A $3.6 million annual cut in state funding to University of Wisconsin-Extension will reduce the number of agents and researchers who provide assistance to farmers, families and youths across the state. And that has county officials worried.
They voiced concerns Tuesday during a Wisconsin Counties Association question-and-answer session in Madison with UW-Extension dean Richard Klemme.
La Crosse County Administrator Steve O'Malley said Extension's proposed plan to absorb cuts to UW in the state budget violates the so-called "Wisconsin Idea." That fundamental tenet of UW’s mission statement calls for the boundaries of the university to extend to the boundaries of the state. The notion is so much a part of state culture that Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to delete the Wisconsin Idea from state law in his 2016-2016 budget bill unleashed such a furor that budget writers restored it.
"From La Crosse County's perspective, it looks like we could lose three or four agents," O'Malley told Klemme, according to Wisconsin Public Radio. "And that doesn't comport with your statement that we're going to have more agents and the boundaries of the state are going to be well served."
Klemme suggested the cuts, which are part of an Extension reorganization plan that will group rural counties into districts sharing agents, may not need to be that severe. “I don’t think the losses are going be quite what they appear to be," he said.
The cuts to Extension are part of the $250 million reduction in state funding to UW in Walker’s 2016-2017 budget.
UW-Extension is best known for its Cooperative division, which partners with state counties to provide educational programming to farmers, local businesses, families and youth. Cooperative Extension now maintains an office in every one of the state’s 72 counties.
Cathy Sandeen, chancellor of UW Colleges and Extension is reviewing a conceptual plan to eliminate up to 80 positions, nearly one in ten, in Cooperative Extension, WORT Community Radio reported. Announcements are expected next week on some parts of the plan, such as final county groupings, an Extension spokesperson said. The urban counties of Dane, Milwaukee, Waukesha and Brown will remain independent districts.
Klemme told the Capital Times he understands why county officials are upset.
“They really value the work we do and are concerned about losing something in this process, and there is going to be some loss,” he said.
Counties also help finance the system, investing $15 million a year to support educators in their counties, Klemme said. Some Extension educators also have partial appointments in other units of the university, he said. He does not anticipate pulling funding from any educators on campus, because of savings from vacant positions. Where and how people work may change, however, Klemme said.
The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the Wisconsin Association of Professional Nutrient Applicators, the Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association and the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association have all come out against the plan to cut researchers. They wrote in a joint letter to Sandeen that Extension needs to fill and retain researcher positions ahead of other positions.
Karen Gefvert, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, told WORT that her organization supports Extension’s plan to regionalize county services, but that it signed on to the letter to Sandeen urging her to prioritize funding for campus-based research specialists over county agents. “Our farmers rely on research specialists to be competitive and efficient and have the latest research and technology,” Gefvert says.
Extension services are just as vital in Dane County, where demand is strong in both rural and urban areas, said Carrie Edgar, department head for UW-Extension’s Dane County office in Madison.
In addition to agricultural services, the office provides consumer education on topics like family finances and gardening, as well as extensive youth programming at schools and community centers, she said.
“Over the last several years, we’ve been thinking a lot about how to meet the needs of everyone in such a diverse county,” Edgar said.
Extension’s work is at the heart of the Wisconsin Idea, she said.
“We feel ownership of that. We are the part of the university most engaged on the ground working with farmers and families to make connections to the university. We’re not giving up on that, but we’ve got to find new ways to do it,” Edgar said.