2013-2015 State Budget

Jerry Fiene's memo regarding Assembly Substitute 1 to Senate Bill 286

TO: Rural Legislators

FROM: Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance

RE: Comments on Assembly Substitute Amendment 1 to Senate Bill 286 (LRB s0371/1)

DATE: March 18, 2014

The Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance is a statewide organization representing administrators, board of education members, teachers and community leaders from throughout the state educating over 100,000 students. Our organization opposes the modified version of accountability legislation reflected in Assembly Substitute Amendment 1 to Senate Bill 286. This version would force low-performing rural public schools, as defined in the bill, to be closed permanently or converted to a charter school. Both options are particularly problematic for small, rural school districts.

We have many unanswered questions about what it means to “permanently close” a school in a small, rural school district.

  • Many small, rural school districts have only one school building that houses three schools (an elementary school, a middle school and a high school). What exactly does it mean to “permanently close”a school in such a small, rural district?
  • How long is “permanent?”
  • Will the locally elected school board ever regain control over the school?
  • The principal and a significant number of staff members are often shared between elementary, middle and high schools in rural districts. How does the impact sanctions such as replacing the principal or dismissing and rehiring staff?

These questions need to be answered before this bill is passed.

We also have many questions about converting a small rural school to a charter school.

  • What is the “sanctions” option if there is no entity, or at least no reasonably qualified entity, that wants to operate the “failing” rural school as a charter school? Is the only option then to close the school?
  • Assume a district has one elementary, one middle, and one high school. If the sanctions kick in and the ONLY school that exists at a given level in the District is a charter, how would that work in light of 118.40(6), which states, “No pupil may be required to attend a charter school without his or her approval, if the pupil is an adult, or the approval of her parents or legal guardian, if the pupil is a minor.” Is open enrollment a sufficient alternative or must the school district continue to operate a separate school option for students that do not wish to attend a charter school? At what cost? who pays to keep the “traditional” school option available?
  • The substitute amendment does not answer the question of how long a converted public-to-charter school (under the sanctions) must operate as a charter. Is one five-year contract sufficient? If not, how long is sufficient?
  • What happens if there is a forced public school-to-charter school conversion and the “new” charter fails the “accountability test” in year three and becomes subject to sanctions? The substitute amendment doesn’t say.
  • A school that is identified as struggling but is not yet subject to sanctions might want to hire a strong principal to try to turn things around. But what principal would take on that challenge knowing that if he or she is not successful within a year or two, the school will either be closed or converted to a charter and he or she will be out of a job?
  • If a small rural school district converts its “failing” school to a charter school, the substitute amendment specifies that it must “reward staff who increases pupil academic achievement or high school graduation rates.” By law, the charter school contract must specify the amount to be paid to the charter school during each year of the contract. (See s. 118.40 (3) (b), Stats.)
    • If this means monetary rewards are to be provided, where will the funding come from to provide such monetary rewards, given that the charter school’s funding level is fixed under the contract? What cuts in other areas of the school district’s programs would have to be made so these monetary rewards could be provided? Or, if the idea is to take money away from lower performing teachers how are you going to get anybody to remain in that school district if they can go elsewhere and not be subject to reductions?
  • If a small rural school district converts its “failing” school to a charter school, the substitute amendment specifies that all teachers who have been assigned to the school must be dismissed and must reapply in order to be rehired. Further, any teacher who scores in the lowest 20 percent statewide under the educator effectiveness (teacher evaluation) program may not be rehired. There is likely no way for a district or the DPI to determine whether a teacher has scored in the lowest 20 percent because teachers teach in different license categories and with different certifications. In rural school districts there are often just one or two teachers with a given certification. It is also not clear that this “lowest 20 percent statewide” measurement accomplished the desired goal of separating out the teachers that contribute most to student performance with enough specificity or granularity to be useful.

Public schools are already subject to an accountability system that includes school and district report cards that provide pertinent information about the academic performance of students in those public schools and districts to parents and taxpayers. What the public school community has consistently asked for, and what parents and taxpayers deserve, is similar information about the performance of students who receive taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private and religious schools.

Bringing private voucher schools into an accountability framework should have been a relatively simple, straightfoward task. Rural school advocates have consistently asked for a bill that would allow an “apples-to-apples” comparison to be made of the performance of students in private voucher schools with students in public schools under the care, control and management of school boards. The substitute does not provide this.

Instead the substitute amendment allows private voucher schools to choose which test they wish to be graded on. If the private voucher school submits test results on all their pupils on the test that school chooses then the voucher school would receive a percentile rank of pupil scores rather than a grade. Public schools, including rural schools, get no such choice. Public schools are given neither the choice to use an alternative test nor the option to have a percentile rank of pupil scores on the test of the school’s choosing rather than a grade.

The Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance embraces the need for a comprehensive accountability system that is designed to assist all publicly funded schools to identify areas of needed improvement in order to benefit all children throughout our state. We encourage your continued efforts to address the challenges of creating such a system that will equitably apply to all publicly funded schools. However, we cannot support the current ASA 1 to SB286.

Sincerely,

 

Jerry Fiene
Executive Director
Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance
(608) 370-6448 or (715) 499-4689
jerryfiene@wirsa.org


Click here for the PDF version.

Jerry Fiene's Testimony on Senate Bill 619 (Common Core Standards Bill)

TESTIMONY TO THE SENATE EDUCATION COMMITTEE ON SB619

Senator Olsen and Members of the Senate Education Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today about the impact of SB619 on rural school districts. I am Jerry Fiene, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance which represents administrators, board of education members, teachers and community leaders from throughout the state. Our member school districts educate over 100,000 students.

More than 60% of the school districts in Wisconsin are rural and approximately half of the districts in the state have less than 1000 students. These schools are the lifeblood of their rural communities, serving as the economic driver, social hub and cultural center for the area. Rural administrators, teachers and staff work hard each day to serve every individual child who comes through their doors. They embrace innovation, higher standard and greater accountability. However, it takes adequate resources to accomplish the task and the financial challenges of rural districts driven by declining enrollments, increasing poverty, sparsity and high transportation costs has been well documented over the past several years.

