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State funding in jeopardy as schools face declining enrollment during pandemic

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Schools across Wisconsin will find out this week how much money they'll get from the state, but the future of some of that funding could be in jeopardy.

The pandemic is having a big impact, as districts have seen a drop in enrollment.

School officials say districts all over Wisconsin are seeing a three to four percent drop in students this fall.

For Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), that means 1,006 fewer students. According to school officials, 56 percent of those families said they were moving to other districts.

"Families physically moving around, under normal circumstances that's quite common, but also under COVID-19. You can see where a student may have to relocate to stay with family, to allow for working among other families members, or allow for healthcare. A lot of different dynamics came about this time," said Andrew Statz, executive director of accountability with MMSD.

More than half of those children were in 4K or kindergarten, showing parents are making tough decisions to keep their families safe right now.

"We could just be seeing students who are kind of being redshirted by their families, meaning choosing not to enroll, which means next year's incoming class could be pretty big and we've got to be thinking and planning around that," said Kelly Ruppel, MMSD's chief financial officer.

Meanwhile, Janesville School District said this week enrollment is down there by 434 students. 109 of those were in the district's 4K program and most of the others were K-12 students. Kindergarten enrollment dropped for the first time in five years, by 39.

Janesville officials said there is an increase of students enrolled in the district's charter schools, including some from outside of the district, with many families choosing to join the ARISE Virtual Academy during the pandemic.

In Mt. Horeb, district officials are anticipating a drop of close to 75 students. Superintendent Steve Salerno says about half of those who left went to private schools or chose homeschooling instead of the district's virtual learning program. Salerno is hoping these families will come back to Mt. Horeb after the pandemic.

"This is a phenomenon, sadly, that school districts all around the state are experiencing right now," he told 27 News. "We're hoping for some relief. We've so much as written letters to those in authority to help us."

September student counts are important, because they determine how much money the state of Wisconsin provides to each district.

Those numbers could impact budgets for years to come. School districts are subject to revenue limits based on a three-year average of September enrollment numbers.

"If you have a fewer number of pupils, your school district budget may go down, you won't be able to levy as much from property taxpayers," said Dan Rossmiller, government relations director for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB).

Rossmiller says the state provides $746 per student. There are some protections but they only last for one year, so these current enrollment numbers may limit budgets permanently.

"The longer the pandemic lingers, the longer the effects on the economy linger and revenue collections are down, that poses an increased risk that next year's school budgets are going to be cut quite a bit," Rossmiller said.

Right now, schools and their supporters are urging lawmakers to make a change, as they work to balance their budgets and plan for the future.

MMSD anticipated the drop in enrollment after surveying parents over the summer about whether they'd return.

The district chose to freeze some hiring during virtual learning. Some teaching positions, custodians, food service workers and other vacancies will not be filled at this time.

"We've made some really good decisions that have put us in as best of a budgetary standing as can be, considering where we are," Ruppel said.

The district is also hoping taxpayers in Madison can help keep them going, through referenda on the ballot in November.

The state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) is releasing a complete list of general aid that will be given to each school district, along with information on revenue limits, on Thursday.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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