A rural community may be united in the desire to keep its local school but divided on how to pay for it. Everyone wants you to pick a side. Here are some things to keep in mind as you make up your own mind.
Every community has a cafe, tavern, gas station or other gathering spot where you can get schooled in all things local. The usual crowd may be a reliable source of information about the weather, upcoming events and aged neighbors who could use a little help. But when it comes to school finance, you might want to check their facts.
Misinformation about school funding issues spreads faster than an STD. Unfounded rumors are passed along even by smart people who have no ill intentions. And you can hardly blame someone for repeating the most reliable information at their disposal. But you might end up blaming yourself if you repeat those rumors without first finding out how much is true.
That’s not always easy. Each state has its own way of raising and allocating funding for education. There are few universal truths, and every proposal that would make the “best” use of resources for some students comes at a cost to others. In my home state of Wisconsin, a controversial school voucher program designed to benefit low-income urban students is widely seen as costing rural students to benefit private enterprise. But the problems of scarce resources and imperfect allocation are everywhere, despite the best intentions of school boards, administrators, teachers, parents and taxpayers across the country.
And there’s no way to put off decisions on rural school budget issues until everything is black-and-white and everyone is in agreement. So as voters, we have to learn how to get the most reliable information possible to make informed choices – choices that may or may not be in line with those of your family, friends and neighbors.
My own understanding of school funding issues is imperfect. But I’ve learned a few things about how to get the information I need to make decisions without alienating every one of my neighbors. I’ve had some very good role models for this. These are people who come down on both sides of the political fence. Here’s what I’ve learned from them about how to ask questions before casting a vote on school funding issues.
Find out what exactly is the ballot issue? Ballot measures are published in multiple ways before an election to give voters time to ask questions based on the specific language of the proposal. In Wisconsin, a town or village may post notices in at least three locations if there is no local newspaper, and posting can be used to supplement publication. Look on the bulletin boards at your clerk’s office, post office, school office and other gathering spots for the sample ballot notice. In Wisconsin, a referendum notice includes an explanatory statement that describes the effect of a “yes” or “no” vote.
Underline key words in the proposal. It helps me to read a proposal aloud asking myself, “Why were these specific words and phrases chosen, and what do they mean?” Then I can look them up to start to get an idea what they mean before I embarrass myself with questions that are way off base. The Wisconsin Association of School Boards provides a helpful set of definitions in its publication School Finance 101.
Take each proposal at face value. It’s hard to resist the urge to vote in response to the last election. But each time we go to the polls we vote on what’s on that ballot. That’s not to say forget about the path that led your community to a particular vote. But be clear about what the issue is at a given time – in the voting booth and in the cafe booth.
For example, at one time, school referendums were mostly used to let the community decide on a costly construction project. Now, though, more rural voters are seeing ballot measures that decide on funding for operational expenses. Operational referendums can affect whether a district can meet its day-to-day expenses, including heat, transportation and whether the district will have to cut staff. In some areas, there’s nervous talk about bankruptcy and closing when an operational referendum is on the ballot.
Last April, my local school district was one of at least 26 rural districts in Wisconsin with an operational referendum on the ballot. Voters here had approved those ballot measures every time they had been presented, starting in 2001. Those measures have allowed our school’s spending to exceed the state-imposed spending cap by $200,000 per year. This time the measure asked voters for an extra $250,000 per year for the next three years. That’s about 95 cents per $1,000 of equalized valuation, or $95 for the owner of a $100,000 home.
On voting day, though, I learned that at least one opponent of the referendum was going door to door “explaining” that the vote was to pay for a recent (and controversial) construction project at the school. After he stopped at the door of a friend who usually cancels my vote in state and federal elections, she did something I really admire: She went to other sources and asked if that was true.
That canvasser may have helped stop an operational referendum. By two votes. But whether he was honestly mistaken or deliberately deceptive, he blew his credibility with at least one of the 570 or so registered voters in this township. The operational referendum will appear on the ballot again in November.
Ask where “talking points” came from. There’s a reason why school boards are elected locally. Each type of community has its own special resources and challenges. Each type of community has some say in how those challenges are met and resources are used. But all work within parameters established at the state level.
In Wisconsin, for example, school funding comes mostly from property taxes and state aid. Our situation started to change significantly when a 1993 state law capped the amount of revenue districts could raise, tying it to student enrollment and the rate of inflation. Then in 2011, Governor Scott Walker further reduced state aid and the revenue limit authority of school districts. That may have pleased some suburban homeowners in districts with large enrollments. It hasn’t helped rural schools with small enrollments like White Lake, where the class of 2014 had 25 graduates.
