Summer and Sparsity

Summer is here. For many young people, it is an opportunity to relax, volunteer or find a summer job.  Although school is out, there will be a lot of learning going on.  In addition to acquiring new skills, new employees often have to learn a whole new set of terms, words that have a special meaning within that profession.

When I started working in the shipping industry in Cleveland after college, I had no idea that a “gantry” was a large crane, that a “manifest” was a list of all the cargo being carried by a ship or that “tare” refers to the weight of the shipping container.  When I was elected to the legislature I had to learn another set of terms, many of which were familiar words, but with specialized meaning in terms of our state budget.

By the time anyone reads this, the legislature will have voted on the 2019-21 state budget. Governor Evers introduced his proposal in late February.  After a few months of deliberation and some debate, the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) produced a version that the Republican majority will likely support.  I’m disappointed that they stripped some of the Governor’s key priorities out of the budget.  I’ve written previously about their decision to reject Medicaid expansion.  Today I would like to talk about the changes they made to his proposals for education funding, specifically as it relates to sparsity aid. 

Sparsity aid was one of those terms that I had to learn about when I took office. This program was created during the 2007-09 legislative session to help rural school districts with a small number of students who are spread out over a large geographic area.  For many districts in Northern Wisconsin, sparsity aid is critical to balancing their books and ensuring that they are providing a quality education for our children. Under current law, school districts with less than 746 students and less than 10 pupils per square mile get a sparsity aid payment of $400 per student.  While this helps, the challenges facing these rural districts continue to grow and an increase in sparsity aid has been one of their main priorities for many years.

The Governor proposed an additional level of aid payments of $100 per students for districts with more than 745 students but less than 10 students per square mile. This would have helped the Chequamegon School District, which absorbed students from a recently closed private parochial school. The influx of students pushed them above the 745 student threshold in current law and threatens their continued eligibility for sparsity aid.

Sadly, the Republican Majority rejected Governor Evers proposal.  Chequamegon School District as well as 82 other districts statewide won’t get the help they need.  Under the budget that the JFC passed, 10 school districts in the area – Ashland, Barron Area, Chequamegon, Chetek – Weyerhauser, Cumberland, Hayward Community, Maple, Phillips, Rice Lake Area, Spooner Area - will receive almost $1.5 million less than under the Governor’s plan.  For this and many other reasons I’ll be voting no on the budget.