Allow me to share another characteristic of rural schools. They do not have a full time director of instruction or curriculum coordinator. Possibly, the superintendent is given that responsibility along with serving as the business manager, human resources director, transportation coordinator and elementary principal. Maybe it is given to the high school principal in addition to the roles of assessment coordinator, pupil services director, Title I director and athletic director. Perhaps a master teacher is given one period a day for the responsibility. So, when the Common Core Standards were introduced and adopted more than three years ago, the work of understanding the standards, benchmarking existing curriculum, developing new curriculum, obtaining instructional materials and examining instructional strategies to ensure that students in every grade level could meet these new and significantly better standards fell on the backs of classroom teachers (the one or maybe two teachers at each grade level, the one or maybe two high school math teachers who were teaching five or six different courses each day). This hard work by the entire staff resulted in recommendations forwarded to the locally elected school boards. This took training, this took release time, this took summer time and this took tremendous commitment. Now we are about to say “Let’s start over.” Where is logic in this legislation?

This work has not been done without significant cost. It has been necessary for rural school districts to provided additional training and release time or additional compensation for work outside the school day or school year for the vast majority of its staff in order to get the work done. The curriculum and material upgrades have been substantial. School districts are still working on technology upgrades. Resources are very lean in rural school districts resulting in a deluge of referenda to exceed the revenue limit in order to maintain existing programs. There have been over 900 such referenda held and 80% of them have been in rural school districts. Rural taxpayers are digging deeper into their pockets in order to maintain basic and essential programs in their school districts. Millions of dolls have been spent collectively to implement the Common Core Standards and now we are saying “Let’s start over.” Where is the logic in this legislation?

The Common Core Standards are significantly more rigorous than our previous standards. Developed by education experts, these standards are internationally benchmarked and aligned to college, work and career expectations that are critical if our rural students are to succeed in a global society. I have yet to have anyone point to a specific one of these standards and explain why it is not a valid standard. Now we are saying, “Let’s start the standard’s setting process over and let’s subject that process to partisan politics.” Where is the logic in this legislation?

On behalf of rural school districts, administrators, teachers, parents and taxpayers throughout the state, I urge you to reconsider this course of action. Allow us to more forward in implementing the standards and systematically evaluate the results over time to form the basis for revisions where revisions are warranted.

Thank you very much for your time.

 

Jerry Fiene
Executive Director
Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance
(608) 370-6448 or (715) 499-4689
jerryfiene@wirsa.org


Click here for the PDF version.

Jerry Fiene's Testimony on Senate Bill 589 (180 Day Bill)

TESTIMONY TO THE SENATE EDUCATION COMMITTEE ON IMPACT OF SENATE BILL 589

Senator Olsen and the members of the Senate Education Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today about the positive impact of Senate Bill 589 on rural school districts. I am Jerry Fiene, the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, an organization representing administrators, board of education members, teachers and community leaders from rural school districts throughout the state.

We would like to thank the authors and sponsors for introducing legislation that creates flexibility for school districts as opposed to creating more mandates. The topic of the significant challenges facing rural school districts has received much attention over the past several years and frankly, one of those challenges is sufficient resources to meet state and federal requirements and mandates. This bill not only creates flexibility that has the potential to conserve resources but also provides opportunities for accessing additional resources.

Through our connections with the National Rural Education Association, we have learned of creative and successful organizational schedules in school districts for both the length of school days and the scheduling of those school days that are just not possible to implement in Wisconsin because of our 180 day requirement. Removing that requirement but maintaining the required hours of instruction would open up various options for conserving resources while actually improving achievement. Transportation costs are a major expense for rural districts that drains resources from the classrooms. Reducing district-wide transportation for just a single day would save thousands of dollars. Scheduling fewer days of school during the coldest winter months would again save thousands of dollars in utility costs. Research has shown that long breaks in instruction have a negative effect on achievement and retention. Creating a schedule for the school year that would reduce the length of the traditional summer recess addresses this issue. It is even more important for children in poverty and we have had a dramatic increase in poverty across rural Wisconsin over the past 10 years. Expanding the eligibility for our current summer school aid to interim sessions further allows for creative scheduling to conserve resources and at the same time increase the opportunities for learning.

I have advocated for a long time to allow online classes at the junior and senior high level to be eligible for summer school aid. We are very pleased to see that this provision is included in Senate Bill 589. The quality and rigor of online classes has improved dramatically over the past 10 years. During the same time our rural school districts have been forced to eliminate advanced classes, AP offerings and foreign languages as a result of declining enrollments and diminished resources. These opportunities are all available online and would be a great resource for students to access during the summer session or interim session. However, these opportunities do come with a cost that a rural school district may not be able to afford. Eligibility for state aid on these courses will make them much more affordable and the clear winners will be our rural youth.

Thank you very much for introducing this legislation and we encourage your support for its approval.


Click here for the PDF version.

Jerry Fiene's Testimony on Assembly Bill 749 (180 Day Bill)

TESTIMONY TO THE ASSEMBLY EDUCATION COMMITTEE ON IMPACT OF ASSEMBLY BILL 749

Representative Kestell and the members of the Assembly Education Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today about the positive impact of Assembly Bill 749 on rural school districts. I am Jerry Fiene, the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, an organization representing administrators, board of education members, teachers and community leaders from rural school districts throughout the state.

We would like to thank the authors and sponsors for introducing legislation that creates more flexibility for school districts as opposed to creating more mandates. Much attention has been given to the significant challenges facing rural school districts over the past several years and frankly, one of those challenges is sufficient resources to meet state and federal requirements and mandates. This bill not only creates flexibility that has the potential to conserve resources but also provides opportunities for accessing additional resources.

Through our connections with the National Rural Education Association, we have learned of creative and successful organizational schedules in school districts for both the length of school days and the scheduling of those school days that are just not possible to implement in Wisconsin because of our 180 day requirement. Removing that requirement but maintaining the required hours of instruction would open up various options for conserving resources while actually improving achievement. Transportation costs are a major expense for rural districts that drains resources from the classrooms. Reducing district-wide transportation for just a single day would save thousands of dollars. Scheduling fewer days of school during the coldest winter months would again save thousands of dollars in utility costs. Research has shown that long breaks in instruction have a negative effect on achievement and retention. Creating a schedule for the school year that would reduce the length of the traditional summer recess addresses this issue. This is even more important for children in poverty and we have had a dramatic increase in poverty across rural Wisconsin over the past 10 years. Expanding the eligibility for our current summer school aid to interim sessions further allows for creative scheduling to conserve resources, increase revenue and at the same time increase the opportunities for learning.

