There’s some special state aid headed to the state’s smallest schools in September. It’s called Sparsity Aid, and in the case of the Florence County schools in northeastern Wisconsin, they’re getting $111,000 more than last school year. “That would ordinarily cause anyone to say, hooray, we’re going to be able to do some good things for kids,” said Florence administrator Tom Woznicki. “But the reality of it is, there are situations where an increase in categorical aid in one area could result in a drop in categorical aids or general aids in other areas.” Woznicki said that’s due in large part to the complexity of the state’s school aid formula. “The school funding formula in Wisconsin should be added to the list of things one should never watch being made, those being legislation and sausage. When you open it up and look at it, it’s a little like brain surgery. Everything looks pretty much the same, and you don’t realize until you start touching and fiddling with various parts of it, that everything is connected to everything else.”
Riverdale schools superintendent Bryce Bird welcomes the $200,000 his district will receive is great, but he’s not sure the district can count on a similar amount in the future. “Principals are saying well, can we get another teacher? Can we get some teacher aides? We can probably do it for this year, I don’t know if it will be ongoing,” said Bird, whose district serves students in part of Crawford, Grant, Iowa and Richalnd counties.
Wisconsin schools which serve fewer than ten students per square mile will be sharing nearly $15 million in Sparsity Aid. “Ultimately the winner could be the homeowners, because we may end up under-levying in order to compensate for the $111,000 increase, but that’s not going to allow us to spend any more towards the education of children,” said Woznicki. Woznicki noted that school districts are still restrained by a state mandated two percent cap on annual budget increases, and Bird said voters in his district have been hesitant to spend over that cap. “The last two Aprils we went to the property taxpayers to ask for some help, through referendums to allow us to exceed the revenue caps for operating expenses,” he said. “We lost both of those referendums, and this (sparsity aid) will help bridge some of that shortfall.”
Sparsity aid, created by the legislature several years ago, was increased by $3.5 million in the last legislative session. The state Department of Public Instruction will mail Sparsity Aid checks to 123 rural schools with enrollments of less than 725 students in September. “Small, rural school districts serve a significantly higher percentage of low-income families than the statewide average. Increased sparsity aid will support their work to provide solid educational opportunities for their students,” said DPI Superintendent Tony Evers.