Rural Schools Task Force holds first public hearingSubmitted: 10/23/2013
Story By Lex Gray

RHINELANDER - Rural schools face different challenges than schools in suburbs and cities. State legislators say they want to understand what those challenges are, and how they might help.

Local state representative Rob Swearingen chairs the Rural Schools Task Force. Eleven other representatives make up the task force.

Their goal is to create legislation that will help rural schools. Today, the task force listened to superintendents from four local districts.

Their overwhelming message: the school funding formula needs to change. Most Northwoods districts get less state aid because they have high property values.

"It doesn't take into account the ability of our taxpayers to help with the funding of schools," said Kelli Jacobi, superintendent of the School District of Rhinelander. "As our state aid goes down, our taxpayers are expected to pay more, and our taxpayers can't afford to do that."

Swearingen says he hopes house speaker Robin Vos will listen to that. But the funding formula wasn't the purpose of the task force, and it won't be the focus.

"The focus of this group is to make sure the school districts are using the money they have more effectively, so that's part of the discussion. Clearly, the state doesn't have money to just throw at the districts," Swearingen said. "But if we can transfer some of this into categorical aid, something that specifically relates to these rural school problems, maybe we can address some of those financial issues."

Categorical aid could apply to costs like transportation. Three of the four superintendents who spoke today said that would be a big help.

Their districts are geographically large, so they spend huge amounts of money getting kids to and from school. Northland Pines spends $1.3 million every year. Rhinelander spends $1.5 million.

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MILWAUKEE - Wisconsin's utility regulator is planning to spend more money on energy projects in rural areas, including a plan to help underwrite the use of systems that convert cattle manure into electricity.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the systems known as manure digesters also help farms manage waste, which has become an increasingly controversial issue in Wisconsin as the size of dairy farms grows.

Wisconsin Public Service Commission officials say they're considering spending $10 million to $20 million on manure digester technology.

The commission also voted Thursday to authorize at least $7.7 million in funding for rebates for solar, wind and geothermal projects around the state that would keep a rebate program in place for energy consumers.

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RHINELANDER - When people think first responders, cops, firefighters and EMTs usually come to mind. 

But the true first responder is often the person they'll never meet.

It's Nicole Lea's job to be at her best when you're at your worst.

"There's no other reason your calling us to say, 'Hey, hope you're having a great day.' It is their worst day when they're calling us," said Lea.

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RHINELANDER - Thanks to funds from one company, Wild Instincts in Rhinelander will get to expand its facility. The non-profit got a $4,400 Green Gift from Cellcom.

Wild Instincts was one of 22 organizations to get a 2016 Cellcom Green Gift. Cellcom gave almost $38,000 in funds out this year.

Wild Instincts has helped rehabilitate wildlife across the state since 2011. Director Mark Naniot explained that with a growing need to help animals comes a growing need for space.

The Green Gift program uses funds from Cellcom's cell phone recycling program to fund green non-profit initiatives.

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RHINELANDER - The Northwoods Land Trust helps protect about 12,000 acres of natural lands in six northern Wisconsin counties.

That amount of conservation is a big job. But the organization employs just one full-time and two part-time staff members.

The Land Trust relies on the help of about 40 volunteers to accomplish its mission, volunteers like Nancy Richmond.

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MILWAUKEE - A Milwaukee police officer who sparked several nights of protest after fatally shooting a black man in August has been charged with five counts of sexual misconduct in a separate case stemming from an alleged attack two days after the shooting.

The criminal complaint alleges Dominique Heaggan-Brown took the victim to a bar late on the night of Aug. 14 where they drank and watched TV as coverage of the protests aired. The victim told police he had trouble remembering everything that happened after they left the bar but that he felt drugged. He said he woke up to find Heaggan-Brown assaulting him.

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MADISON - Wisconsin may be the dairy state, but we've seen a decline in the number of dairy farms.

A report from the federal Agriculture Department shows that Wisconsin lost almost 400 dairy farms in the last year.

About 94-thousand dairy herds were active in the state as of October 1st.

Wisconsin Dairy Business Association President Gordon Speirs says the number of lost farms this year is low compared to previous years.

Annual losses reached as high as 1-thousand in some years.

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MADISON - About 30 percent of all absentee ballots cast in Wisconsin so far come from the state's most heavily Democratic counties.

The latest data posted on the Wisconsin Elections Commission website shows 55,000 ballots cast in Milwaukee and Dane counties.

21,700 have come in from three conservative counties near Milwaukee.

Over 183,000 were cast statewide.

Republican candidates typically must do well in those Milwaukee suburban counties to counter the Democratic votes in Milwaukee and Madison.

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