Series: Challenges To Wisconsin's Rural Schools

Years of budget cuts, increased state funding for private schools, Act 10, an increase in teacher retirements and a decrease in young educators entering the workforce have reshaped the face of public education in Wisconsin over the past decade. But these changes are amplified in rural school districts around the state. Many of Wisconsin's rural counties are slowly losing population, which results in shrinking school enrollment numbers and local tax bases, putting pressure on districts budgets. With a growing teacher shortage nationwide, schools in sparsely populated areas struggle to attract new staff. At the same time, districts across the state are increasingly turning to referendums to fill the funding gap.
 
School referendums around Wisconsin have been steadily increasing in the 2010s, particularly years when a general election is held.
School-lunch programs have developed over the course of many decades, and their specific shape and intentions have not always been a matter of political consensus.
In Wisconsin, a desire for quality education and the costs of making such an investment has led to a funding system that can vary significantly by where a school is located.
When you have a small school district and a limited budget, it comes down to choices, according to Kickapoo Area School District district administrator Doug Olsen.
Since the 2013-2014 school year, Wisconsin school districts have seen a 1.5 percent decline in pre-K-12 enrollment, with some districts seeing gains and others even bigger losses.
As students returned to classes around Wisconsin, uncertainty among school districts that rely on state funding lasted right up through the end of the Legislature's much-prolonged biennial budget process.
Schools in rural areas of Wisconsin with decreasing populations also face a decline in student enrollment, a trend causing budget anxieties for district administrators.
The amount of money a school district in Wisconsin receives from the state in a given year depends on a series of funding equations that factor in enrollment, student poverty, local property values, transportation needs and other criteria.
School districts in western Wisconsin, along with their counterparts across the state, are increasingly finding it hard to recruit and retain teachers.
With the state cutting aid to public schools and capping how much money they can raise through tax increases without voters' approval, school districts around Wisconsin have been seeking more funding through local referendums, especially those in rural areas.