I have advocated for a long time to allow online classes at the junior and senior high level to be eligible for summer school aid. We are very pleased to see that this provision is included in Assembly Bill 749. The quality and rigor of online classes has improved dramatically over the past 10 years. During the same time our rural school districts have been forced to eliminate advanced classes, AP offerings and foreign languages as a result of declining enrollments and diminished resources. These opportunities are all available online and would be a great resource for students to access during the summer session or interim session. However, these opportunities do come with a cost that a rural school district may not be able to afford. Eligibility for state aid on these courses will make them much more affordable and the clear winners will be our rural youth.

Thank you very much for introducing this legislation and we encourage your support for its approval.


Click here for the PDF version.

State Education Budget

The Future of Public Education in Rural Wisconsin

THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC EDUCATION IN RURAL WISCONSIN TEACH-IN AT THE CAPITOL

June 20, 2013

Rural school districts are an important part of the fabric of rural Wisconsin and the backbone of Wisconsin’s public education system. These rural school districts are also the lifeblood of rural Wisconsin communities from Belmont to Auburndale to Solon Springs and the 250 school districts in between. There is a very direct connection between the quality and economic health of the school district and the economic wellbeing of the community it serves. In addition, the school is often the center for a community’s social and cultural activities.

Historically, Wisconsin rural school districts have offered excellent educational opportunities to their students resulting in high achievement and graduation rates. Rural schools have many advantages, providing personal attention to all students with the ability to quickly implement innovative programs. However, the past twenty years of revenue limits and the massive cuts in the last biennium have taken a dramatic toll on these districts and now this budget will place many rural school districts such as Thorp, Oakfield, Mellen and Riverdale that are already struggling at serious risk.

Now we have a budget bill that expands private school vouchers and private school tax breaks statewide with relatively modest increases to public school support. The fact remains that parents statewide already have choices available through public school open enrollment or private school enrollment.

Has there been a demand across rural Wisconsin for the expansion of private school vouchers and state support for parents to send their children to private and parochial schools? ABSOLUTELY NOT! Have local taxpayers indicated that they are willing to increase their taxes in order to expand a private school system that is not transparent and accountable to the public and has not shown to increase student success? ABSOLUTELY NOT! Have citizens statewide suggested that Wisconin moves away from the investment in public education which has made our state and communities communities great places to raise our children at the very time we have the resources to make that investment? ABSOLUTELY NOT! Yet, that is exactly what this budget is doing, not because it is wanted or needed, but rather as yielding to an ideology of privatizing education that is heavily funded by interests outside of our state.

A guest column titled, “State Budget Bill is Good for Rural Families,” published in the Baraboo News Republic by nine central Wisconsin Republican representatives states that, “School funding will increase by $150 per student per year over the next two years, while property tax increases will be frozen – a big win for seniors and working families.” This is a false statement and obviously, they do not understand the way our current and defective funding mechanism works. While a modest increase in the revenue limit will help scale back massive cuts across the state, the reality is that the first-year increase is $100 and not $150. Secondly, many rural school districts like Phillips in the north, Weston in the south and dozens of districts in between will, in reality, have less revenue and will be increasing their property taxes. All low-aided school districts will be increasing property taxes. It is high time we seriously address school funding flaws by moving to a plan that is sensible and sustainable like the FAIR FUNDING FOR OUR FUTURE PLAN that has been proposed by State Superintendent Tony Evers. It is ironic that this news release does not contain one word about the expansion of private vouchers statewide and the impact on local property taxes and rural school districts. These same legislators voted three days after the publication to further limit public access to voucher school information.

Adequate school funding for rural schools must address increased rural poverty and declining enrollments. There has been a dramatic increase in poverty across rural Wisconsin over the past eight years that has significant education implications. In addition, early all rural districts have experienced declining enrollment over the last ten years, many by more that 20%. The fact is that there are 44 rural school districts in the state that have a lower revenue limit in 2013 than they had in 2003. For example, Goodman-Armstrong is 27% less than 10 years ago, Alma is 20% less, Black Hawk is 18% less and Plum City is 12% less.

Fewer students does allow for a certain level of cost savings but in rural districts the lack of economies of scale, sparsity and fixed costs prevent these districts from proportionately reducing costs to match flat or declining revenue limits. Over the years most rural districts have had no choice but to cut deeply into student opportunities by eliminating or reducing foreign language courses, advanced placement classes, career and technical education offerings, art, music, guidance and library services.

Very few rural districts have been able to maintain a reading specialist. Wabeno and Prairie du Chein have less than a half-time librarian, agriculture has been eliminated in North Crawford, foreign language in Southern Door and Rio has been eliminated, as well as business education in Tigerton and family and consumer education in Royall. Support services such as health, food, custodial and teacher aides have also been dramatically reduced. In addition, building maintenance is being delayed, busses are not being replaced as they should be and technology infrastructures have not been updated.

The last biennial budget reduced the revenue limit by an average of $550 per student in 2011 and rural school distircts applied the tools provided to them by changing health insurance plans, requiring employees to pay a much higher percentage of the premium along with half of their WRS contribution, eliminating post-retirement benefits and in many cases like Prairie du Chien, Maple and Kickapoo, reducing staff to part-time so no insurance benefits would be offered to them at all. Most rural school districts froze salaries and some are still frozen two years later. In nearly every rural district, these tools were not enough. In Pepin, the actual revenue reduction was $763 per student and applying the tools covered only one-third of that amount. Additional deep cuts needed to be made to student opportunities.

Now we have a budget bill that invests significantly more in private schools than our public schools. How can these rural districts possibly adjust? They have no control over inflation, single class sections cannot be reduced, no more buildings can be closed (nearly 100 buildings closed in the past 10 years), administration is already compressed and at a bare minimum, insurance and utilities must be paid.

