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Gov. Doyle announces rural school initiative

Gov. Jim Doyle lobbied his rural schools initiative to students and local officials this morning at Cooper Elementary School.

Part of Doyle's proposed 2007-09 budget, the initiative seeks to ensure rural children have an equal chance for a quality education. It includes notable reforms of Wisconsin's school financing system.

"This is really, really important to me ... making sure we have a first class education system," Doyle said.

To help rural schools, the initiative will address declining enrollment, transportation and special education funding among other measures. The initiative would raise transportation reimbursement rates by $900,000 a year for districts where students travel more than 12 miles to school, allowing them to focus more of their resources on classroom learning.

The initiative also addresses one of the biggest problems facing Wisconsin school districts -- declining enrollment. It includes additional funds for districts to receive more revenue to offset a one-year enrollment decline.

Douglas County's rural schools are not facing much declining enrollment at the moment. Enrollment in the Solon Springs and Northwood districts is holding steady, while enrollment is increasing in Maple School District. Only Superior School District is experiencing a decline.

The proposal also increases special education funding by more than $50 million, raises the revenue ceiling by $600 per student for low revenue districts and increases funding for the Student Achievement Guarantee Education initiative (SAGE).

SAGE reduces class sizes for children in kindergarten through the third grade. Doyle proposes to increase SAGE funding to $2,250 per student.

Five Superior elementary schools participate in SAGE, with only Four Corners Elementary not a part of the program.

All of the measures set by the rural schools initiative would help Superior School District, said Superintendent Jay Mitchell. The district is using general fund money for transportation, special education and SAGE. The proposed changes would free that Fund 10 money for use in the classroom and school maintenance, Mitchell said.

From the SAGE program alone the proposed budget would save the district's general fund $300,000, said William Rehnstrand, school board vice president.

The district would still take $200,000 from its general fund to pay for that program.

"Unfortunately the amount of aid is not super but helps with what it will allow us to do," he said.

Hundreds of Superior school children live 12 miles or more from school. The district would receive $40 more per student, if the proposal is passed.

The proposal increases special education funding by $50 million, which would mean $325,000 for Superior's program.

The district would use any additional funds freed up to purchase classroom supplies and materials and possibly increase the building budget, Mitchell said.

In January the school board initiated a letter campaign encouraging Doyle to consider the proposed budget from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. In the letters, the board cited a need for increases in categorical aid for special education and transportation because the district was forced to make cuts elsewhere to pay for those mandated services.

The low-revenue increase will also help Superior because it is one of the lowest property tax revenue districts in the state, Rehnstrand said.

"We appreciate the governor understanding education is important and supporting it with the resources, Mitchell said.

Doyle also speaks today at Washington Elementary School in Merrill on the initiative.

"These are good practical proposals ... that will significantly help rural school districts," Doyle said.

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