Local leaders fret over looming school budget changes

By Andrew Haffner

Central Wisconsin education leaders are pleased that lawmakers have reversed Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed $127 million cut to local school funding, but they say Walker’s budget still will harm the state’s schools.
Members of the state’s Joint Finance Committee this week passed a measure that would increase the public schools budget by nearly $70 million in 2016-17 while relaxing both the cap on private school vouchers and teacher education requirements.
The package also would require public high school students to pass a civics test in order to graduate, allow the private hiring of teachers without bachelor’s degrees in the field and revamp the existing performance review system of public schools to fit a “star” system, with grades ranging from one to five.
The $127 million cut originally proposed by Walker was eliminated, which local leaders said is a step in the right direction. But provisions that remain in the budget spell trouble for public schools and kids, they said
“I have a concern about taking funding from public schools to fund private/parochial schools. That will deplete our budget further,” said Colleen Dickmann, Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools superintendent.
“I am also concerned that private/parochial schools are not held to identical standards (as public schools) though they receive public funds,” Dickmann said.
The larger issue not addressed by Walker’s budget is that it contains no provision to increase operational funding for schools while operational costs continue to go up.
In Wausau, Superintendent Kathleen Williams is worried about paying the bills with her operational budget essentially “frozen,” she said.
The district will receive an extra $4 million, approved by voters in an April referendum, but that money is to fund maintenance projects that were delayed for years as operational costs climbed. The voucher cap changes could exacerbate the problem by funneling more tax money away from public schools and to private schools.
“When you’re trying to operate a business the size of this district and you can’t meet the cost of living, that’s a challenge.” Williams said. “We’ve been looking at budget reconciliation plans dependent on the decisions the Legislature makes, and even though the ink’s not dry on this yet, we will reconcile our budget accordingly to maintain our obligations.”
Dickmann is in a similar situation. She said Wisconsin Rapids faces an operational shortfall estimated at $1 million, and Marshfield will face a $730,000 shortfall, said Pat Saucerman, Marshfield School District business director.
Teacher retirements and resignations combined with the district’s plans to decrease estimated benefit costs and reduce classes offered are likely to make up the deficit, Saucerman said.
Similar plans are being discussed to meet the shortfall in Wisconsin Rapids, Dickmann said.
“Preserving and enhancing the educational opportunities for our students is carefully considered in each decision we make,” Saucerman said.
But the larger issue the state should be addressing is the formula for school funding, he said.
“This budget doesn’t make school funding whole. ... It doesn’t speak to the issue of any new money or an increase in the (school funding) formula,” Saucerman said.
Voting on the plan was highly partisan and fell strictly on party lines. All Republicans on the committee voted in favor, while all Democrats were against.
Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, assistant minority leader of the state Assembly, said the Republican proposal will “sell out” Wisconsin school children.
“Public schools are suffering, and they are forced increasingly to depend on referendums to succeed,” she said. “This model, which takes more and more public tax dollars from public schools over time, will only drain their resources even further.”
Shankland also said that the proposed voucher program changes would harm schools that are already struggling. Central Wisconsin, she said, could be disproportionately affected by the restructuring of public education funding.
“Every public school in the state has been forced to make cuts over the last few years, but what we see now is that depletion of public school funds hits smaller, more rural school districts harder,” she said.