Monday, June 25, 2018

Hey Walker Voters, add Rural School Closings to the list of Bad Roads and Slow Broadband Access.

My current job takes me to small rural Wisconsin towns all the time. It's not hard to see how local schools are holding these communities together. But as I've blogged before, there doesn't seem to be political interest in keeping rural Wisconsin alive and well. From June 3, 2014:
Scott Walker and the Republican majority know that their privatization agenda to spread charter and voucher schools statewide is the death knell for rural public schools. The math makes that easy to predict.

Seeing these school close up is economically shortsighted, since rural communities fall apart and scatter to the wind once there's nothing there to hold them together. I still get a sinking feeling every time a pass the abandoned elementary school in Navarino Wisconsin. It closed in 2009. A nice school with a great playground and incredible baseball field. The building is now filled with junk and the playground and field is just a sad reminder of how families used to get together with their kids during and after school.
And now the recent story about the Arena elementary school closing hit home for me as well, having helped a couple when I was in real estate buy a home a few houses down from the school. WPR Radio interviewed the reporter who wrote the NY Times article about that closing. The question I keep asking myself, why haven't we as a state done enough to preserve that way of life? (audio):
It’s a situation that’s playing out all across rural America. In the wake of the Great Recession, small towns are finding themselves with fewer economic opportunities and aging populations. That’s having an impact on rural schools - often the lifeblood of the communities they serve. But what happens when those schools close? A reporter tells the story of Arena, Wisconsin,

Not to be partisan, but again, Democrats have been on this issue for a long time. Yet when Democrats speak out they're often portrayed as partisan angry attacks against Scott Walker, ignoring the merits of their argument. Back in 2014, this was a recent opinion by Democratic Rep. Fred Clark showing us how we got to this point. Decide for yourself if Clark is just angry about losing elections or making an obvious point:
For rural Wisconsin, public schools are the hub of activity during the day, doubling as community centers, a place to exercise after work and polling stations for elections. Rural schools, with their mascots and sports teams, school plays and graduations, tie together generations and capture the story of an entire town.

Unfortunately, we are poised to lose a growing number of those rural schools unless our Legislature reverses course. In the face of declining enrollment and huge cuts in revenue, rural schools are cutting programs, stretching staff with heavier workloads, closing schools and surviving on referendums year after year. In the outright war on public schools that the Republican majority has waged since 2011, with its $1.6 billion in public school funding cuts, our rural schools are becoming the first casualties. Voucher schools alone currently absorb $384 million in this budget that would otherwise be available for public schools.
I also posted this must-see great story about rural schools from MSNBC's Chris Hayes:

I also came across this weird story about "Shrink Smart." where some small communities might be able to "thrive" by embracing their losses. Be warned, there's a spoiler below that kind of negates the shrink smart concept:
Kimberly Zarecor, associate professor of architecture at Iowa State University, argues that towns ... shouldn't spend money trying to lure new residents to shore up their population numbers. She says instead, they should focus on making life better for the residents they still have. In fact, she's devoting a lot of her energy to the cause she calls "The Shrink Smart Project."

Sac City, Iowa, whose population is estimated at 2,105 and falling. The numbers are down by a third since a farm equipment manufacturer closed its factory there in the 1980s ... "Sac City is probably one of our best examples of Shrink Smart, in that the quality of the services, the quality of the government, the quality of the community, it's phenomenal." The town boasts a hospital, a nice rec center, two pools, public schools, a library, robust day care, even a roadside attraction, the World's Largest Popcorn Ball — a confection that weighs more than 4.5 tons. Not all of the community-development projects work out, and with such a small population it's hard to attract new employers and jobs.
Oh wait, this might be one other important reason "Shrink Smart" worked:
Sac City's momentum got a huge — and rather startling — boost three years ago, when lifelong resident John Criss died. Criss ran the men's clothing store in Sac City, a business he took over from his father. He was a bachelor and left almost all of his estate, $5.7 million, to a fund to beautify the town. The signs of that work are all over Sac City.