By Bethany Blankley for the Center Square

A Christian community group leader sold his farm, and rather than go on a missions trip overseas, decided to invest some of the proceeds toward creating a place for children to grow and flourish in the small village of Mattoon, located about 75 miles northwest of Green Bay.

The Unified School District of Antigo doesn’t want that to happen, according to a pending lawsuit in Shawano County Circuit Court.

In the highly impoverished Antigo district, two out of every three students have failing English or Math scores that are well below state and national averages.

Their plight “is symbolic of rural education in Wisconsin (and the Midwest) which lags far behind the suburbs and, in Wisconsin, performs worse academically than urban schools,” CJ Szafir, executive vice president at Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), told The Center Square.

WILL filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of Shepherd’s Watch, the local Christian community group run by Wade Reimer. Reimer attempted to purchase the vacant Mattoon Elementary school building to use it as a community center and eventually a Christian school.

A Shawano County judge will hear WILL’s argument Friday and either decide then, or by the end of August.

“Children in Mattoon deserve a high quality, local school and right now there is nothing,” Szafir said. “Yet the Antigo School District would rather have an empty school building sit empty than sell it to a Christian community group with the hopes of turning it into a private school. We’re asking the judge to allow our client to intervene into the case so their story could be heard.”

To date, the district has closed seven rural schools. All students attending public school must travel to the city of Antigo, some commuting 90 minutes round trip.

It, like other districts, argues the schools are “too expensive to run,” but it won’t sell a vacant building, but it won’t sell it to anyone who wants to open a private school, according to the lawsuit.

“The Antigo School District says they own the building and refuses to sell it unless there is a promise made to not use it for a school,” Anthony LoCoco, deputy counsel on the case, told WSAU radio. “They don’t want the competition of a private school because some children from Mattoon would go to a local elementary school and they would lose funds.”

Unified School District of Antigo Superintendent Dr. Julie Sprague told The Center Square she was unable to comment due to the pending litigation.

Last fall, Antigo School District business manager Tim Prunty told the Antigo Daily Journal that opening a private school would make public schools like Antigo receive less federal aid, WJFW News 12 reported.

Currently, the state spends about $11,000 per student. Public schools still receive funding per pupil, just less per pupil for students who attend private or charter schools.

LoCoco says the vacant Mattoon Elementary building is costing taxpayers up to $40,000 a year to maintain.

The trend of public school districts refusing to sell land occurs statewide, WILL argues. Rather than sell to private or charter schools, school districts choose to leave buildings vacant, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars and reducing educational options for the most disadvantaged students, the group says.

About 40 percent of students in rural or small town Wisconsin school districts are at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

According to state Department of Public Instruction data, 71 schools in rural areas of Wisconsin have been closed since 2011. More than half (40) were elementary schools. Antigo closed three rural schools last month and continues to report financial difficulties after voters rejected tax increases in 2011, 2012 and 2016.

“Too many students in rural Wisconsin simply do not have access to a nearby, high-quality K-12 education,” Szafir and Cori Petersen of WILL wrote in an op-ed published by RealClearEducation.com. “Tragically, they are being set up to become tomorrow’s forgotten workers, the next casualties of globalization and technology. Through school choice, Shepherd’s Watch is offering Mattoon and the surrounding area a unique opportunity and one that could make a lasting impression, if only given the chance.”

Ultimately, a judge will determine who owns the building, and subsequently what educational options rural Wisconsinite families may have.

Source: Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

Bethany Blankley is a contributor to The Center Square.