To save money, White Lake shares an administrator with Elcho, another small district at the other end of the county. (The two schools also have a combined football team and share some teachers, an occupational therapist and a speech/language pathologist.) The two districts combined cover 530 square miles, with a little over 1 student per square mile. Buses in our sister district travel about 684 miles per day. Elcho’s transportation costs for 2012-13 were $405,195 – a little over 8% of the district’s operating budget. The district received just over $36,000 in transportation aid and $36,551 in equalization aid.
Equalized valuation, which is based on the full market value of taxable property, is used to apportion the property tax levy, including the school levy. Equalization aid, according to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, is unrestricted general aid provided by the state through a formula that distributes aid on the basis of “relative fiscal capacity” as measured by the district’s per-pupil equalized value of taxable property. But what does that mean in real life?
In my county, the median household income runs less than $43,000, and 13% of people in the county live below the poverty level. In White Lake 72.5 percent of students qualify for subsidized meals, so the district provides free lunch and breakfast to all students. Now consider this: Both Elcho and White Lake are communities that attract vacation homeowners. You might think there should be some benefit to having a high percentage of taxable properties that are owned by non-residents who pay property taxes but don’t send kids to school here. Yet when enrollment is small, the per-pupil equalized value makes us look like “rich” districts that don’t need as much aid. Twenty districts in Wisconsin received no state equalization aid for 2013-14 because of high property wealth. Elcho and six other districts – all located in rural areas and small towns – have subsidized meal eligibility above 50 percent.
Assume it’s personal for everyone. Whether they have kids in school or not, whether they own property or not, whether they live on a fixed income or seem to have more money than their neighbors, one thing is certain: Everyone voting on a school issue has skin in the game. So it’s really not fair to assume that anyone’s stake is greater than another’s.
And it’s really not fair to characterize school board members, school administrators and teachers as selfish wastrels. They live in the community, too. They pay taxes, too. They have relatives and neighbors and the usual suspects at the gas station offering endless advice on what they should be doing to “fix” a system that was never designed to work in rural areas with small enrollments. They’ve been deferring maintenance and other expenses as long as they could. And now it’s catching up to us, and no one can afford to look over their shoulder at what’s nipping at our heels. All the obvious cuts were made long ago. Not-so-obvious cuts have resulted in savings, but it never seems like enough.
In White Lake, for example, some school vacation blocks were altered because it doesn’t cost as much to heat the building on a winter day when school is not in session. To do that, though, school days were lengthened to meet state-mandated instructional hours. And every day school is not in session, the district saves the cost of transporting kids to and from their homes.
In Wisconsin, districts with fewer than 3.6 pupils per square mile exceed the average transportation cost-per-pupil by 55%, according to the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance. “It is a travesty that that the current sparsity aid program excludes remote school districts with an enrollment above 750 students even though they have some of the highest sparsity levels in the state,” said WRSA executive director Jerry Fiene.
Where bus routes could be consolidated, they already have been. As bus routes get longer, parents who don’t want their kids riding an hour or more each way start driving kids to school themselves. Still, districts are required to provide transportation, whether or not the kids ride the bus. So the money spent on transportation is simply not available to pay for other things.
Rising costs for special education have also reduced what some districts have available to spend on regular education. State and federal aid have not kept up with rising costs. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, special education costs not reimbursed by the state or federal government are eligible for reimbursement under state general equalization aids – but revenue limits restrict the amount of those general aids and property tax revenue that a school district can receive.
Transportation, special education and other concerns put small rural school boards and administrators in a Catch 22: They’re required to do this, prohibited from that, and most likely to succeed at making sure parents and taxpayers are equally upset.
Talk to the people you elected and those who are asking for your vote. You may already know some or all of the people on the school board. You may even be on the school board yourself. Show of hands: How many of you who hold local elected office get more calls from constituents asking for explanations than you hear rumors about the positions you supposedly hold? Thought so.
It may not be true in all communities, but I believe the school board members in my district prefer to have people show up at meetings and ask respectful, thoughtful questions rather than simply share assumptions and rumors. (Like my personal favorite from the local rumor mill: “If they close our school and send the kids to Antigo, we won’t have to pay that portion of property taxes.”)
If you don’t already run into board members at church or a Friday fish fry (that may be only in Wisconsin), you can still talk to them live and in person. Board meeting dates and agendas in my district are published in the newspaper, sent to a radio station, posted on the school’s web site and at school entrances, the Post Office, two gas stations, the market, a cafe and a tavern so everyone in the community has the opportunity to attend.
I’ll admit it’s been a while since I attended one myself. That’s mostly because the people I’ve helped elect haven’t banned any books. And because when I talk to them in the community and read the minutes of their meetings, I’m satisfied that they’re handling difficult tasks well.
If we all make the conscious choice to ask respectful questions, keep an open mind and acknowledge different points of view, we might all feel a little better about the imperfect decisions that must be made. Or at least, we won’t embarrass ourselves too much by spreading misinformation like a social disease.
Donna Kallner is a self-employed fiber artist from rural northern Wisconsin.