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Local school leaders upbeat to Walker funding plan

Governor’s expected $649M boost for public schools would bring needed funds to districts

posted Feb. 7, 2017 12:00 a.m. | updated Feb. 7, 2017 12:00 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Chris Vetter. bio | email

Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to raise state aid by $200 per pupil for the next two years would mean an additional $2.2 million annually for the Eau Claire school district, according to Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck.

With about 11,000 students in the district, a per pupil increase would have a significant impact on the budget, she said.

“That would be great if it goes through,” Hardebeck said. “It would really help. Before the (November) referendum, we were running a $2.2 million deficit.”

Hardebeck said that all districts are struggling with the cost of doing business — paying wages, improving technology and making upgrades to buildings — and state aid hasn’t kept pace with those increased costs.

The additional $2.2 million would help the district pay for additional teachers, she said.

“We keep having challenges meeting our (goals on small) class sizes,” she said. “Your cost for staff is your major costs — 75 to 80 percent in some areas. That additional funding would go to those things.”

The plan would mean an additional $1.02 million for the Chippewa Falls school district, which has about 5,100 students.

Menomonie Superintendent Joe Zydowsky agreed the money would be a huge help. With about 3,300 students in the district, it would mean an additional $660,000 each of the next two years.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Zydowsky said. “Certainly, public schools have had a rough road in recent (state) budgets.”

Zydowsky has been a superintendent 11 years, between his time in Cadott and now in Menomonie; this is only the second time he’s seen an increase above the inflation rate.

“My big takeaway is we’ll have a chance to balance our budget without having to make cuts,” Zydowsky said. “If the governor’s proposal is approved, it will give us the revenue to keep up with inflation.”

Altoona Superintendent Connie Biedron shared optimism about what the extra money would mean for her district.

“I think it’s very exciting,” Biedron said. “I think it’s a positive thing, and I hope it goes all the way. It’s a welcome addition; it’s an increase we haven’t seen in the recent past.”

Elk Mound Superintendent Eric Wright said his 1,200-student district would see about a $240,000 increase.

“I’m very pleased the governor understands educating our youth is a priority,” Wright said.

Wright said his district has benefited in recent years because of strong open-enrollment numbers into the system; without those additional students, the district might be strapped for cash. Wright is enthused with the level of support the proposal offers.

“There seems to be a switch to a support for public education, maybe because of the high volume of referendums around the state,” he said.

Walker, who has cut K-12 funding by about $1 billion since taking office in 2011, has said he hopes the additional money would take the pressure off school district that have been increasingly turning to referendums for higher property taxes to pay for operations.

Twice as many schools asked voters to approve property tax increases the past three years compared with between 2011 and 2013. In the past three years, 140 school referendums have been approved to exceed the revenue limit, based on data from Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. That includes 58 in 2016.

Walker’s plan calls for an increase of $649 million in the two-year budget for public schools, including the $509 million for the $200 per pupil increase in 2017-18 and $204 per pupil in 2018-19 school year. This is in addition to a plan announced last week to increase funding by $400 per pupil for smaller rural districts.

The remainder of the increase includes $5.6 million for low performing schools in Milwaukee, $2.8 million for Milwaukee’s summer school program, $2.5 million for mental health services, $7.6 million to help districts connect disabled students with jobs, $3 million for social workers and $1 million for mental health screening. Biedron said those dollars are critical.

“We’ve been vocal about the need for mental health for our students,” Biedron said.

The money doesn’t go through the state’s general aid formula. Total spending on education is about $11.5 billion.

If the Legislature were to approve Walker’s plan, which he will announce Wednesday during an address to the Legislature when he releases his 2017-19 state budget proposal, it would mean the state would pay for 64.6 percent of the cost of K-12 schools — the highest percentage since 2009.

While Walker hasn’t stated yet how the school spending will be paid for, early budget estimates show the state is anticipating a surplus through 2019.

Contact: 715-723-0303, chris.vetter@ecpc.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.