Extension cuts hitting home

Jan Shepel
Now Media Group


Cuts to the University of Wisconsin-Extension programs are hitting home as county partners and county agents, along with the people they serve, begin getting a look at the pending changes.

In an interview Jan. 21, Rick Klemme, Dean and Director of Cooperative Extension, told Wisconsin State Farmerthat there have been two webinars with the Wisconsin Counties Association because county governments are partners in the program.

In addition, Extension staff held an online 'hangout' for colleagues and others who wanted to know more about how the state budget cuts are going to impact the county programs. There were 135 'views' on that 'hangout' and Klemme noted that each of those views could represent one or 30 people sitting in on the session.

'Our colleagues really want to know more about the timeline and staffing patterns. People are uncertain about the future of UW-Extension.'

He said some questions from high-performing, long-term county employees surprised him as they asked about when they should be looking for new jobs. 'We are telling them to hang in there until the late spring and we'll have a better idea of who we will need, where they will work and how to put the pieces in place,' he said.

'There has been a lot of angst from county agents,' he said, adding that 'we need to be better about communication.'

Cuts to UW-Extension in the last state budget, which covers two years, total $3.6 million out of a budget of $40 million. 'That means we have $36.4 million and we need to determine how to best spend it.' Fortunately, the side of the budget ledger that comes from federal funding has remained level, he adds.

The Cooperative Extension service has 80 funding partners and the vast majority of them work with Extension on annual contracts.

There are 'a lot of moving parts' to the Extension budget, including state specialists on campus and Klemme said those will change 'but won't involve the same shakeup as at the county levels.'

Klemme said Extension is not unlike the family dairy farm where the barn has been added onto several times and lean-tos have been tacked on to address a certain need. 'Now, using that analogy, it's time to build a parlor and change things.'

The UW's Provost and Vice Chancellor of Extension Aaron Brower said last week that though there will be significant changes to Extension, its niche of working directly throughout the state 'will not be compromised.'

In the short run, the Extension service has been able to deal with the cuts because there are enough job vacancies in the system to weather the cuts, but those have come through attrition. 'The math works for us at this time because we have enough vacancies. But those are not strategic or sustainable decisions,' Klemme said.

The process to determine the future structure of Extension began in May and June 2015. 'But we've had these conversations on and off for six or seven years. We knew cuts would come eventually.'

Other neighboring states have made radical changes to their Extension services but Klemme said Wisconsin hasn't wanted to do that in the same way they did, and likely won't do it that way now.

One of the things that will change is that county Extension offices will no longer have a 'department head.' An analysis found that those who served as county department heads spent about 30 percent of their time on that administrative work.

The new idea is to have geographic areas, encompassing three to five counties, with staff to cover that 'department head' administrative work for multiple counties.

There are likely to be 23 or so of these geographic areas to serve the county offices.

The questions that came pouring out last week at the online session are 'all about uncertainty,' Klemme added. 'Extension staff want to know about what input they are going to have in the process, if they should retire, what the county wants.'

'We are trying to be very clear about what the positions will be and where they will be, how to focus programming and how to address the needs and issues that are common to all. We will know more by April.

'Most of the counties would like nothing more than to have things stay the way they are,' he said, adding that it's unlikely that's going to happen. 'We've built significant political capital out-state.'

Over the next six to 18 months Extension 'will grow through these transitions.'

Klemme said there are 10 to 15 different teams that are working through the proposed changes. 'It is a highly structured process.' They are looking at changes to the local model and how to realign administrative staff.

'We may to the increase technical staff.'

Klemme has noted that the way Wisconsin Extension grew is different from most other states because the state's agriculture is different from other states. Wisconsin has a huge dairy industry but it also has ginseng and cranberries and vegetable crops and a host of other agricultural enterprises in between.

The service, he noted, leverages $35 to $40 million in the value of its volunteer hours and 'that's hugely important to us.'