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School enrollments will keep plummeting

Blame it on the millennials. The declining enrollments in Wisconsin school districts that are causing all of the funding messes are going to accelerate. If you think the budgets of districts like Kettle Moraine, New Berlin and West Bend are bad now, wait five years. Unless these districts finally get serous about downsizing, their budget woes will only get worse. A lot worse.

As mentioned, you can blame it on the millennials and their generational decision to go on strike against having babies. According to a report issued last week by the Centers For Disease Control, the number of live births in the U.S. dropped last year to a 32-year low. It’s not an aberration. The birth rate has declined each year for the last 11 years. The refusal of the current generation of child-bearing age to bear children is all the more striking because the millennials are actually a very large group. Born largely to the massive baby boom generation, the millennials could have exploded the kid population. Instead, they are decimating it.

Already, school districts are trying to deal with the enrollment declines that have played havoc on their budgets. But, thanks to incredibly stupid decisions by voters in referendums, they are going about it in the worst way possible. They are actually borrowing huge sums of money that will have to be paid back when enrollments are even lower than now. Worse, they are putting whopping chunks of the money into the very facilities that they ought to be closing or selling because they will be unneeded. In Wisconsin, most school funding comes from the state and is based on enrollment and an arcane aid formula. As enrollments keep going down, aid will also decrease. There will be less money in the future than there is now. Instead of sensibly downsizing staff and facilities, some districts are going on building binges (Wauwatosa) while others are refusing to address administrative bloat and ludicrous benefit packages (Menomonee Falls, West Bend, and well, everybody else). This means the budget imbalances will be even worse in the future.

Imagine taking out a big personal loan when your family income is $150,000 and paying it back when you’re only making $80,000. That’s what the schools are doing. It’s the reverse of what most of us do with our personal lives. Responsible people save money now so they can use it when they retire. School budgets in Wisconsin are like people who borrow fortunes in their 50s and intend to pay it back in their 70s.

The birth rate decline occurs despite two growing groups that have higher birth rates than the population as a whole: immigrants (legal and illegal) and Muslims. But the growth in the populations of these groups is not offsetting the historic plunge in the birth rate of everybody else. Millennials have not only delayed marriage. They are avoiding it. Those who have kids often stop at one. Three is a real rarity. The economic boom has created lots of jobs for both mothers and fathers and this generation is averse to stay-at-home parents (or any kind of parents). The end result will be even emptier schools in five years and emptier still in ten.

Kettle Moraine is a case in point. Voters approved a referendum only a few years ago but learned their lesson and shot down another one this year. The district has responded with a series of “cuts” that in some cases are misguided. Instead of gutting the administration, they are eliminating specific courses. They are refusing to address absurd employee benefits.

But KM’s biggest problem is the same one affecting lots of other districts around here. They have too many buildings. Kettle Moraine is a regional district with elementary schools in four different municipalities. Not surprisingly, none of these small communities wants to give up “their” school. So, the district operates four halfempty K-5 schools. They’ll be even emptier in 2024. The solution is easy; doing is hard (evidently).

Downsizing a school district shouldn’t be difficult. You just reduce administrators, teachers and buildings in the same proportion as your enrollment declines. The problems are: The administrators don’t want to downsize themselves, the teachers are overly specialized and parents go ballistic when somebody proposes to close their kids’ school. One local district even decided to keep an elementary school open for one more year even though its enrollment is down to 50 (for the entire school!).

Districts got overbuilt when my generation’s parents were spitting out kids like rabbits (thus, the baby “boom”). Then my huge generation and the Gen Xers decided to sprawl out to the suburbs, creating need for more buildings in the Brookfields, Mequons and Burlingtons of the world. Along came the millennials and all of their idiosyncrasies, including an evident dislike of large families (or any families). What we have are massively overbuilt school systems with ridiculously bloated staffs of specialists, counselors, directors of this, that and the other thing, and in-house custodians, groundskeepers and nurses.

The only way out of this mess is to: a.) force the millennials to have kids (you can’t do that); b.) hope the incoming Generation Z kids revert back to wanting kids (unlikely); or c.) downsizing. The worst option of all is to borrow globs of money, increase your spending and put up even more buildings. That disastrous option is exactly the one most Wisconsin districts are taking.

(Mark Belling is the host of a daily WISN radio talk show.)

Millennials have not only delayed marriage.They are avoiding it. Those who have kids often stop at one.Three is a real rarity.



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