August 29, 2012
“Mom, this is so fun,” the little girl said as she picked out school supplies. But not every child has new school supplies. Parents and community members are collecting money and donating school supplies for children whose families are too poor to buy new crayons and folders.
Our communities step up to help those in need. But our state has failed to step up and help our local schools.
Every parent and grandparent wants the best for their child. The successes of our local school district become the successes in our family and in our community. No child should be denied the opportunity to learn. Just like every student needs a sharp pencil and notebook, every school needs heat, a tight roof, a clean environment and dedicated teachers.
And we expect the scoreboard to work at Friday night football.
There’s no neighbor I know who wants to pay more property tax. And if the scoreboard isn’t fixed by Friday night, the crowd is sure to blame the superintendent. But the problems of rising property taxes and broken scoreboards go much deeper than the local school.
Wisconsin was second in the nation last year – and it wasn’t in taxes or test scores. It was in per capita state cuts to education. The results were deep and lasting.
With 70 to 80% of a school’s budget going for personnel, the folks who teach our children and clean the school cafeteria are fewer. Those who remain are doing more with less.
Last year an audit by the state superintendent reported 2,300 fewer teachers, support staff and administrators. Last year almost three quarters of Wisconsin schools cut staff. Two thirds of school superintendents also reported this coming year will be as bad as or worse than the last.
Schools used up critical federal aid money and are now spending their cash reserves (or savings accounts). Many local administrators privately tell me local schools will be bankrupt in 3 to 5 years.
This week in Madison, the Senate Education and Corrections Committee will hold a public hearing on the effect of budget cuts on local schools. As a member of the committee I will share details I learned from recent conversations with local superintendents and teachers.
My fellow Legislators from suburban Milwaukee tell me if rural schools are to survive they must learn to be more efficient. When I listened to those working in our local schools, it’s hard to find efficiencies they haven’t already captured.
Pepin, for example, shares an elementary music teacher, a school psychologist, a library media staffer and a technology education teacher with neighboring districts.
Superintendent Bruce Quinton told me last year students with special needs lost their only Title 1 (low income) math aid and a 30% cut in the reading specialist. Mr. Quinton said these cuts eliminate the only support services in math for at risk students in primary school grades. These same students will ride the bus over an hour in the morning and evening as one of five bus routes was eliminated.
Students in grades 4 through 6 will be in split classrooms as an elementary teacher position was eliminated. Budding artists will see a 40% reduction in art education and athletes can only compete in a cooperative arrangement with nearby schools. Teachers returning to school found their supply budget cut and no new textbooks.
A quarter of the grounds and maintenance staff were laid off.
Pepin represents the future for many schools, neighboring Alma superintendent told me. Alma shares many services, including sports with Pepin. Facing its own budget problems, Alma has been very creative. For example, Alma recently hired an agriculture teacher who doubles as the night custodian.
Without serious and sustained attention by lawmakers, many rural schools will disappear.
There’s a sign every driver knows on the side of a school bus. One the Legislature ought to heed when it comes to the next round of local school budget cuts: Stop.