Some school districts have unusually high transportation costs because of varying student needs or sheer geography, with rural schools particularly challenged by scant resources. This week Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction announced it would provide financial aid to the tune of $5 million to 128 districts with above-average student transportation costs.
Districts are eligible for high-cost transportation aid if their school busing costs exceed 150 percent of the statewide average cost per member, according to DPI.
State Superintendent Tony Evers, Sen.Luther Olsen and the State Superintendent's Rural Advisory Council collaborated on creating the new categorical aid as a way to reduce disproportionately high transportation expenses. Evers recommended the aid as part of his 2013-2015 budget request and it was approved by the full legislature and governor as part of the biennial budget.
"The state must continue to recognize the ever-changing needs of school districts," Evers said. "Addressing the burden that transportation costs were putting on district budgets helps schools focus their resources on student learning. This is a good first step and I look forward to working on additional school funding issue."
State law requires that school districts provide transportation to public and private school students if they live more than two miles from the nearest public school. As transportation-related expenses have risen, corresponding funding levels have not, putting pressure on districts with large transportation budgets.
Funding levels are based on audited data and enrollment counts from the 2012-2013 school year. Of the districts granted funds, nine received more than $100,000; 30 received between $50,000 and $100,000; 73 received between $5,000 and $50,000; and 16 received less than $5,000.
In March state legislators who are members of the rural task force visited several communities to discuss some of their schools' funding needs.
Superintendents from several districts — Benton, Cuba City, Mineral Point Unified and Potosi — provided testimony at a hearing about how they are challenged to do more with less while having a smaller population to tax for more money.
"We have separate and unequal schools in Wisconsin. The amount of money spent per child on education in public schools varies," said Mineral Point Superintendent Luke Francois. "Despite the funding formula being constitutionally sound, it is evident to me that the funding formula is fundamentally broken."
Cuba City School Superintendent Roger Kordus discussed the challenges his district is facing, including rising transportation costs.
With the school district encompassing more than 200 square miles, the district pays more than $300,000 for transporting its own students as well as private school students who attend St. Rose Catholic School in Cuba City or Holy Ghost-Immaculate Conception School in Dickeyville.
"The Cuba City School District only receives about $36,500 from the state through the transportation categorical aid," Kordus said. "I ask members of this committee and your fellow legislators to support the increasing of the state categorical aid funding for pupil transportation. That would free additional revenues to be applied directly to student learning."
Of these four rural school districts, only one has qualified to receive this year's categorical funding: Potosi School District will get more than $17,000.
District Administrator Ron Saari, expounded on some of Potosi's chief problems, including declining enrollment, high transportation costs, recruitment/retention of quality staff and increasing student poverty.
"The declining enrollment negatively impacts a school district's revenue even though it isn't able to directly cut costs parallel to the revenue loss. Buses, lights, heat, etc. still occur at the same rate even though we have fewer students and lower revenue," he said.
Saari added that the school district spent nearly $300,000 in transportation costs in the 2012-2013 school year, which is more than $800 per student per year — much higher than the average $500 per student spent by K-12 districts statewide.
"Potosi spends 37 percent more per student on transportation than the typical Wisconsin school district. Our transportation aid is approximately $17,000 – about 6 percent of our total transportation costs," he continued.
To view a map of districts receiving DPI aid, click here.