Rural woes mount

Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

State Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, is annoyed when local officials start comparing Wisconsin and Minnesota, but those comparisons often reflect discontent in rural areas.

Earlier this year Bernier walked out of a meeting between local school officials and legislators from western Wisconsin.

“Fundamentally, Minnesota is beating us. Our school formula is broken,“ an Eau Claire educator said. “It is not helpful to compare Minnesota and Wisconsin,” Bernier replied.

Later Bernier would tell constituents that Wisconsin spends $11,071 educating each elementary and secondary school student, while Minnesota spends just $17 per student more.

But those are statewide figures, not a reflection of the financial problems facing rural districts that often have declining enrollments, others note.

State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, said the rural districts are often faced with winning approval for property tax increases or slashing spending.

The Alma district, she said, recently approved a major tax increase to help pay for a new school furnace. The Prescott school district is facing a $1.5 million cut because a referendum failed.

“People all across this state have voted to raise property taxes,” she said.

Vinehout noted that Tony Evers, state superintendent of public instruction, has repeatedly proposed school-aid changes to reflect declining enrollments and poverty. Evers’ proposals have failed in the State Capitol, she noted.

Gov. Scott Walker’s popularity has dramatically sagged in western and northern Wisconsin, according to numbers from the Marquette University Law School poll.

The governor has spent substantial time in that region in the wake of those numbers. He has held invitation-only meetings to ask what the state should be doing. Now he promises to put more money into public education in the biennial budget he will send to the Legislature next year.

But there are other educational pressures facing the Wisconsin budget. Tax revenues have not met expectations and the voucher program which sends taxpayer money to private schools contin- ues to expand.

Wisconsin also provides a large income-tax break for families who send children to private elementary or high schools.

The governor has been encouraging public school districts to offer programs that will push young people to consider vocational education rather than college.

A new law allows public schools to employ people with relevant experiences to lead the vocational instruction rather than teacher training.

Other spending cutbacks are hurting rural Wisconsin.

The $250-million slash in taxpayer money for the University of Wisconsin System has led to reducing the number of Extension agents in some sparsely populated counties.

The UW System spending cutbacks have begun to affect the faculty at campuses across the state.

Spending issues are everywhere in Wisconsin. Minnesota and Wisconsin populations are about the same, but Wisconsin has twice as many people in prison. Wisconsin leads the nation in the percentage of its young black males in prison.

The state spending rolls on.

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