Proposed state budget cuts could mean cutting teachers and programs for local school districts; total budget impacts approaching $1 million

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX  —  One school district administrator in the area is calling the governor’s proposed education budget for 2015-2017 “a double whammy.”

Not only would the School Districts of Colfax, Elk Mound, Boyceville and Glenwood City lose $150 per student in state aid, but they would also lose revenue from a freeze in the revenue limit if the governor’s proposed budget is approved.

Between the $150 loss per student and the freeze in the revenue limit, area school districts would have to figure out how to make up for a total loss of somewhere around $200,000.

 This is on top of the more than half a million dollars that the school districts lost several years ago.

Under the governor’s proposed budget, Colfax would lose $123,900.

Elk Mound would lose $161,950.

Boyceville would lose $116, 550.

Glenwood City would lose $113,000.

But those amounts are only for the loss of $150 per student in categorical aid.

In addition, the school districts would lose more revenue from a freeze in the state-imposed revenue limit.

The combined total for Colfax and Elk Mound would be a loss of $200,000 for each district.

The combined total for Boyceville would be a loss of $174,825, and for Glenwood City, a loss of $250,000.

These amounts are on top of the losses from the implementation of Act 10 in 2011-2012.

For Colfax, that loss amounted to $439,296.

For Elk Mound, it was $458,480.

For Boyceville, the loss was $381,518.

For Glenwood City, the Act 10 loss was $383,463.

The average loss in revenue for the four school districts between 2011-12 and the revenue lost from this year’s proposed budget is $650,000.

“We are at a point in time when we are expected to provide a well above average to high level of education with below average funding,” said Bill Yingst, district administrator in Colfax.

“It is not possible to keep offering a comprehensive school program if money is not distributed to keep up with increased expenses,” said Tim Johnson, Glenwood City district administrator.

“We don’t have programs left to cut. Boyceville made deep cuts several years ago, and we continue to manage our staff needs carefully. To offer educational opportunities for children that are meaningful and to meet the needs of today’s learner, it costs money,” said Kevin Sipple, Boyceville district administrator.

“One example — think about the cost K-12 schools have in technology today, versus five, ten, 20 years ago. If we take away opportunities for our students and staff to use evolving technologies, how will our students compete after high school in colleges and in the workforce?” he said.

“This budget will take us back to where we were about ten years ago,” said Dr. Ron Walsh, Elk Mound  district administrator.

“Maintaining a high quality school system works if we are grounded in the values from the past (for the good of all students). Operating a school system with a budget numbers from the past, however, threatens the future of our children and the quality of their lives,” he said.

Tools

Act 10 required public employees to pay more out of their salaries for retirement benefits and health insurance. Take-home pay for public employees was reduced by hundreds of dollars per month. Governor Scott Walker called reducing take-home pay “tools” for school districts to make up for the loss in revenue.

In the absence of collective bargaining, school districts also could make changes to health insurance.

School district administrators point out that the “tools” provided a limited ability to make up for the loss in revenue.

“We did use the ‘Governor’s Tools’ to get us back closer to zero. It needs to be made clear that once the money from the tools is used to try and balance a budget, you don’t have that money to make up for inflationary costs,” said Sipple, the Boyceville district administrator.

“I think a number that does not get talked about enough is the inflationary costs school districts need to absorb each year,” he said.

“Our expenses go up each year roughly two percent. As in your homes, we pay more each year for utilities, supplies, maintenance, insurances, contracts, licenses and so on,” Sipple said.

On an $8 million annual budget, for example, a two percent increase would amount to $160,000.

“We manage these expenses carefully however; we pay what our vendors require. With the Governor’s proposed negative budget, we not only lose $174,825, we also need to incur inflationary costs of roughly $30,000 to $50,000 depending upon the increased costs of health insurance, fuel, gas supplies, and related expenses,” Sipple said.

Revenue limits were imposed by the state Legislature in 1993, and since then the revenue limit has typically been allowed to increase by one or two percent each year to make up for inflation.

Dr. Walsh, Elk Mound district administrator, noted that since 1993 there has been only one year when the revenue limit was not allowed to increase.

“That was in 2011 when every district had a large decrease in the revenue limit because of the new ‘tools’ that the governor included that were meant to offset the reduction,” he said.

According to information Dr. Walsh provided, the average increase in the revenue limit from 2004-05 to 2010-2011 was $241 per year per student. The loss in 2011-12 was $440 per student in Elk Mound. Increases of $50 per student were allowed in 2012-13 and $75 per student for each of the next two years.