Transportation costs, which for many districts are between $700 and $900 per student, cannot be further reduced. There are 95 districts with less than four students per square mile with many districts such as Chequamegon (741), Hayward (613) and Antigo (541) covering more than 400 square miles. Students in Maple, Rhinelander and many other districts ride a bus for more than an hour in the morning and evening.

Educating the economically disadvantaged, special education and limited English speaking students is also a significant challenge for rural school districts. School staff enthusiastically provide the services to meet the needs of these students. There are no additional funds in this budget to address this need and at the same time, millions of dollars will be syphoned off of school aids for private voucher schools which do not have to accept or educate any of these students.

Rural communities are proud of their schools. Rural school boards want to maintain high-achieving schools that provide a wide range of opportunities for their students which will prepare them to be ready for careers or postsecondary education. Rural administrators, teachers and staff work hard every day to serve every individual child that comes through their doors. We know the status quo is not the answer. Rural schools embrace innovation such as RtI and are willing to implement the higher standards, new teacher and administrator effectiveness systems and new accountability requirements. But it takes adequate resources to accomplish the task.

Every day we hear or read about great things that happen in our rural schools and accomplishments of our rural students, but without a strong commitment to public education and an adequate investment in our rural schools it cannot be sustained.

Note: The specific references to individual school districts included in this document are representative of rural school districts throughout the state. Every district has its own story, but in all cases students opportunities have been lost.

Jerry Fiene is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, a statewide organization representing administrators, board of education members, teachers and community members from rural districts.


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WiRSA Letter to Jt. Finance Committee Regarding AB40

Dear Members of the Joint Committee on Finance:

On April 8, 2013, I provided testimony to the Committee on the impact of AB40 on rural school districts throughout the state. This was followed up with specific and detailed testimony to the Senate Committee on Rural Issues on May 1, 2013 that illustrated the serious consequences of AB40 on rural schools and taxpayers.

I applaud the motion passed by the Committee to establish a Task Force on Rural School Issues to address the long-term challenges facing rural schools. However, relief for rural school districts cannot wait for future recommendations. Immediate help is needed and I implore you to provide at least a $200 per pupil increase in the revenue limit along with a corresponding increase in general aid. Additional adjustments to transportation and sparsity aids would help to mitigate the devastating reductions rural school districts have made directly to their classrooms and student opportunities.

The establishment of independent charters, coupled with severe restrictions placed on school district instrumentality charters, will have a dramatic impact on rural school districts and their taxpayers. Financial support for independent charters will disproportionately affect the highly-aided rural school districts whose taxpayers have the least ability to pay the increased costs. Please remove or significantly modify all language regarding independent and instrumentality charter schools from the budget bill.

The expansion of private school vouchers beyond Milwaukee also negatively impacts rural school districts throughout the state. When we are struggling to adequately fund our public school system, how can we justify funding an expanded voucher program that has not shown to improve student achievement compared to public schools? There are so many issues and unanswered questions surrounding the ways school districts are selected to be eligible for vouchers, the income eligibility requirement for voucher families, the accountability of voucher schools and the effectiveness of voucher schools that all provisions regarding vouchers should absolutely be removed from the budget and debated as separate legislation.

You have the very important task of making the critical decisions that will have great impact on the future of education in our state. I urge you to focus your support on strengthening our public school system and providing the resources that will allow the 250 rural school districts in our state to provide a quality education and equitable opportunities to the students they serve.

Sincerely,

 

Jerry Fiene
Executive Director
Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance
(608) 370-6448 or (715) 499-4689
jerryfiene@wirsa.org


Click here for the PDF version.

WiRSA Letter to Joint Committee on Finance

May 18, 2015

Members of the Joint Committee on Finance,

We would like to extend a final plea for consideration of the impact on local property taxpayers in rural school districts as you approach the Joint Finance Executive Session scheduled for tomorrow. The latest discussions we are hearing on the expansion of independent charters and on an open enrollment model to fund statewide expansion of private school vouchers statewide will have a significant impact on property taxpayers throughout the state.

Rural schools are very concerned about the impact of expanding independent charters utilizing the funding mechanism of covering the cost of this expansion as a first draw off of existing general school aids. This year, a total of $68 million is being deducted to pay for the 2r charter schools in Milwaukee. This can be tens of thousands of dollars for even a small, rural school district. In almost all districts this deduction is being made up by an increase of the same amount in the local property taxes. Rural district need every penny available in their revenue limit, in fact, a greater number of rural districts each year are dependent on additional funds from referenda to exceed revenue limits in order to maintain existing and essential programs for their students and keep their doors open.

Further expansion of independent charters statewide will surely and dramatically increase the deductions from rural districts’ state aids resulting in further increases to the local property taxes. It doesn’t make a difference if the independent charter school is located anywhere near your school district, you still have the same deduction. The real irony is that the property poorest districts in the state, which are most dependent on state aid, will be the ones that will proportionally pay the most to support the newly created independent charters.

Utilizing an open enrollment model to expand private school vouchers will ultimately have the same effect. As more students, many of whom are already attending private schools, are added into the enrollment counts of districts that have private voucher schools the amount of general state aids going to these schools will increase. This increase of state aids to support students in private voucher schools will again diminish the pot of money available to be distributed to other schools statewide. Again, those rural districts with no private voucher schools even close to their borders will have their state aids diminish resulting in a corresponding increase to the local property taxpayer. Similar to the independent charter expansion, the property poorest districts will proportionally pay the most.

While the increase in sparsity and high cost transportation is appreciated and will help certain rural schools offset some of this cost, there are many, many rural school districts with enrollment above 725 or transportation costs that are between 100 and 150% of the statewide average that will not get an additional penny. The restoration of the per pupil categorical aid is absolutely essential to avert drastic and irreversible damage to these school districts. Finally, the revenue limit freeze will have a negative effect in every district. Without a revenue limit adjustment to account for inflationary increases to fixed costs the students attending our rural schools will experience additional lost educational opportunities.

Please take this into consideration as you make your final decisions!


Click here for the PDF version.

