Portage School Board member takes home top honor from rural alliance

November 13, 2018

Steve Pate is quite familiar with the organization that honored him for his school board service in Portage.

He’s part of the reason it exists at all.

“He has a real passion for the job and the students he works for, and we’re an example of that,” said Kim Kaukl, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, which recently named Pate, the Portage School Board president, as its Rural School Board Member of the Year.

Approximately two years prior to the WiRSA’s official launch in 2012, Pate served on the board for Cooperative Education Service Agency 5 in Portage, which provides services and support to 35 school districts in South Central Wisconsin. It was then that past CESA 5 Director Don Stevens, Pate and others from CESAs across Wisconsin started brainstorming ways to get more support for rural school districts, Pate said.

“Other states had rural associations, but Wisconsin didn’t,” he said of WiRSA’s launch. “We just thought it’d be a good idea.”

It took two years of planning and the organization started small, but today it counts approximately 160 Wisconsin school districts as members, Kaukl estimated. WiRSA currently has about 215 total members, including CESA organizations, technical colleges, businesses and individuals.

“The launch was so important because there really wasn’t a voice for rural school districts in Madison (before WiRSA),” Kaukl said of legislative lobbying. “Today our membership continues to increase, and over the last number of years, our voices are being heard.

“Unfortunately, rural school districts often get forgotten. But when you a look at a map of Wisconsin, you’ll see that 70 percent of the state is rural.”

Portage isn’t quite as “rural” as other school districts in the state, Pate said, “but I always say we’re not urban.”

“On the legislative side of things, you’re always stronger when you put together a group,” he said.

Accomplishments for WiRSA include fighting for and receiving additional funding from the state’s Sparsity Aid program, said Kaukl, who credited Stevens, the previous leader of WiRSA, for helping to establish Sparsity Aid several years ago. WiRSA is currently fighting for more special education funding ahead of the state’s 2019-20 biennial budget and it wants to see Sparsity Aid bolstered further in order to serve the rural districts that don’t yet qualify for boosted aid due to high enrollment.

Pate is currently serving in his 32nd year on the Portage School Board. About three years ago, he helped to restore Portage High School’s Building Trades program following a five-year hiatus. In the summer, students enrolled in the program completed the third of five homes being built on School Road.

“I’m a strong advocate for technology education because I really believe the kids who go into that field need a quality education,” Pate said. “Anything we can do to help them is great. There are 7 million open trades jobs in U.S., and we need people to fill them. Technical schools do a good job at this, but I’ve always believed we need high schools and even middle schools to be part of that process, too.

“I’m very honored to receive this award. I’m only one of seven people who serve on the (Portage) school board, so I’d like to share it with them as well as our administration because we’ve done some great things in Portage.”

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