enrollment declines or property values don't keep rising, that value per member can go up dramatically — but with the cap, taxes are limited to cover the costs.
My advice is that we need to be listening to what our local legislators are saying (and doing). Are they in favor of expanding school choice (private school vouchers or charter schools, or open enrollment options) and are they discussing limiting when we can ask for operational referendums or for how much we can request? Are they in favor of giving away our tax dollars to foreign companies or are they dedicated to investing them here at home? Their "positions" may be one thing, but their actions are certainly another.
When it’s our turn to ask whether we need to close our doors because we cannot make ends meet, will they throw us under the bus saying that we made bad decisions or that we should have planned better — or better yet, that our local leadership (board and administrators) was lacking?
What will they say about you when it’s your rural school in declining enrollment because the jobs are not in our area, farms are failing, or families are choosing to live closer to communities with good roads and internet? Just listen to what are they saying about Palmyra-Eagle.
We should all pay attention to the funding conundrum that is rural schools in Wisconsin. Don’t count out rural schools. Instead, give us options and policy that allows us to thrive rather than compete for meager resources and slowly go the way of the rural church, grocery store or the family farm.
Jill Underly is district administrator of the Pecatonica Area School District.
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