WiRSA Testimony to Senate Committee on Rural Issues

TESTIMONY TO SENATE COMMITTEE ON RURAL ISSUES

May 1, 2013

Thank you for the opportunity to share our perspective on the impact of AB40 on rural school districts throughout the state. I am Jerry Fiene, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, a statewide organization representing administrators, board of education members, teachers and community members from rural districts.

Rural school districts are the backbone of Wisconsin’s public education system. There are approximately 250 rural school districts and they are also the lifeblood of rural Wisconsin communities from Benton to Athens to Laona. There is a direct connection between the quality and economic health of the school district and the economic wellbeing of the community it serves. In addition, the school is often the center for a community’s social and cultural activities.

Historically, rural school districts have offered excellent educational opportunities to their students resulting in high achievement and graduation rates. Small rural schools have many advantages and can quickly implement innovative programs. However, the past ten years have taken a dramatic toll on most of them and now AB40 will place many rural school districts that are already struggling at serious risk.

The context is that nearly all rural districts have experienced declining enrollment over the last ten years, many by more that 20%. The revenue limit certainly has not kept up with inflation and district budgets had to annually be reduced. The fact is that there are 49 school districts in the state that have a lower revenue limit in 2013 than they had in 2003 and 44 of them are rural. For example GoodmanArmstrong is 27% less than 10 years ago, Alma is 20% less, Black Hawk is 18% less and Plum City is 12% less.

Fewer students does allow for a certain level of cost savings but in rural districts the lack of economies of scale, sparsity and fixed costs prevent these districts from proportionately reducing costs to match flat or declining revenue limits. Over the years most rural districts have had no choice but to cut deeply into student opportunities by eliminating or reducing foreign language courses, advanced placement classes, career and technical education offerings, art, music, guidance and library services. Very few rural districts have been able to maintain a reading specialist. Wabeno and Prairie du Chein have less than a half time librarian and agriculture has been eliminated in North Crawford. Support services such as health, food, custodial and teacher aides have also been dramatically reduced. In addition, building maintenance is being delayed, busses are not being replaced as they should be and aging equipment has not been updated. The maintenance and bus replacement budgets in Fennimore has been reduced from $200,000 to $28,000. Of special concern is the lack of resources in rural districts to maintain and update their technolgy infrastructure. It is unfortunate because this is the one area that has the greatest potential to be an equalizer of opportunity for rural students and it will also be a prerequisite for online achievement testing and student information systems in two years.

The last biennial budget reduced the revenue limit by an average of $550 per student in 2011 and rural school distircts applied the tools provided to them by changing health insurance plans, requiring employees pay a much higher percentage of the premium along with half of their WRS contribution, eliminating post retirement benefits and in many cases, like Prairie du Chein, Maple and Kickapoo, reducing staff to part-time so no insurance would be offered to them at all. Most rural school districts froze salaries and some are still frozen two years later. Teachers in Lodi have salaries that are $1500 to $3800 less than two years ago. In nearly every rural district, these tools were not enough. In Pepin, the actual revenue reduction was $763 per student and applying the tools covered only one third of that amount. Additional deep cuts needed to be made to student opportunities.

Now we have AB40 providing absolutely no increase to the revenue limit which will again translate to a revenue reduction in many districts. How can these rural districts possibly do more? They have no control over inflation, single class sections cannot be reduced, no more buildings can be closed, administration is already compressed and at a bare minimum, insurance and utilities must be paid. Transportation costs, which for many districts are between $700 and $900 per student cannot be further reduced. Students in Maple and many other districts ride a bus for more than an hour in the morning and evening. The annual transportation costs for 75 rural districts with less than 3.6 students per square mile exceed the average cost for the remaining districts by 55%. That is $225,000 more cost for a district with 750 students.

Providing special education services is also a significant challenge for rural school districts. School staff enthusiastically provide the services to meet the needs of their special needs students. But as the costs rise to provide these required services and the categorical aids to support them diminishes, then additional resources are drained from regular school programs. These special education costs cannot be reduced because of the Federal requirement for what is called maintenance of effort.

The revenue limit absolutely must be increased to maintain the investment in student instruction or the opportunity gap for our rural students will just increase. The revenue limit increase needs to be at least at the CPI to avoid further erosion of student opportunities.

The dramatic increase of part-time classroom teachers, librarians, counselors and specialists along with surpressed salary schedules raises the very real issue of attracting and retaining high quality teachers in rural school districts. Rural districts are reporting a significant decrease in teacher applications for available positions.

AB40 proposes the use of the report cards to reward high performing schools. However, the report cards are still in the development stage, were never intended for that purpose, do not take into account the affect of poverty on student achievement and for several reasons may not adequately rate small rural distircts. The $62 million dollars earmarked for this program would go a long way to support attracting and retaining teachers in rural school districts.

A dependance on referenda to exceed the revenue limit by increasing property taxes is simply not sustainable. Attached to this testimony are two statewide maps, one from 2003 and one from 2011 that illustrate the level of poverty in school districts across the state as measured by the percent of students on free and reduced price lunch. You will clearly see that there has been a dramatic increase in poverty for those areas of our state that are primarily rural. This has significant educational, as well as funding implications for the majority of rural school districts.

AB40 expands private school vouchers beyond Milwaukee and Kenosha and eventually will affect every school district in the state. This budget does not adequately fund education in rural public school districts and then worsens the problem by draining addditional resources to fund an expanded private school voucher program that has not shown to improve student achievement compared to public schools.

The expansion of independent charters contained in AB40 will have an immediate affect on all rural school districts and taxpayers. The current funding of $7775 per student amounts to a total of $60 million dollars which reduces the general aid eligibility of every school district. The rural school districts that are higher aided lose the most. The proposed independent charter board made up of political appointees will be authorized to create independent charters anywhere in the state. The per pupil payment for these charters will increase 1% per year to nearly $8000 in 2014-15 and will again be funded through lost aid translating to increased taxes for rural districts.

These new independent charters will not be confined to more populous areas because in all likelyhood some of them will be virtual charters drawing students from throughout the state. This will drive the current virtual schools operated by public school districts and utilizing open enrollment out of businessbecause the independent virtual charters would have revenue of $8000 per student instead of the open enrollment amount of $6500 per student allowing them to offer free computers and other incentives for parents. It is again the rural school districts that would suffer and local taxpayers across the state that would pay.

