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Wisconsin schools consider closure, consolidation as enrollment drops

School funding is tied to enrollment, leaving districts in financial bind

Blue lockers line a hallway in a school building.
A student walks down a hallway with lockers Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, at Hackett Elementary School in Beloit, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Wisconsin’s public schools have fewer students in the classrooms. And since school funding is tied to enrollment, districts across the state are considering closing and combining schools.

Racine, Wausau, Superior and La Crosse are among the school districts with plans to close or consolidate schools due to declining enrollments.

“The schools are not filled up. There are fewer teachers, fewer kids and a challenge to provide a quality educational experience,” said Aaron Engel, superintendent of the School District of La Crosse.

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Engel said the district’s elementary schools are about 70 percent full and its middle and high schools are at about 65 percent capacity.

“We just don’t have the need for that space anymore,” Engel said. “It creates really challenging community conversations about reducing our footprint but still creating that connection to the community.”

La Crosse voters rejected a $195 million school district referendum in November of last year that would have provided funds for closing two high schools and consolidating them at a new site. The plan would also have closed and relocated the district’s three middle schools.

Engel said even without the money, the district has to find a sustainable path forward. Both high schools will remain open for now and one of the middle schools will close. The district has started a months-long, community-led advisory committee to look at additional changes.

Earlier this month, the district went back to voters and was able to get a $60 million operational referendum passed.

“We have aging buildings and declining enrollment. We’ve lost 25 percent of our enrollment in 22 years,” Engel said.

The School District of La Crosse has been working with the UW Applied Population Lab, which projects the district will have an ongoing decline of students for at least the next decade, Engel said.

It’s a combination of declining birth rates and people moving, Engle said. In rural districts, people are moving to cities. In urban districts, people move to suburbs, Engel said.

Earlier this year, the Wausau Board of Education voted to close five of the district’s 13 elementary schools and merge two high schools. The district also plans to merge its two high schools into a junior and senior high campus and reconfigure the district’s middle schools to grades 5 through 7 by fall of 2025.

Wausau schools have lost around 700 students over the last two decades, going from about 8,600 students in the 2002-03 school year to 7,873 students for the current academic year. The decline in enrollment translates into less funding from the state and a lower cap on how much the district can raise from taxpayers.

With uncertain financing, school districts have increasingly relied on referendums for operations and capital projects. In April, 69 districts asked for tax increases to borrow money for new buildings or to exceed state revenue limits. Just 55 percent passed, which is the lowest success rate for school referendums since 2010, according to Wisconsin Policy Forum.

These referendums have coincided with declining enrollment numbers.

The 2020-21 school year was the seventh consecutive year that public school enrollment in the state declined, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

That year, which was the middle of the pandemic, saw the largest single-year decline in public school enrollment in at least the last 25 years, according to state data going back to 1995.

Nationwide, public schools have lost nearly 1.3 million students since the pandemic, according to the Return2Learn tracker. Enrollment figures show there is no sign of a rebound to previous levels.

Legislative committee looks at removing consolidation barriers

Ted Neitzke, CEO of CESA 6, an Oshkosh-based cooperative agency that provides educational services to 42 public school districts in eight counties, said about two-thirds of Wisconsin school districts are facing enrollment declines, which leads to local crises.

Neitzke is a member of the state Legislative Council Study Committee on Shared School District Services. The bipartisan group met five times last year to talk about barriers to school districts sharing or consolidating services and explore statutory changes. Neitzke said several bills are in the works, but the committee is on hold during the state budget process.

Wisconsin’s total school district headcount for the third Friday of September 2022 was 807,657, a decline of 0.85 percent from September 2021, according to state data.

School district revenue limits are based upon a three-year “rolling” average of September enrollment data. Wisconsin school districts received no per-student increase in revenue limits for both the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. Gov. Tony Evers is proposing a $1,000 per student increase in his 2023-25 budget that is currently working its way through the Republican-led Legislature.

Neitzke said one idea that has come out of the committee is to spread enrollment data funding out to five years so funding isn’t affected as rapidly for declining districts. For increasing enrollment districts, the proposal would be to stay on the three-year cycle, Neitzke said.

The change would take legislative approval.