In the past week I was called upon to represent rural schools on an educational advisory panel to Senator Mark Pocan as well as asked to speak to the struggles of rural schools to Kristen Durst of Wisconsin’s Public Radio “All Things Considered.”  If I wasn’t aware before, it is abundantly clear to me now, that election season has descended upon Wisconsinites.  Mineral Point, similar to a host of rural school districts across the state, has much at stake in the upcoming election when deciding funding for rural schools.  What follows is experts of my testimony to Representative Swearingen’s rural school’s task force testifying to committee members the struggles that rural schools face in today’s effort to educate youth. 

Upon arriving at the Mineral Point School District three years ago, the district had already eliminated programs, eliminated or reduced staff, increased employee contributions, and frozen salaries for two consecutive years.  The district faced a significant structural deficit of 1.1 million dollars. Within the past three years the Mineral Point community also approved a recurring referendum for operations to temporarily end the structural deficit; evidence of a community that supports their school district.

At Mineral Point in the District Office I am the Superintendent, the Business Manager, share the role of Curriculum and Instruction Director, the Human Resources Director, the Director of Technology, and the Communications Specialist.  The administrative team consists of three principals.  The High School Principal also serves as the District Assessment Coordinator and Summer School Coordinator, the Middle School Principal also serves as the Athletic Director, the Elementary Principal shares the curriculum and instruction role, and the Director of Pupil Services is also the School Psychologist.  The nurse is split between two school buildings, the police liaison position is part time, there is no social worker, no ELL teacher, no technology teacher, nor Family and Consumer Education teacher at the High School.   Compare that to non-rural schools and find each of the roles above to be full time positions in each building. 

In Mineral Point at the elementary there is no central air in classrooms causing summer school to be canceled each of the past three years due to extreme heat.  The facilities are aging and contain asbestos under the floor tiles and 60-year-old plumbing with leaks.  Compare that to non-rural schools and find facilities with major renovations completed and older buildings restored.

One report states Mineral Point spends $9,817 per student while the same report states a non-rural school spends $12,348 per student.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, rural school districts from 2000 to 2010, suffered a 7.5 percent enrollment decline, and were penalized by the state’s revenue caps, which are tie revenue to enrollments. From 2001 to 2010 rural school districts’ revenues rose only 26 percent, compared to 39 percent for non-rural districts.

These comparisons highlight the disparity between rural and non-rural schools and the list could go on and on and on.  It makes a difference as to where you go to school – we have separate and unequal schools in Wisconsin.  The amount of money spent per child on education in public schools varies. 

Many rural school districts do an excellent job of educating students and have pressed forward in innovative ways.  For example, Mineral Point received a Wisconsin Technology Institute Grant that provided two mobile telepresence units, one for each of our buildings.  Mobile telepresence finds a 60-inch TV mounted to a mobile cart with a HD camera attached that connects entities with an Internet connection to each other in real time.

Last year Mineral Point students were taking ACT preparatory class with a teacher located in the Riverdale School District.  In the future, we hope to share course content and share services such as ELL teachers, social workers, special education services, and so forth between schools.   The technology will also allow Mineral Point to connect with UW Platteville and Southwest Technical College for youth options, dual enrollment courses, and virtual supervision of our student teachers.

Mineral Point Teachers are highly qualified to deliver an exceptional education.  Four teachers at Mineral Point, or 1 in 15, are National Board Certified, the highest certification available to teachers in their profession.  Three teachers at Mineral Point were recently nominated to the Herb Kohl Teaching Fellowship and two were being considered for honors at the state level. 

To attract, develop, and retain highly effective teachers to Mineral Point a strategic compensation plan tied to educator effectiveness was implemented.  I have first hand accounts of teachers that moved to Mineral Point rather than a accepting a job in a large school district because they desired the ability to advance on a pay scale more quickly based on effectiveness.  I also have a teacher that was offered a higher paying job in a neighboring larger district that decided to stay in our rural school district due to performance based pay attached to effectiveness.  

In order to attract or retain highly effective teachers, the district has to be able to fund a strategic compensation plan.  I shared with the task force an exhibit that displays our general fund projection summary for the next five years.  Mineral Point’s revenue is projected to grow between .65% and 1.42% while expenditures are projected to be between 1.52% and 2.97%.  Using these conservative estimates our current school year deficit of $67,338 will continue to grow to a deficit of $797,369 in as few as five years from now.  This will deplete the District’s fund balance currently at 19.5% to being totally exhausted after the 2018 school year.  Attracting and retaining effective teachers, regardless of the compensation plan, will become most challenging under these circumstances. 

This is the repetitive history of our school district and why a recurring referendum was necessary three years ago and will be necessary in the near future unless something changes in funding for rural schools.  

What is the solution to the struggles that rural schools face?  Perhaps is it additional revenue cap exemptions, like was done for energy efficiency projects, for items such as school safety measures or the integration of technology.  Perhaps it is better funding for categorical aids such as sparsity and transportation aid for rural schools.  Perhaps it is expanding the hold harmless agreement for declining enrollment.  Perhaps it is the introduction of a poverty factor into the state aid formula.  Perhaps it is adopting State Superintendent Evers plan for Fair Funding for Our Future.

What is the solution to the struggles that rural schools face?  Recognizing that the problems of rural schools are complex and controversial, simply, it is a financial problem, and the next budget cycle is key to saving rural schools.

What are your thoughts about rural schools funding?