In 2011-12, the Colfax district lost $528 per student. For Boyceville, it was a loss of $530 per student.

Based on an inflationary increases per year in expenses over the past four years and the loss in revenue from 2011-12 and the proposed loss in revenue for the 2015-16 school year, school districts in this area are dealing with a budget impact approaching $1 million.

According to Yingst — who was quoting the Wisconsin Taxpayers’ Alliance in a letter sent home to community members — funding for 2015-16 will be close to what was provided to schools in 2009.

“Currently, the School District of Colfax is receiving less equalized value than we did in 2005-06,” he wrote.

Dealing with loss

So how have the school districts been dealing with the loss of revenue? And how do they plan to deal with the additional proposed losses in revenue?

Teacher lay-offs?

Larger class sizes?

Deferred maintenance?

A reduction or elimination of programs?

“Currently, we have not had any lay-offs. Larger class sizes are always a consideration when school budgets are stretched,” Yingst said.

“By taking advantage of Act 32 Energy Efficiency Performance Contracting (Colfax has) made several energy saving upgrades which will benefit the school for decades to come,” he said.

“We have deferred maintenance throughout our facilities by prioritizing the most critical needs first based on what the budget allows us to complete. In regard to the reduction or elimination of programs, any elimination of staff would not only create larger class sizes, but programs would be cut,” Yingst said.

Dr. Walsh says Elk Mound would not plan to lay off teachers or increase class sizes right away.

As for deferred maintenance, “yes, we would have to hold off on some short-range planning purchases,” he said.

Regarding a reduction or elimination of programs, Elk Mound has experienced increasing enrollment.

“We need to hire additional staff for our increasing population and may need to hold off on this,” Dr. Walsh said.

Over the last ten years, many school districts in the state have had declining enrollment. State aid is based on the number of students in the school district, so in addition to recent reductions in state aid, school districts have also lost revenue because they have fewer students. But even though some schools have lost students, they have still been paying increased operational costs for maintenance, electricity and heat.

And while Sipple said Boyceville does not have any programs left to cut, at the same time, all options — laying off teachers, increasing class sizes, deferring maintenance and eliminating programs — would have to be considered to deal with an additional loss in revenue.

In Glenwood City, none of the options are attractive but all would be considered.

“With a reduced budget, we are exploring all options. Likely we will have some reduction in staffing numbers, deferred maintenance, and a reduction in the budget for resources directly related to students,” Johnson said.

Deferring maintenance, such as not fixing a roof, eliminates an expense from the current budget, but construction experts say that whenever a project is delayed, the cost increases by a couple of percentage points per year.

Teacher retirements

In view of the reductions in revenue for school districts, when a teacher or another staff member retires, the school district must consider whether to replace that person.

“Any time we have a retirement, we have to evaluate our needs and try to make an educated guess on what our future enrollment may be,” Yingst said.

“For example, while hiring staff in the summer months, we watch our student enrollment numbers closely. The issue we deal with is the third Friday pupil count that takes place on the third Friday in September. We need to have staff in place prior to the start of the school year. If we find our pupil count numbers declined after the third Friday count significantly and we had just hired a teacher based on our count at the end of the school year, this can put us in a difficult position,” he said.

For Boyceville, “we would consider reducing or deferring maintenance. We may consider not purchasing a bus we need for our transportation department. We will review the costs and consequences of not replacing retirees,” Sipple said.

Glenwood City has already been at the point of staff reductions.

“We have had a steady decline in staffing as a result of insufficient revenue limit increases. Our student class sizes in grades 3-12 are consistently between 25 and 30, even larger in some cases,” Johnson said.

Referendum

After the state-imposed revenue limits were put into place more than 20 years ago, state legislators have said that if the school districts need more revenue, they can always go to referendum to ask local taxpayers for more money.

But how practical is it for school districts to go to referendum year after year? What are their chances of getting a one-time increase approved? What about approval for a recurring increase that happens automatically every year for operating costs?

“The general economic status within a school district as well as the general economy are good predictors of referendums that are held to exceed revenue limits. Referendums that are held to do building and maintenance projects are much more likely to pass,” Dr. Walsh said.

“Going to referendum to exceed the revenue limit is very different in each district. It comes down to how much your taxpayers can tolerate in an increase,” Sipple said.

“Each community has a different make-up and each district has a different financial portfolio based on enrollment, tax base, debt, allowable aids and assets, to mention a few. Districts with high poverty, (which has been) growing in all school districts in the last five years, have a difficult sell to communities that we should increase taxes,” he said.

