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The small elementary school in the Waushara County Town of Poy Sippi opened in 1962 and harks back to a bygone era. It’s not a one-room school house, but it’s not far from that.
A total of 75 students attended the K-4 school in the 2010-’11 school year, said Robert Eidahl, administrator for the Berlin Area School District, which includes Poy Sippi. That compares with 650 students at the other elementary school in the district, Clay Lamberton, located in Berlin, west of Oshkosh.
In May 2011, the school board made a wrenching decision for any small community: It voted to close Poy Sippi. The decision was followed by a tearful last day that was covered on local television where small children and their teachers said goodbye to their school, and focused on a move to the much larger facility about 15 miles away.
Yet, as sorrow melted into summer, the school-closing issue flared up again, thanks to an ad in one of the high-stakes state Senate recall races.
Poy Sippi Elementary plays a starring role in a TV ad from the Progressive Change Committee and Democracy for America targeting Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), one of six GOP state senators facing recall elections on Aug. 9, 2011. The ad blames Olsen for the closing of the school.
"I'm standing here in front of Poy Sippi Elementary School where Luther Olsen's kids went to school," local resident Jay Jones says in the ad. "All of my kids have gone here. Two of them still do. But next year, because of budget cuts Luther Olsen voted for, my kids are not going to get the opportunity to go to this little school."
He later adds: "Republicans have found a way to find multimillion dollar tax cuts for rich corporations, but they can't find a way to keep my kids' school open."
Jones, a social studies teacher at Wautoma High School, declares at the end that he will vote for Olsen’s challenger, state Rep. Fred Clark (D-Baraboo)
So, did Olsen and the budget he voted for close the school?
When asked to back up their claim, Democracy for America provided a May 24, 2011 letter to parents announcing the closing, signed by Eidahl and Poy Sippi Elementary principal Scott Bartol.
"This decision was made after discussions and planning over the last two months precipitated by the historic budget cuts required by the new governor’s budget," the letter said. "The decision to close Poy Sippi was a very difficult one for everyone involved but it proved to be the best alternative to handle our financial problems."
However, the school had been operating for years on borrowed time.
In an interview, Eidahl said closing Poy Sippi has been contemplated for more than a decade. He said the decision was the result of declining enrollment -- there was one class for each grade and 14 or 15 students in each -- and the cost of operating the tiny stand-alone facility.
"We just couldn’t afford to keep it open any longer," he said.
The school board voted 7-2 to close the school at a meeting May 23, 2011, a move that will cut district costs by about $500,000. He noted that school districts across the state have closed other lightly attended schools in recent years.
So, the decision has been in the works for a while. But was the 2011-’13 budget the tipping point?
The Berlin district had a number of retirements that made this a good time to close Poy Sippi, said Eidahl and school board president Mark Finger. The 13 retirements allowed the district to transfer Poy Sippi teachers and merge the two schools without any layoffs.
Finger said the transfers and closing made more sense than filling the open jobs and then possibly having to fire those new teachers in a year or two if the Poy Sippi closing came then.
We’ll return to those retirements in a minute.
But let’s look at how the state budget affected the school district’s finances.
The Berlin district has a $14.9 million budget for the 2011-’12 school year. Of that, about $10.2 million is in the form of state aid, and $4.7 million is from local property taxes, Eidahl said.
The amount of state aid that the district received was cut by $943,000 in the 2011-’13 state budget. At the time of the school-closing decision, the board thought the aid cut could be as high as $1.1 million, Eidahl said.
The aid cut was offset, however, by other measures. The district switched from the WEA Trust insurance plan to a different carrier, saving $320,000. Union staff members paying toward their retirement -- one of the components in a separate measure advanced by Gov. Scott Walker and approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature -- cut district costs by $410,000. Both measures were adopted as part of a one year contract extension with the teachers, Eidahl said.
That covered about $730,000 of the aid cut, leaving the district with a shortfall of about $210,000.
"That had to be made up somehow," Eidahl said.
The retirement of the 13 people also presented the school board with a chance to reduce costs.
District officials say the number of retirements was unusually high. Some -- if not all -- were linked to the changes that curtailed collective bargaining for public employees … the same changes that allowed the district to require them to pay more for pensions and health care.
So, what does that mean for the claim in the ad?
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee says budget cuts advocated by Olsen led to the closing of a small town’s elementary school.
District officials said in interviews that Poy Sippi Elementary has been on life support for years, due to the low enrollment and cost of operating the building, but that the timing of the closing was due in part to a high number of retirements. Some of those were driven by the GOP-backed collective bargaining changes.
But that’s only one piece of the picture. Much of the district’s cut in direct state aid was offset by budgetary changes allowed by the "tools" Walker and the GOP advocated. But the school district still had a shortfall -- and told parents that the time had come for closing Poy Sippi because of the "historic budget cuts" advanced by Walker and supported by Olsen. What’s more, the wave of retirements prompted by the changes contributed to the timing.
We rate the claim Half True.
Progressive Change Campaign Committee/Democracy for America television ad
Interviews, Robert Eidahl, July 20, 29 2011
Interview, Mark Finger, July 20, 2011
Interview, Levana Layendecker, Communications Director for Democracy for America, July 27, 2011
Democracy for America web site
Letter from Berlin Area School District administrators to parents, May 24, 2011
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