Wisconsin school districts are already among the leaders in the nation when it comes to establishing instrumentality charter schools and there are some exemplary charter schools in rural school districts like Mauston and Oconto Falls. They can be sources of educational innovation, improving educational opportunities and reducing costs. The language of AB40 affecting instrumentality charter schools becomes a deterent for districts to create new charters and likely will result in not renewing existing charters. AB40 severely limits local school boards in their ability to manage their charters and requires them to spend an equal amount per pupil in the charter as they do in their entire K-12 operation. It will no longer be feasible for districts to maintain these creative opportunities for students.

Rural communities are proud of their schools. Rural school boards want to maintain high achieving schools that provide a wide range of opportunities for their students which will prepare them to be ready for careers or post secondary education. Rural administrators, teachers and staff work hard every day to serve every individual child that comes through their doors. They embrace innovation such as RtI and are willing to implement the common core standards, new teacher and administrator effectiveness systems and new accountability requirements. But it takes adequate resources to accomplish the task.

Every day we hear or read about great things that happen in our rural schools and accomplishments of our rural students. But without a strong commitment to public education and an adequate investment in our rural schools it cannot be sustained.


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WiRSA Testimony to Assembly Committee on Colleges

TESTIMONY TO THE ASSEMBLY COMMITTEE ON COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES

Representative Murphy and Members of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities:

Thank you for this opportunity to share our perspective on the impact of AB64 on rural school districts throughout the state. I am Jerry Fiene, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, a statewide organization representing administrators, board of education members, teachers and community members from rural school districts. Our membership of 175 includes school districts, CESAs and ten of our state’s technical colleges.

Our organization opposes this bill which has the potential of inflicting additional damage to schools that are the heart and center of their rural community. Rural communities are proud of their schools and currently the locally elected school boards work together with their administrators, teachers and neighboring technical colleges to provide the best education possible for all of their children with the limited resources they have available to them.

Our greatest concern is that the funding mechanism for these newly created independent charters as this bill is drafted will be similar to the current 2R Charter Schools in Milwaukee. This year 1.5% of every school district’s general state aids for a total of over $68 million are being deducted to pay for these charters. This can be tens of thousands of dollars for even a small, rural district. In almost all districts this deduction is being made up by an increase of the same amount in the local property taxes. Rural districts need every penny available in their revenue limit, in fact, a greater number of rural districts each year are dependent on additional funds from referenda to exceed revenue limits in order to maintain existing and essential programs for their students and keep their doors open.

AB64 will surely and dramatically increase the deductions from rural districts’ state aids in order to pay for the newly created independent charters statewide resulting in further increases to the local property taxes. It doesn’t make a difference if the independent charter school is located anywhere near your school district, you still have the same aid deduction. The real irony is that the property poorest districts in the state, which are most dependent on state aid, will be the ones that will proportionally pay the most to support the independent charters.

We are not aware of technical colleges that are seeking this chartering authority as a means of establishing schools that focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics or on occupational education and training. I can tell you that excellent examples of collaborative efforts and partnerships have been developed on a regional basis by local school districts and technical colleges, such as the Woodlands and Northwoods Regional Technical Academies in partnership with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and the Central Wisconsin Acadamies in partnership with Northcentral Technical College. These are efforts that truly provide the choices that this legislation is trying to promote and hold great promise to strengthen our rural school districts.

It is efforts like these that promote collaboration and not competition that create a win-win environment not a win-lose environment that we strongly support. The greatest obstacle to expansion of these efforts is start-up funding. Our neighbor to the southwest, the state of Iowa, has found ways to financially support the start-up of such cooperative efforts between rural schools and community colleges and we encourage you to find ways we can also move in this positive direction in Wisconsin. We can and should continue to advance efforts that support STEM and occupational education. Then the real winners will be our rural youth no matter where they live.

Thank you for your service and your efforts.


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WiRSA Speaks Out on Effects of AB40 on Rural School Districts

WiRSA SPEAKS OUT ON EFFECTS OF AB40 ON RURAL SCHOOL DISTRICTS

Rural school districts are an important part of the fabric of rural Wisconsin and the backbone of Wisconsin’s public education system. There are approximately 250 rural school districts and they are also the lifeblood of rural Wisconsin communities from Benton to Athens to Laona. There is a direct connection between the quality and economic health of the school district and the economic wellbeing of the community it serves. In addition, the school is often the center for a community’s social and cultural activities.

Historically, rural school districts have offered excellent educational opportunities to their students resulting in high achievement and graduation rates. Small, rural schools have many advantages providing personal attention to all students with the ability to quickly implement innovative programs. However, the past ten years have taken a dramatic toll on most of them and now AB40 will place many rural school districts that are already struggling at serious risk.

The context is that nearly all rural districts have experienced declining enrollment over the last ten years, many by more that 20%. The revenue limit certainly has not kept up with inflation and district budgets had to annually be reduced. The fact is that there are 49 school districts in the state that have a lower revenue limit in 2013 than they had in 2003 and 44 of them are rural. For example, GoodmanArmstrong is 27% less than 10 years ago, Alma is 20% less, Black Hawk is 18% less and Plum City is 12% less.

Fewer students does allow for a certain level of cost savings but in rural districts the lack of economies of scale, sparsity and fixed costs prevent these districts from proportionately reducing costs to match flat or declining revenue limits. Over the years most rural districts have had no choice but to cut deeply into student opportunities by eliminating or reducing foreign language courses, advanced placement classes, career and technical education offerings, art, music, guidance and library services. Very few rural districts have been able to maintain a reading specialist. Wabeno and Prairie du Chein have less than a half-time librarian, agriculture has been eliminated in North Crawford, foreign language in Southern Door and Rio has been eliminated, as well as business education in Tigerton and family and consumer education in Royall. Support services such as health, food, custodial and teacher aides have also been dramatically reduced. In addition, building maintenance is being delayed, busses are not being replaced as they should be and aging equipment has not been updated. The maintenance and bus replacement budgets in Fennimore have been reduced from $200,000 to $28,000. Of special concern is the lack of resources in rural districts to maintain and update their technolgy infrastructure. It is unfortunate because this is the one area that has the greatest potential to be an equalizer of opportunity for rural students and it will also be a prerequisite for online achievement testing and student information systems in two years.

