Securing a Future for Rural Schools
by Jody Andres AIA LEED AP
Teacher shortages, supply chain issues, and mental health trials are just a few of the challenges that nearly every school district faces today.
Furthermore, rural Wisconsin school districts face unique obstacles that aren’t pervasive in suburban and urban environments.
Many rural school administrators and boards find themselves in a dilemma.
After years of declining enrollment, they find it necessary to strengthen their staff and upgrade facilities to remain viable and attract families contemplating moving into their districts. However, dwindling enrollments often result in reduced funding.
While there’s some indication of a post-pandemic migration to rural areas, most rural districts have yet to see evidence of an enrollment increase. What’s a district administrator or board to do?
While there's some indication of a post-pandemic migration to rural areas, most rural districts have yet to see evidence of an enrollment increase. What's a district administrator or board to do?
Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction, Inc., K-12 Market Leader
The following strategies and success stories can help districts eliminate or mitigate these challenges.
Creative Financial Solutions
Without necessary funds, schools are clearly handcuffed. So, districts must first look at their financial data. It’s time to ask difficult questions and seek out-of-the-ordinary solutions.
What grants can we obtain? What expenses can we reduce? Where do we have redundancies?
It’s critical to examine ways to reduce ongoing operational costs as funding declines. Seek out opportunities to minimize the duplication of services, especially on the support side.
At Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction, we’ve seen many districts consolidate facilities to shrink the cost of maintenance, food service, administration, and more. For example, some communities use one building for K-12 education.
Districts must also consider how they generate and capture their own power. On-site, solar photovoltaic and battery energy storage systems are a worthy consideration to save money.
When a school generates more power than required, battery systems are charged from surplus solar production. This stored power can later be used overnight, during high-cost periods, or at other times.
Meanwhile, the batteries can be charged from the electrical grid in low-cost, non-peak hours. Solar and battery energy storage technologies are highly feasible options for school districts.
Integrating battery systems with solar photovoltaic adds significant flexibility to a building’s energy management system. By adding microgrids, battery storage can connect multiple buildings and be used for emergency power during electrical grid outages on the electrical grid.
Overall costs of solar installations dropped significantly in recent years, and the market continues to expand. The fundamental economic advantage of on-site solar photovoltaic is a lower cost of power. This financial advantage includes ongoing lower maintenance and operational costs, along with a competitive guaranteed cost rate for future electricity.
Third-party investors have enthusiastically participated in various recent solar projects for school districts, while Wisconsin school solar projects have benefitted from grant programs like:
- The Wisconsin Focus on Energy Program.
- The Energy Innovation Grant Program, using Department of Energy funds administered by the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin.
- The Wisconsin Solar on Schools Program, managed by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association with the support of the Couillard Solar Foundation.
The benefits aren’t all financial. Rural school districts are realizing the interactive educational platform and STEM benefits that solar photovoltaic and battery systems provide.
In numerous communities, school districts are the first organization to utilize significant solar power. This raises the awareness of businesses, nonprofits, and government entities.
With renewable energy jobs rapidly rising in many parts of the United States, exposing students to these emerging systems expands their minds to new concepts and gives them an advantage in their career considerations–if the curriculum provides for it.
Find Your Partners
Districts should focus on their area’s assets and offer programs that can be employed, supported, and encouraged by local industries. These businesses have likely never experienced the staffing challenges they currently face.
When listened to and partnered with, local industries often support programs by donating materials, time, machinery, and employment. They are often eager to engage with students and families–their potential employees.
Additionally, school districts must be conscious of the future and aware of the demographics impacting their region. If civic and business leaders focus on attracting a specific category of industry, it’s important to align the school curriculum to match the human resource needs of that industry.
Seek opportunities to partner with incoming businesses and consistently communicate with the area business community to ensure awareness of specific needs.
Endear Yourself to the Community
Schools are often the backbone of a community, bringing people together and providing prospects for culture, entertainment, and lifelong learning. Sports and the arts regularly provide a solid point of connection, offering social interaction and a shared bond among various demographics.
Opening campuses for civic uses–particularly in areas that may not have suitable commercial facilities–connects the school to residents and expands possibilities for interaction. Computer labs, technical education spaces, gymnasiums, theaters, libraries, athletic fields, and cafeterias are all remarkable resources for an entire community.
