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Rural schools struggle for funding

Clintonville Middle School File Photo

Clintonville faces potential $1.2 million deficit

By Bert Lehman

The preliminary 2023-24 budget presented to the Clintonville School board at its July 24 meeting includes a $1.2 million deficit.

In a follow-up interview with the Clintonville Tribune-Gazette, Superintendent Troy Kuhn said the preliminary budget does not include any ESSER funds or COVID relief funds, which the district still has some available.

This is the final year those funds can be used. Kuhn added that the budget that will be presented at the district’s annual meeting in October will be different than this preliminary budget.

“The reason why we proposed that (preliminary budget) is because the board asked that we do this in the summer,” Kuhn said. “One of the things school districts have done is they have moved their annual meeting to October because then we have the third Friday count in and we have some other known numbers.”

He added, “Also included in that $1.2 million we always overbudget for students with special needs because we don’t know exactly who may be open enrolling, who have moved into the district. A lot of that is determined the first two weeks of school of what type of personnel we need.”

The preliminary budget is a “worst case scenario” budget, Kuhn said.

He added that the district has been preparing for two years for this being the final year covid relief funds would be available to schools. He described the end of these funds as a “fiscal cliff” for school districts.

“The best and worst thing that happened in the school districts in the state of Wisconsin is covid,” Kuhn said. “The worst of it is kids got left behind. We understand that. The best part is, we were given money to actually hire the people we needed to move kids forward. So, we know how to be successful. But the problem is, when that money runs out what are we going to do?”

Kuhn said Clintonville spent most of its covid relief funds on hiring more school staff to help students catch up from the loss of learning during the pandemic.

These positions included nurses, interventionists,and teaching coaches. Funds were also spent for professional development.
To prepare for losing these funds, Kuhn said the district eliminated one nurse last year. This year the district eliminated two instructional coaches for teachers, as well as consolidated middle school art and high school food service.

“Counting the numbers in the last two years we have consolidated six positions,” Kuhn said. “Moving forward, as we get into this, do we still have interventionists? Yes. Do we still have some other things we could cut? Yes. But ideally, how can we? Our kids still have not caught up.”

Kuhn acknowledged that the number of employees in the district is slightly more than it was before covid.

“We’ve shifted some administration things around with the consolidation,” Kuhn said. “We now have a true curriculum director, which we feel is very much needed. We now have a full-time activities director. That used to be split between the middle school and high school principals. We’ve shifted a lot of things around, but again, it’s needed.

“If you want to have the best curriculum so that Clintonville can compete with everybody else, it’s going to cost you. Not just in purchasing the curriculum, but the people to understand how to implement and properly use that.”

Kuhn acknowledged that the state budget that was recently signed by Governor Tony Evers includes increased funding for schools, but he said it’s not enough.

“We roughly got around $350 per kid,” Kuhn said. “Times 1,200 students, the math is easy, that’s over $300,000. That doesn’t even cover inflation. So, the peanuts we were given doesn’t even cover what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Rural schools hurting

Kuhn said rural school districts like Clintonville are having a difficult time when compared to larger school districts in affluent areas. That is one reason the district is part of the Rural School Alliance.

“What is happening to school districts like us is we don’t have these major housing developments. We don’t have an influx of people necessarily moving into our rural areas,” Kuhn said. “So, where does our money come from? State aid through the state equalized aid formula. Or, we go to get more students because, I hate to say it, every student is worth a certain amount of money. That pays the bills. Knowing that, what is happening, especially to the rural schools, is we’re all suffering.

“I’m trying to pull kids from Shawano, from Marion, from New London, and trying to get them to come to Clintonville because I think we offer good programing, but also, it’s so we can pay the bills. What does that do to the other rural schools? It hurts them. It really hurts them. How is that fair to Marion and Tigerton and that, when we’re essentially open enrolling their kids into our school because now they’re losing income. By no means do I want any school district to close, but what would be best for Clintonville? To get more kids here. What would be best for Marion? Get more kids.

“The only way to offset that is to get more state aid to rural schools. The chances of us passing an operational referendum is probably slim to none, especially when we promised the public that we would not adjust the mill rate.”

Kuhn said he’s not sure how long the district can restrain from increasing the mill rate before it has to consider an operational referendum or cut school programs.

“Where is the limit of reducing teachers and reducing educational programs in Clintonville before we have to go back to that talk of an operational referendum,” Kuhn said. “There are school districts around here, if they don’t pass operational referendums, they don’t know how long they’re going to be around.

“It’s a dog-eat-dog world. We’re all stealing teachers from each other. It’s driving up the rate of teacher prices. But who can do the most stealing? The rich schools. If you (teacher) want a raise, the easiest way is to go to an affluent area. They’re going to pay you the money, plus, they’re going to keep passing operational referendums because they can afford it. Either that, or it’s a booming area where there are $300,000 to $400,000 houses being built and the money is flowing in so fast. What does that hurt again? Rural school districts.”

Meeting with politicians is something that Kuhn said he’s probably going to have to start doing in order to plead the case of rural school districts.

“This isn’t a party-line subject,” he said.

Clintonville situation

While Clintonville has navigated these financial challenges, Kuhn said the district is still doing a good job in preparing students for careers after high school. This includes apprenticeship jobs, partnering with Fox Valley Technical College, and preparing students for four-year schools and on-the-job training.

Kuhn said he is thankful for the many local businesses that have helped the district through the years.

“What if they say we’re done giving to the Clintonville School District,” Kuhn asked. “We would not have a tech-ed shop like we have now. We would not have programs like we have now without the businesses. Clintonville is fortunate to have those businesses. If you don’t have those businesses and you’re a different school district, where do you go (for funds)?”

Clintonville is in a better situation than some area school district, Kuhn said. This is because it has new parking lots and roofs on school buildings. Elementary and middle school students will move into a newly remodeled building this year, and the high school isn’t that old.

“We don’t have to put that into a long-term planning maintenance budget,” Kuhn said.

But Kuhn added that unless politicians in Washington D.C. and Madison figure out the future success of America depends on education, and that school districts need more money, the district will eventually be forced to make cuts or consider an operational referendum.

“It’s really frustrating knowing that when it comes to quality education it really is depending on the local taxpayers,” Kuhn said. “Do they want to foot the bill or don’t they. It was really nice when we had state and federal funds coming in to support services in schools because we could hire the people and provide the services we need to give the kids. Knowing that that money is gone, every school district is making these hard decisions.”

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