The last biennial budget reduced the revenue limit by an average of $550 per student in 2011 and rural school distircts applied the tools provided to them by changing health insurance plans, requiring employees to pay a much higher percentage of the premium along with half of their WRS contribution, eliminating post-retirement benefits and in many cases like Prairie du Chien, Maple and Kickapoo, reducing staff to part-time so no insurance benefits would be offered to them at all. Most rural school districts froze salaries and some are still frozen two years later. Teachers in Lodi have salaries that are $1,500 to $3,800 less than two years ago. In nearly every rural district, these tools were not enough. In Pepin, the actual revenue reduction was $763 per student and applying the tools covered only onethird of that amount. Additional deep cuts needed to be made to student opportunities.

Now we have AB40 providing absolutely no increase to the revenue limit which will again translate to a revenue reduction in many districts. How can these rural districts possibly do more? They have no control over inflation, single class sections cannot be reduced, no more buildings can be closed (nearly 100 buildings closed in the past 10 years), administration is already compressed and at a bare minimum, insurance and utilities must be paid. Transportation costs, which for many districts are between $700 and $900 per student, cannot be further reduced. There are 95 districts with less than four students per square mile with many districts such as Chequamegon (741), Hayward (613) and Antigo (541) covering more than 400 square miles. Students in Maple, Rhinelander and many other districts ride a bus for more than an hour in the morning and evening. The annual transportation costs for 75 rural districts with less than 3.6 students per square mile exceed the average cost for the remaining districts by 55%. That is $225,000 more cost for a district with 750 students.

Providing special education services is also a significant challenge for rural school districts. School staff enthusiastically provide the services to meet the needs of their special education students. But as the costs rise to provide these required services and the federal/state categorical aids to support them diminishes, additional resources are drained from regular school programs for all students. These special education costs often cannot be reduced because of the federal requirement for what is called, “maintenance of effort.”

The revenue limit absolutely must be increased to maintain the investment in student instruction or the opportunity gap for our rural students will just increase. The revenue limit increase needs to be at least at the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to avoid further erosion of student opportunities.

The dramatic increase of part-time classroom teachers, librarians, counselors and specialists along with suppressed salary schedules raises the very real issue of attracting and retaining high-quality teachers in rural school districts. Rural districts are reporting a significant decrease in teacher applications for available positions.

AB40 proposes the use of report cards to reward high-performing schools. However, the report cards are still in the development stage, were never intended for that purpose, do not take into account the effect of poverty on student achievement and for several reasons, may not adequately rate small rural districts. Certainly, best practice is to base high-stake decisions on multiple tests and measures. The $62 million earmarked for this program would go a long way to support attracting and retaining teachers in rural school districts.

A dependence on referenda to exceed the revenue limit by increasing property taxes is simply not sustainable. Reductions in the revenue limit have caused many districts to become referendum dependent. Attached to this testimony are two statewide maps, one from 2003 and one from 2011, that illustrate the level of poverty in school districts across the state as measured by the percent of students on free- and reduced-priced lunch. You will clearly see that there has been a dramatic increase in poverty for those areas of our state that are primarily rural. This has significant educational as well as funding implications for the majority of rural school districts.

AB40 expands private school vouchers beyond Milwaukee and Kenosha and eventually will affect every school district in the state. This budget does not adequately fund education in rural public school districts and then worsens the problem by draining additional resources from all districts to fund an expanded private school voucher program that has not shown to improve student achievement compared to public schools.

The expansion of independent charters contained in AB40 will have an immediate affect on all rural school districts and taxpayers. The current funding of $7,775 per student amounts to a total of $60 million reducing the general aid eligibility of every school district. This amounts to a 1.4% reduction in every school district’s equalization aid. This will dramatically increase with the expansion of independent charters and rural school districts that are higher aided lose the most.

The proposed independent charter board made up of political appointees will be authorized to create independent charters anywhere in the state. The per pupil payment for these charters will increase 1% per year to nearly $8,000 in 2014-15 and will again be funded through lost aid translating to increased taxes for taxpayers in rural districts.

These new independent charters will not be confined to more populous areas because in all likelihood, some of them will be virtual charters drawing students from throughout the state. This will likely be a threat to current virtual schools operated by public school districts and utilizing open enrollment because the independent virtual charters would have revenue of $8,000 per student instead of the open enrollment amount of $6,500 per student allowing them to offer free computers and other enrollment incentives for parents. It is again the rural school districts that would suffer and local taxpayers across the state that would pay.

Wisconsin school districts are already among the leaders in the nation when it comes to establishing instrumentality charter schools and there are some exemplary charter schools in rural school districts like Mauston and Oconto Falls. They can be sources of educational innovation, improving educational opportunities and reducing costs. The language of AB40 affecting instrumentality charter schools becomes a deterrent for districts to create new charters and likely will result in not renewing existing charters. AB40 severely limits local school boards in their ability to manage their charters and requires them to spend an equal amount per pupil in the charter as they do in their entire K-12 operation. It will no longer be feasible for districts to maintain these creative opportunities for students.

Rural communities are proud of their schools. Rural school boards want to maintain high-achieving schools that provide a wide range of opportunities for their students which will prepare them to be ready for careers or post-secondary education. Rural administrators, teachers and staff work hard every day to serve every individual child that comes through their doors. They embrace innovation such as RtI and are willing to implement the common core standards, new teacher and administrator effectiveness systems and new accountability requirements. But it takes adequate resources to accomplish the task.

Every day we hear or read about great things that happen in our rural schools and accomplishments of our rural students, but without a strong commitment to public education and an adequate investment in our rural schools it cannot be sustained.

Note: The specific references to individual school districts included in this document are representative of rural school districts throughout the state. Every district has its own story, but in all cases students opportunities have been lost.

Jerry Fiene is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, a statewide organization representing administrators, board of education members, teachers and community members from rural districts.


