By Senator Howard Marklein
February 16, 2018
Relief for Thrifty School Districts
What are "low revenue" school districts and how are we helping them?
It has been a great week for small, rural schools! My colleagues and I on the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) advanced my Sparsity Aid & Low Revenue School Districts bill. Then, it was passed nearly unanimously by the State Assembly. I am optimistic that the Senate will pass the bill within days.
I have written a lot about Sparsity Aid and the importance of this funding mechanism for smaller, rural schools. Sparsity Aid is a per pupil, categorical aid that is provided to small schools with fewer than 745 students. The district must also be sparsely populated, which means there are fewer than 10 pupils per square mile of the school district. There are 22 school districts, out of 33, in the 17th Senate District that qualify for Sparsity Aid.
During the last state budget, we maintained funding for Sparsity Aid, but my best efforts to get an increase for the Sparsity Aid Program were unsuccessful. The new legislation I have been working on will increase this aid for the 2018-19 school year. We will be sending $100 more per pupil to every school that qualifies. The total estimate is $6 million. Over $1 million of these dollars will be sent to schools in the 17th Senate District!
In addition to Sparsity Aid, this bill also provides an opportunity for “low revenue” school districts to increase their revenue limits, addressing an issue that goes back to 1993. Approximately 25 years ago, when the current school funding formula was designed, school districts were locked into differing per pupil rates – or the amount of revenue they can use to educate each student.
At the time, many frugal school districts that weren’t spending as much as other districts, were locked into a low revenue cap number. School districts that were spending much more were locked in at higher levels. This created a gap in available resources between school districts. While it wasn’t a major issue initially, over time, higher spending districts gained a built-in advantage to spend more for teacher salaries, additional course offerings, etc.
A lot has changed in 25 years, except for our school funding options for these schools. My bill raises the current revenue cap from $9,100 to $9,400 per student for the 2018-19 school year. It will also increase the cap by $100 each year up to $9,800 in 2022-23. While the bill raises the cap, giving added flexibility to school districts, school boards do not have to levy up to their cap.
The decision to take advantage of this part of the bill is completely up to local School Board members to decide whether they want to increase the revenue limits, which could also increase local property taxes.
However, the legislature planned for a revenue limit increase in the state budget. Additional money was put into a property tax credit which will ensure the average property tax on a median value home statewide will remain below 2010 levels, even if school districts increase their levy under this proposal.
It is important to note that these school districts have been operating under a state-imposed disadvantage for a long time and their communities know it. In the 17th Senate District, we have five school districts that will qualify and may seek to increase their spending limits. Again, it will be up to the local School Board members to determine if they want to increase their school district levy.
The bill protects taxpayers who have already said “no” to an operating referendum in the last three years. If a school district has attempted a referendum during the last three years, but has not been successful, they will not be able to increase their levy. However, I offered an amendment for unique situations like Darlington where a successful referendum followed an unsuccessful referendum. The voters have already spoken.
I am proud of this bill and our efforts to increase spending for our rural schools. I also appreciate the input and support provided by many school leaders throughout the process. Several of our school superintendents joined me to testify for the bill and others have shared their strong support with the Governor and legislature. This legislation is a win-win for the 17th Senate District and students across the state.
For more information and to connect with me, visit my website http://legis.wisconsin.gov/senate/17/marklein and subscribe to my weekly E-Update by sending an email to Sen.Marklein@legis.wisconsin.gov. Do not hesitate to call 800-978-8008 if you have input, ideas or need assistance with any state-related matters.