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Plum City, Elmwood among 144 school districts receiving sparsity aid

Small, sparsely populated districts across the state have received $18.5 million in sparsity aid.

Unlike most categorical aids, which are targeted to a specific program or service, sparsity aid may be used for general school operations.

For the 2017-18 school year, 144 districts qualified for sparsity aid based on membership of 745 or fewer students and density of less than 10 pupils per square mile of the district's geographic area.

The Elmwood School District received $98,446.

"Sparsity aid is a valuable source of revenue for our district as our district relies on these funds to supplement our budget. Without these funds, we would need to reduce our general fund budget by about $100,000," said Elmwood Superintendent Paul Blanford. "Because sparsity aid is a categorical aid with the flexibility of being utilized in the general fund budget, funds that are not specifically 'earmarked' or mandated for a single specific thing; we can utilize these funds to purchase a bus or pay for transportation-related expenses, pay for maintenance expenses, purchase technology or curriculum, or for other expenses."

Five school districts received aid this year that didn't qualify last school year: Dover #1, Erin, Glenwood City, Iowa Grant and North Cape. Aid was paid on the third Monday in September.

Sparsity aid is computed on prior year audited membership, which includes all students receiving services from a public school district and is different from enrollment.

"Because small rural school districts experience additional costs in things like student transportation related to distance and student numbers, as well as other impacts of adverse economy of scale, sparsity aid was created to help manage these added burdens," Blanford said.

The Plum City School District received $82,730.

"We are very pleased ... This is a significant amount of money for us. As a small school with little ability to control our numbers, we can't cleanly and evenly distribute funds on a per building or per grade basis," said Plum City Superintendent Ronald Walsh. "We also have administrative costs that are necessary regardless of the number of students we have. We need personnel to teach all students, to oversee special needs areas and to evaluate of all of our programs the same as districts many times larger than us. Sparsity aid is a welcome relief to help us smooth expenses out to somewhat compensate for our low enrollment."

Combined, the eligible school districts had pupil membership of 62,377, which is about 7 percent of Wisconsin's total public school membership for the 2016-17 school year. The membership total from eligible school districts required that the statutory sparsity aid payment of $300 per member be prorated at 98.84 percent this year for an actual payment of $296.52 per member.

"Across the state, the local school is the heart of the community. Its activities extend past the classroom as a gathering place for academic, athletic and other social activities that hold communities together. As a major employer, schools also support the local economy," said State Superintendent Tony Evers. "The sparsity aid program is an important support to our small school districts."

Sparsity aid was enacted as part of the 2007-09 state budget and based on recommendations from the State Superintendent's Rural Schools Advisory Council. The council stressed that declining enrollment and escalating fixed costs along with the lack of economies of scale were issues that put added pressure on small, sparsely populated districts. With the exception of the 2015-16 school year, sparsity aid has been prorated each year.

Jordan Willi
Jordan Willi is a reporter for the New Richmond News. Previously, he worked as a sports reporter at the Worthington Daily Globe in Worthington, Minnesota. He also interned at the Hudson Star Observer for two summers and contributed to the Bison Illustrated sports magazine at North Dakota State University.
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