Click here for the PDF version — includes graphics

 

WiRSA Editorial
GUEST EDITORIAL

NEEDS OF RURAL SCHOOL IGNORED BY GOVERNOR’S K-12 BUDGET PROPOSAL

Students enrolled in the approximately 250 rural school districts located throughout Wisconsin will continue to see an erosion of educational opportunities under the Governor’s 2013-15 budget proposal. Most school districts have been faced with making significant budget reductions as a result of revenue limits in effect since 1993; but rural school districts also face a unique set of circumstances which, if ignored, will threaten their very existence.

Nearly all rural school districts have experienced significant declining enrollments over the past 10 years, many by more than 20%. Since enrollment is a major factor in determining the revenue limit, these districts have had to deal with stagnating or declining revenues. The unique challenge facing rural districts, most of which have few students to begin with, is to find ways to reduce budgets without eliminating critical educational opportunities for their students. They have no control over inflation, buildings cannot be closed, class sections cannot be reduced, administration and staffing is already at a minimum, transportation cannot be further reduced, utilities and insurance must be paid. The per student cost to maintain the basic infrastructure of the district leaves less money available for instruction.

The last biennial budget reduced the per pupil revenue limit by $550 in the first year. This reduction was intended to be offset by the collective bargaining law which, among other provisions, required teachers to contribute more toward their pensions and insurance. The indications we have received from our membership are that the application of the cost saving provisions of this law did not equal the reductions in the revenue limits. Now a new biennial budget proposal has been submitted without a penny more added to the revenue limit to even cover the cost of inflation.

Another unique circumstance facing rural school districts is the high cost of transportation with many districts spending between $700 and $900 per student. Even after the current transportation aids are taken into account, this leaves these districts with significantly less to spend on student instruction than those with minimal per student transportation costs. The Department of Public Instruction budget proposal submitted by Superintendent Tony Evers included enhancements to Sparsity Aid and High Cost Pupil Transportation Aid which would have helped to level the playing field for rural districts, but neither proposal was included in the Governor’s budget proposal. Superintendent Evers also forwarded recommendations for school finance reform including a funding factor to address high poverty which would have been favorable for sustaining rural school districts. Most rural school districts have a significantly higher percentage of poverty than the state average. This proposal for finance reform was also disregarded in the Governor’s budget.

A survey of our membership revealed many rural districts have already cut deep into student opportunities by eliminating or dramatically reducing foreign languages, advanced placement classes, career and technical education offerings, art, music, guidance services, at-risk and gifted and talented programs and library services. In addition, building maintenance is being delayed and aging equipment and technology is not being updated. This trend needs to be reversed or the opportunity gap for our rural youth will only get wider. One potential solution is to have the state invest in the expansion of bandwidth and the technology infrastructure of rural schools to allow them the ability to increase opportunities for their students through the power and application of technology.

The Governor has included millions of dollars in his budget proposal to expand private voucher schools, offer special education vouchers and increase payments to independent charter schools. Yet, there is a zero increase for rural schools. We applaud Republican Senators Luther Olsen and Mike Ellis who recognized this inequity and have pledged to make a change.

Governor Walker stated in his budget address, “In the end, our goal is simple . . . ensure that every child, regardless of where they are from or what their family income is, has access to a great education.” I believe this should be precisely the goal for every child living in rural Wisconsin and attending a rural school.

Please contact your legislators today and ask them, “WHERE IS THE INVESTMENT IN OUR RURAL SCHOOLS AND STUDENTS?”

Jerry Fiene
Executive Director
Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance


Click here for the PDF version.

WiRSA Joint Finance Testimony

TESTIMONY TO JOINT FINANCE COMMITTEE

April 8, 2013

Thank you for this opportunity to share our perspective on the impact of AB40 on rural school districts throughout the state. I am Jerry Fiene, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, a statewide organization of rural school districts, technical colleges, universities, CESAs, public libraries, businesses and individuals focused on sustaining and strengthening rural school districts and rural communities throughout the state.

The proposed 2013-15 budget which includes no increase to the per pupil revenue limit will place many rural school districts at risk. Nearly all rural districts have experienced declining enrollment in the last ten years, many by more than 20%. There are 49 school districts in our state that have a lower revenue limit in 2013 than they had in 2003 and 44 of those are rural. These districts and many more with minimal increases over the past ten years have already made budget reductions that have cut deeply into student opportunities by eliminating or reducing foreign language courses, advanced placement classes, career and technical education offerings, art, music, guidance and library services. In addition, building maintenance is being delayed and aging equipment and technology has not been updated.

How can these rural districts possibly do more? They have no control over inflation, single class sections cannot be reduced, no more buildings can be closed, administration is already compressed and at a minimum, insurance and utilities must be paid. Transportation costs, which for many districts are between $700 – $900 per student, cannot be further reduced. The revenue limit absolutely must be increased to maintain the investment in student instruction or the opportunity gap for our rural youth will just increase.

A dependence on referenda to exceed the revenue limit by increasing property taxes is not sustainable. Attached to this testimony are two statewide maps, one from 2003 and one from 2011, that illustrate the level of poverty as measured by the percent of students on free and reduced price lunch. You will clearly see that there has been a dramatic increase in poverty for those areas of our state that are primarily rural. This has educational, as well as funding implications for the majority of rural school districts.

Expanding private school vouchers affects every school district in the state. This budget does not adequately fund education in rural school districts and then worsens the problem by draining additional resources to fund an expanded private school voucher program that has not proven to improve student achievement compared to public schools.

Wisconsin school districts are already among the leaders in the nation when it comes to establishing charter schools and there are some exemplary charter schools in rural school districts. They can be sources of educational innovation, improving educational opportunities and reducing costs. The language in this budget affecting school district instrumentality charter schools becomes a deterrent for school districts to create new charters while encouraging the establishment of independent charters which again will transfer aid away from students in rural school districts.

All proposals regarding private school vouchers, special education vouchers and independent charters are such major policy decisions that they absolutely need to be removed from the budget and debated in detail. We encourage you to focus your efforts in the budget debate on ways to adequately support the 870,000 public school students in our state.

Thank you,

Jerry Fiene


Click here for the PDF version — includes graphics