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In Wisconsin, rural superintendents turn to voters to keep schools going

When state aid on education drops, Wisconsin districts must seek voter approval for specific ballot measures. Where they used to request money for things like building a new school, now the referendums are for money to keep the schools running.

Courtesy of Nichole Schweitzer
School superintendent Nichole Schweitzer (left) works with Business Director Denise Guex, preparing for a board meeting on the school tax levy for the 2016-2017 school year.

As superintendent of a rural school district, Nichole Schweitzer has plenty on her mind. New equipment for shop class. Federal grant applications. A school bake-off.

Then there’s the annual budget crunch – how far she can stretch her funding for the district’s 710 K-12 pupils, who study under one roof.

What would she do with more money? Ms. Schweitzer reels off a wish list: A full-time librarian for her students. Another IT person – she has one director with a part-time assistant – to fix and maintain tech hardware and the school's wi-fi, which stays on until 8 p.m. so that students of all income levels can do homework. 

"Where can you pull from? Where can you double up?" she asks. "There's a limit to what our taxpayers can pay ... and my job is to keep us away from that."

In Wisconsin, as state aid for public schools keeps falling, districts like Shiocton are asking residents to pony up more in local taxes. But what used to be an appeal for capital projects – a new school building, say – is now to pay for teacher salaries and other running costs, part of an increasing shift in the burden of public education to local districts.

Wisconsin is not alone: At least 31 states spent less per student in 2014 than in 2008, according to a report by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In most cases, budget cuts by state governments weren’t offset by additional local spending, in part because of declining property values after the Great Recession.

What makes Wisconsin unusual is its revenue cap on districts. When state aid on education drops, districts can’t simply raise property taxes to cover the shortfall. They must instead seek voter approval for specific ballot measures. Similarly, any increase in state aid above the cap must be offset by lower property taxes. Only a handful of other states impose similar caps.

'Can you beat that?'

While the revenue cap predates Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who took office in 2011, his antitax drive has shone a spotlight on how public schools are funded, particularly in rural areas with declining enrollment. By ending collective bargaining for most public employees, Governor Walker also created a free-agent market that has made it harder for many rural districts to recruit and retain in-demand teachers.

In February 2015, voters in Shiocton approved a three-year tax hike for Schweitzer’s budget, which adds up to an extra $1.1 million in 2016-17. It was a huge relief and a reward for months of canvassing by Schweitzer and her staff in the district. “They value our schools. They want the youth of this community educated in our community,” she says.

So far, 36 districts in Wisconsin have passed funding referendums this year, and many more are on the ballot for November’s election. In 2010, only 20 districts approved measures. In contrast to the current high pass rate of 77 percent, voters tended to reject about half of such ballot measures in the 1990s when most related to the construction of new schools, says state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D), who represents a rural constituency abutting Minnesota.

Now voters are having to dig deep to keep schools going, while the funding uncertainty adds to the churn of teachers who are no longer bound by union contracts. “Schools are starting with vacant positions, and it’s happening in the rural districts,” she says.

Schweitzer can attest to the scramble to retain staff and the risk of losing out. Last summer, she thought she’d recruited an experienced teacher to fill a high-school position. Then came a call from the prospective hire. “My district offered me this. Can you beat that?” the teacher asked her. (Schweitzer didn’t.)

Walker says that districts should have greater freedom to hire and fire teachers – he once compared the system to NFL free agency. His administration argues that budgets now go further because of cuts to teacher benefits worth billions of dollars. Educators say those savings in 2011 were largely a one-off gain that don’t compensate for state funding cuts. The CBBP report found that Wisconsin’s per student formula funding – the main channel for state aid – fell 12.9 percent between 2008 and 2016, the fourth-largest drop among 46 states surveyed (four were excluded due to a lack of comparative data.)

'Only so much a small community can do'

As in many rural districts, enrollment is declining in Shiocton, a farming community bisected by the Wolf River where sturgeon come to spawn in springtime. In 2012, the year before Schweitzer became superintendent, it enrolled 780 students. But the decline isn’t just about depopulation: Under Walker, a publicly-funded voucher system for private schools has expanded greatly. However, studies have shown that a majority of low-income students who qualified for vouchers were already going, on scholarships, to mostly religiously-affiliated private schools.

For districts like Shiocton, this means less state support. Since 2012, state aid is down 13 percent to $4.7 million, says Schweitzer. Hence, the importance of last year’s referendum.

Nathan Howard, a pattern maker whose son recently started kindergarten, says he voted in favor of extra K-12 spending. Blinking in the afternoon sunshine on his way into school, he says everyone he knows supported the ballot measure, even those without kids in the system. But he’s unsure what would happen if they had to dig even deeper in future. “There’s only so much a small community can do,” he says.

Cher Marks, a substitute teacher who has three children enrolled here, says she expects more local referendums after the current three-year funding ends. “If the state isn’t going to do it, the burden will fall on us,” she says.

Wisconsin’s public schools are parceled into more than 400 districts, a legacy of Progressive Party rule in the early 20th century that put a premium on local governance. This balkanized system adds to the cost of providing education. Still, proposals to merge schools usually meet dogged resistance in rural areas, where high schools are community beacons and parents fear long-distance busing for their kids.

Senator Vinehout says some of her farming districts are already seeing rapid declines in students and state support. In Pepin, a district along the Mississippi River, enrollment has dropped 19 percent in seven years. Yet during the same period, which includes the Great Recession, state aid fell almost 60 percent, according to official data, shifting much of the burden onto local taxpayers. She points out that Minnesota, on the other side of the Mississippi, is more generous: 69 percent of K-12 funding comes from the state (Wisconsin and Minnesota spend a similar amount overall per student.)  

Even without the budget crunch, Schweitzer worries that the turmoil and low morale in the teaching profession – training colleges across the state are seeing sharp declines – could push public education to a point of no return. “You can only stretch a rubber band so far and then the rubber band breaks,” she says.

On a recent afternoon, Schweitzer takes a group of visitors to the shop where students can learn car mechanics and other skills that are prized in a self-reliant farming town. Schweitzer points to a cream-and-chrome vertical mill and lathe. Price tag? $15,000. She ordered it after a mild winter that saved on heating bills. “I’m continually scouring our budget,” she says.

When the machine arrived, the doorway was too narrow to admit it. A local business, and school donor, offered to knock it out and add a new door. Finally she had a new mill for students to use. The old one has been pushed against the wall. After 70 years, it was about time.

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