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Area rural schools stand to get less aid due to budget
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MONROE - Small rural Wisconsin school districts are feeling the crunch as the sparsity aid program is being cut 10 percent in the 2011-13 state budget.

The sparsity aid program started in 2008-09 and was designed to assist rural school districts that struggle with funding due to a lack of large economies and have large geographic areas that impact educational services.

The Albany School District will receive $104,536 for the 2011-12 school year, which is $20,000 less than last year. With Gov. Scott Walker's push to expand funding for voucher schools in the Milwaukee area, Albany Superintendent Stephen Guenther braces for the worst.

"I'm not counting on it for next year," Guenther said. "I was surprised we got it this year. I don't know if it fits with the political mindset. I wouldn't be surprised if it's gone next year."

For this school year, 130 districts are eligible for $13.5 million in sparsity aid. To be eligible for sparsity aid, school districts must enroll less than 725 students and have less than 10 students per square mile. At least 20 percent of students must be eligible for free or reduced lunches.

Other area schools will also get less aid. The Pecatonica School District will receive $110,557 this year in sparsity aid, down from $129,535 last year. The Black Hawk School District will receive $101,645, Monticello $98,755, Argyle $82,135 and Juda $66,238.

In Walker's budget that limits collective bargaining for most public employees, teachers across the state are contributing half of the cost to the Wisconsin Retirement System, which is about 5.8 percent of their total salary. Teachers also will pay at least 12.6 percent of their health insurance premiums. Many school districts are taking special measures to curb costs as they face the prospects of budget cuts with a historic $834 million cut to education over the next two years.

Guenther said when Albany started the budget talks, the district was projecting a $300,000 deficit for next year and that was with a fund balance of $680,000 at the end of last school year.

The Albany district has used its negotiating power and some creative options to trim costs, he said. Albany teachers are under a salary freeze, but they can get more pay through experience and continued education. Guenther said the district has signed a new transportation contract that will save the district $20,000 just in the bid process. Also, the district will have other savings by using vans instead of contracting a bus company to transport athletes to some sporting events, according to Guenther.

The district has also negotiated a new health insurance contract with significantly lower premiums, he said.

"We have nipped, tucked and shuffled everywhere," Guenther said.

Black Hawk Superintendent Willy Chambers took over for former superintendent Charles McNulty July 1. Chambers has worked 14 years in the Black Hawk School District as a math teacher and one year as a middle school principal.

Chambers said the more school choice options are funded by the state, the less funding that will be available for public school districts. Black Hawk's sparsity aid funding is about $18,000 less than last year.

"Any cuts are devastating," Chambers said. "I think right now the only options are to make cuts or go to a referendum."

He said Black Hawk has reduced its budget by $800,000 compared to last year, and is having more elementary classes go to multi-age classrooms.

Chambers said the business and music teacher positions have been reduced to 75 percent positions.

"In the future, class sizes may be larger and there may be less of the elective classes in the math or science curriculum," he said.

Pecatonica Superintendent Gary Neis said that the district is projecting about a $60,000 deficit next year that could be offset by fund balance.

"Our revenue is down $400,000," Neis said. "If we don't get that sparsity aid, we would be down $500,000.

Neis said the district has approved a district-wide salary freeze for administrators, teachers and support staff, increased insurance contribution from five to 15 percent and agreed to a new insurance provider.

"We thought that was better for our kids than cutting staff," Neis said.