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Rural schools panel pleased, shocked
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Members of the state’s Task Force on Rural Schools were pleased—and shocked—by the status of northwoods districts and the challenges they face Wednesday.

The panel, which is chaired by 34th District Assemblyman Rob Swearingen of Rhinelander and 35th District Rep. Mary Czaja of Irma and 36th District Rep. Jeff Mursau of Crivitz, toured the Elcho school district and Antigo High School, prior to a public hearing that stretched into the late afternoon hours held in the Volm Theater.

Attendance was sparse, perhaps due to the frigid weather conditions, but the lawmakers did get an earful—good and bad—from speakers including Antigo Director of Business Services Mary Jo Filbrandt along with Bill Fisher, district administrator for the Elcho and White Lake school districts.

One surprise: The sheer geographical size of the districts, which based on enrollments, are among the smallest in the state.

Filbrandt told the lawmakers that Antigo, at 540 squares miles, has a population of three students per square mile. Fisher said that Elcho and White Lake, with a combined area of 530 square miles, has an average of one student per square mile.

That translates to staggering transportation costs that eat up seven or eight percent of the overall budgets.

Filbrandt and Fisher both urged additional transportation aid, calling it key for the future of rural schools.

Other issues were discussed as well.

At Antigo, Filbrandt touched on years and years of budget cutbacks that have slashed staff, reduced available courses, and caused inequities in educational opportunities between elementary schools.

A conservative climate has only made matters more difficult, she said, with the district finding itself unable to eliminate schools to save money and a public unwilling to support education through spending referendums, which have failed three times.

“Antigo is being a training ground for teachers who move on for higher pay,” Filbrandt said, adding that due to financial constraints “our ability to add staff is non-existent.”

Filbrandt called it a nearly “insurmountable challenge” to keep all the district’s seven elementary schools operating and meet the district’s financial challenges.

“Northern Wisconsin is a great place to live, work and raise children,” Filbrandt said, but it cannot provide equal educational opportunities without additional assistance from the state.

Despite all those concerns, Antigo schools are doing their job, Filbrandt stressed. She pointed to the handsome high school facility the legislators had just toured and noted that West Elementary, with a poverty rate approaching 70- percent, continues to be honored on an annual basis as a Wisconsin School of Promise. That’s a credit to a dedicated teaching staff, she said.

Fisher, a passionate advocate for equal educational opportunities for all students, addressed the strengths and challenges at his two small rural districts.

“These schools are the heart and soul of their respective communities,” Fisher said, and the residents are supporting their systems through property taxes.

“Both of my school districts rely on operating referendums to provide basic services,” Fisher said. “It’s the taxpayer dollars that fund our school districts.”

Fisher echoed Filbrandt’s remarks about challenges facing the schools in the areas of transportation, technology and hiring and retaining teachers. Some programs, designed to allow students access to lectures and educational materials at home via the Internet, are useless at Elcho and White Lake because of the lack of high-speed Internet available to residents. And some homes have no computer access at all.

Fisher backed a proposal that would provide some level of educational loan forgiveness for new teachers who are hired by rural districts as one way to aid in recruitment. And he said more equitable funding is key.

Small grants, such as sparsity aid, are helpful, he said, but “when you have so many demands for dollars, it’s like trying to plug 50 holes with 10 corks.”

Fisher also urged more dollars targeted toward early literacy, a problem, he said, due to the high poverty levels of the area.

In addition to Swearingen, Czaja and Mursau, who are all Republicans, the task force includes Rep. Warren Petryk (R-Eleva), Rep. Ed Brooks (R-Reedsburg), Rep. Mary Williams (R-Medford), Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh), Rep. Stephen Nass (R-Whitewater), Rep. Chris Danou (D-Trempealeau), Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Cross Plains) and Rep. Mandy Wright (D-Wausau). Rep. Fred Clark (D-Baraboo) is the vice-chair.

The Rural School Task Force is planning for two more public hearings around the state before the final report is completed in March. Details on the final hearings will become available in the coming weeks.
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Bill Fisher, administrator for the Elcho and White Lake districts, discusses rural school issues with members of the legislative task force Wednesday at Antigo High School’s Volm Theater.
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Phone: 715-623-4191
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Mail to: Fred Berner
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