“No doubt, wealthier districts do have a greater probability of passing referendums as opposed to rural outlying districts with higher poverty,” Sipple said.

“The amount of referendums that are asking taxpayers to exceed the revenue limits for operational costs has increased substantially in the past three or four years,” Johnson said.

“When we look at tax freezes or even tax cuts, but then expect taxpayers to support additional spending through a referendum, are we really cutting taxes?” he asked.

“Colfax has always supported its school extremely well,” Yingst said.

“We have tried to be fiscally responsible with every tax dollar used to educate our students and operate our school,” he said.

“Referenda may be necessary in the future to maintain our facilities and continue to move our school district forward. Over the years, it has been clear to me that the residents of the School District of Colfax are proud of their school, and more importantly, want to be proud of their school,” Yingst said.

Private schools

The governor’s proposed budget also removes the cap from the school voucher program, allowing unlimited enrollment state-wide, and increases taxpayer dollars going to private schools by $17.2 million.

Based on approximately 440 school districts in Wisconsin, that would amount to about $40,000 per school district going to private schools.

“You, as a parent who supports us and has children attending a public school, need to know that this expansion will send money away from your children’s classrooms to classrooms in private schools. Currently, our taxpayers in the School District of Colfax are paying $81,842 more in property taxes because this amount, which was intended to lower your property taxes, instead is going to the Milwaukee Charter School program,” Yingst wrote in a letter that was sent to parents and community members.

“Horace Mann stated that, ‘The public school is the greatest discovery by man.’ The governor’s budget undermines this belief by expanding the school voucher program in Wisconsin so that state money, which could go to public schools will be diverted to private schools. This siphoning away of public dollars to support non-public school students demeans and demoralizes the students and families who value and depend on public education,” Dr. Walsh wrote in a letter sent out to parents and community members in Elk Mound.

“Private schools that the governor proposes to support with tax dollars do not have to deal with the rules and regulations public schools have to deal with,” Dr. Walsh said, noting that he also is concerned about disabled and handicapped students.

“Private schools likely will not take the disabled and handicapped students that deserve the best we can offer them,” he said.

The public taxpayer money that would be put toward private schools, “will go to pay tuition for private school students who, for the most part, have been attending private schools all along. Public education needs to be priority in this budget and not something that is devalued, sliced and diced,” Dr. Walsh said.

According to a fact sheet by state Senator Chris Larson, the governor’s proposed budget for 2015-17 cuts out $90 million for students with special needs.

Based on approximately 440 school districts in the state, that amounts to about $200,000 per school district.

The governor’s proposed budget also cuts funding for school breakfast programs, school libraries, Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) funds (used to keep class sizes small in the lower elementary grades when students are learning to read), grants for gifted and talented programs and cuts funding for school violence prevention programs, according to Senator Larson’s fact sheet.

Priorities

So what about our priorities for public education?

“Budgets are about priorities and choices. It’s unfortunate we have shifted our thinking when prioritizing public spending from the traditional idea that public education was something to value and support to being the first thing that needs to be cut in a budget,” Dr. Walsh said.

“There continues to be a segregation between districts of growth and wealth and those with decline and higher poverty rates. My concern is that all students should be served by education, not just those who already may have an advantage,” Johnson said.

“Our goal is to keep our (Colfax) school district moving forward. We have an excellent staff who is dedicated to the highest educational standards. Our students have scored in the top tier of the ACT for many years running. Public education in the United States of America is what sets us apart from the most of the world. Education is the escalator out of poverty,” Yingst said.

“We operate our K-12 public schools on a biennial budget,” Sipple said.

“Every two years, we get caught up in the debate about K-12 school funding. Our current model of stopping what we are doing and starting over every two years because funding decreases needs to end,” he said.

“Our students need an educational system that is stable, sequential and data driven. I often hear policy makers suggest the school funding process is broken,” Sipple said.

“My question — who is better positioned to fix the issues than our policy makers? Let’s shift the debate from crisis to long-term solution. Let’s use our energy and resources to come up with a long-term solution to K-12 public school funding,” he said.

“I was recently told by someone that we should just accept the budget and be happy to get anything,” Dr. Walsh said.

“I reminded this person that this is not a budget yet. It is a proposed budget. This is the time we must speak out for what is right for our students, our communities and the future of our nation,” he said.

“The argument that there is no more money for public education is false. Our governor proposes to take public money and divert it from public schools to be used for private schools. We cannot afford to fully support a public school system as well as a private school system. The loser in this scenario will be public school children, and in the long run, the public good,” Dr. Walsh said.