These facilities are already in place. Why not leverage them to serve the community? Non-educational uses of facilities include athletic competitions, summer camps, fundraisers, trade shows, and community theater. If possible, provide a separate, secure entrance for after-hours use so the community can benefit without opening the entire school to the public.
School libraries can be a source of hope for the community by allowing access to technology, meeting space, and GED or career training courses. Adult education classes like English as a second language, and technology for senior citizens can provide value for disadvantaged or underserved members of the community.
Partnering with universities and technical colleges for site-based learning opportunities can expand the interests and career paths of area residents. In addition to providing a great service, these offerings can positively impact the district’s brand and reputation.
Listen for Needs, Address Them
There is an abundance of needs school districts in rural communities can seek to address. Some districts have provided:
1. Family services, including daycare and after-school programs. In several instances, this has not only proven to be helpful, but altered a community’s potential decline.
2. Access to reliable information technology and broadband, which is often lacking outside of urban and suburban areas. Can your district offer secure access to high-speed internet?
3. Updated career and technical education facilities to connect with local businesses and prepare students for immediate positions.
4. Co-op programs in conjunction with neighboring school districts. Grants are often more available when funders see partnerships and cooperation.
Examples to Follow
When Wisconsin’s Clintonville Public School District was contemplating a referendum to advance their career and technology education spaces, the district held a morning meeting with local industry leaders. They discussed how to work together, pool resources, and collaboratively offer local residents enhanced education and training. This resulted in informed decisions and offerings that would not have existed if not for the open exchange of ideas.
Clintonville proceeded to work with local manufacturers and the technical school to develop welding and metal fabrication facilities to be used by the district, the local technical college, and the community. In addition, they expanded their community fitness facilities and created new childcare facilities.
From its high in 2015, enrollment at Clintonville dropped by 22% five years later. However, by adapting to the changing community environment, the district has now increased enrollment over the past two years.
The Wittenberg-Birnamwood School District expanded their agricultural program in cooperation with the local farming community, which directly impacted an increase in enrollment in the 2022-23 school year. Many school districts in farming communities are expanding their agricultural programs by including courses like hydroponics, aquaponics, and live animal production.
Darlington, which serves about 800 students in rural southwest Wisconsin, provides another example in one of Wisconsin’s most prolific agricultural areas. The business community concentrates on food production-related trades, while there is a focus on nature-based tourism, recreation, and learning opportunities.
Being conscious of these unique regional resources, the school district emphasizes preparing students for jobs in these niches. The educational facilities are updated to accommodate these specific tracks and provide a stream of prepared students who will have the skills to become innovative contributors to the area workforce.
Northland Pines School District in Vilas County recently held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the photovoltaic system and battery power support installed at St. Germain Elementary School. The district had previously installed 430 kW-dc of solar at Northland Pines High School/Middle School, Land O’Lakes Elementary School, and Eagle River Elementary School.
Due to the previous solar projects’ productive outcomes, such as financial savings and renewable energy education, the district added a solar system to their only school lacking solar. The previous solar projects reaped benefits including financial savings while also offering students on-site platforms for renewable energy education.
The School District of Shiocton saw a steady reduction in enrollment from 2013 to 2019. However, since 2020, they have seen a steady increase in the number of students. One of the reasons for the turnaround was the successful implementation of childcare services for their staff and community. A recent study we completed recommended an increase in childcare facilities to address a substantial waiting list for this program.
Reflect and Apply
If we watch what’s occurring on a global, national, state, and regional level that can be adapted in our own communities, we can make a positive impact. Investigating and implementing creative solutions can be the difference between a failing and a thriving community. Reflect on the strategies and examples provided here and determine which ones make sense for your district. They can make a difference–for today and tomorrow.
Jody Andres, AIA LEED AP, is a senior project architect and the K-12 market leader at Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction, Inc. Andres is a LEED AP, past president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Wisconsin and the former regional representative for the North Central States to the AIA Strategic Council. He has worked with more than 60 school districts on PreK-12 educational facilities, providing needs assessment, planning, programming, and design services. Jody can be reached at email@example.com.