LAONA - Northern Wisconsin rural schools used to be able to survive on money from the state and from property taxes. In many places, they can't anymore.
"We just don't have any places to cut anymore and continue to even have a school," says Laona school superintendent Laurie Asher.
Districts like Laona, Wabeno, Florence, and White Lake have faced or are facing the very real possibility of closing without support from successful referendums.
Asher is in her third year as Laona's superintendent. By the way, she's the elementary principal, too. Stretching staff thin has become common at small, rural public schools.
"We have a staff member who's our librarian, she's our technology integration specialist, she does some intervention in math and reading, and she teaches Spanish," Asher says as an example.
Laona says it no longer has any places to cut while keeping its school open.
In April, the district will ask taxpayers for $559,000 per year for four years through a referendum. Money from two referendums in Laona will expire in the next two years. The vote will be whether to keep up that level of funding with property taxes staying the same, or to let funding slide and let taxes fall.
If the referendum fails, dissolving the district or consolidating with another district are very real possibilities. That could have impacts on more than just education in Laona.
"We are part of the community. I'm sure everybody has heard this, but when a community loses its school, it really impacts businesses. You lose your community," Asher says.
Laona is far from the only area community in that tricky situation. Florence and Wabeno recently passed referendums under threats of school closure. White Lake will try for a third time to pass one, with the survival of the school in question.
Living off of referendums is not the way it used to be, even a few years ago.
"It is a new world in education," Asher says. "Going to referendum is now becoming â€" almost every district has to do it. It's starting to become the norm."
The school in Laona, with plenty of teaching needs and barely enough staff to go around, is just the latest example of that new norm.