Governor proposing $650 million increase in school spending and $40 million for rural districts

By LeAnn R. Ralph

MADISON  —  Governor Scott Walker is proposing a $650 million increase in spending for Wisconsin schools in the 2017-2019 budget with a targeted aid of $40 million for rural schools.

Rich Kremer, host of the Wisconsin Public Radio show The West Side, spoke to two rural school superintendents and the executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance February 6 to find out how the proposed increases would impact school districts.

The Colfax Messenger also asked Bill Yingst, Colfax school superintendent, for comments on the proposed increase in state aid for schools.

According to information presented during the radio show, the $650 million proposed increase would include $509 million in state aid for schools — or a $200 increase per pupil — along with a $2.5 million devoted to mental health, $7.6 million to help disabled students connect with jobs, $20 million for sparsity aid, $20 million for another tier of sparsity aid and $10 million in transportation aid for rural school districts. 

Last November, voters in the Lake Holcombe school district passed their second three-year referendum on a vote of 71 percent in favor and 29 percent opposed for $675,000 per year — or $2 million over three years — for operating expenses, said Jeff Mastin, superintendent of the Lake Holcombe school district.

Lake Holcombe was in a position of either passing the school referendum or dissolving the school district, he said. 

Voters in the Unity School District approved a $17.5 million referendum in 2015 on a vote of 55 percent in favor and 45 percent opposed for an addition to the high school and renovations in the high school, said Brandon Robinson, superintendent of the Unity school district.

About 70 school referendum questions were on ballots state-wide last November for both operating expenses and for construction expenses, including the Colfax school district for $7.2 million to build elementary classrooms, to make renovations to the high school, to update building infrastructure and to build a new bus maintenance garage.

The Colfax referendum passed with a vote of 70 percent in favor to 30 percent opposed. 

Why referendum?

A majority of the referendum questions have been in rural school districts, said Kim Kaukl, the executive director of the Wisconsin Rural School Alliance. 

School referendum questions have increased in recent years for several reasons: declining enrollment statewide means that school districts are receiving less money in state aid, and the Act 10 legislation passed by the state Legislature and signed into law by Governor Walker in 2011, which all-but eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees and required them to pay more toward health insurance and retirement accounts, also included decreases in state aid for school districts.

The Act 10 legislation resulted in school districts losing $782 million in state aid, Mastin noted.

Increasing education funding by $650 million will not make up for the earlier decreases in school funding, Robinson noted. 

Many school districts around the state, including Colfax, are receiving less money now than they did ten years ago.

The governor’s proposed increase in state aid for schools, “is a welcome sign after enduring the numerous cuts to public education over the past five and a half years,” Yingst said in a e-mail message to the Colfax Messenger.

Since Act 10,  fewer students are enrolling in education programs at state universities, which means teachers are more difficult to find when there is a job opening, Kaukl said, noting that many of those who obtain teaching degrees would rather work in urban areas than small, rural school districts.

With less money available to apply toward salaries, rural school districts are experiencing difficulty in finding people to fill teaching positions and also are experiencing difficulty in keeping teachers. 

Since there is so much competition for teachers and not a very large pool of candidates, staff members are leaving for jobs in other districts that can afford to pay them more, Robinson said.

More money

Sparsity aid is proposed to be increased by $20 million, along with another tier of $20 million sparsity aid and $10 million for transportation in rural districts.

Sparsity aid was set up for rural districts with ten pupils per square mile in the district or a total of 745 students, Kaukl said. 

Of the 147 schools represented by the Wisconsin Rural School Alliance, about half of them qualify for sparsity aid, he said.

The second tier of sparsity aid would apply to school districts with up to 1,000 students.

Another $20 million in second-tier sparsity aid would mean that another 25 percent of the schools represented by the rural school alliance would qualify for aid, Kaukl said. 

“Historically, Colfax has not qualified for sparsity aid. Under the current budget proposal, a ‘second tier’ of sparsity aid has been added for schools with student populations of 746 to 1,000 students, which Colfax qualifies in that zone,” Yingst said. 

Transportation

The $10 million in transportation aid would help rural school districts with the cost of busing students greater distances. 

Transportation aid is a complicated formula, Kaukl said.

If a school district spends more than 150 percent of the state average on transportation, the school district would receive additional aid, he said.

Unfortunately, some school districts that have been frugal with transportation spending may not meet the threshold, Kaukl said.

State aid is based on the number of students in a district. If a school district has to bus its students farther than another district with the same number of students, then less money is available for education in the district that buses students farther.

State aid formula

The state’s school aid formula does not work very well for some school districts.

House Speaker Robin Vos said that the state should look at improving the formula, Kaukl said. 

State-imposed revenue limits that were put into place in 1993 and were supposed to sunset in 1997 but never did sunset have made it more difficult for some school districts to operate, he said.

If a school district was frugal prior to the revenue limits being put in place in 1993, the districts were frozen at that level of spending, Robinson said.

But if school districts were over-spending or were paying for building projects, when the revenue limit was put into place, it allowed the school district to keep spending a lot of money, he said. 

School districts are still dealing with those dynamics today.

Revenue limits “were a short-term solution that have been around for 24 years,” Robinson said. 

Categorical aid

The additional money per student would be welcome in all school districts.

“The $200 will be great, but it is still short after all the years of cuts,” Kaukl said.

“The proposed K-12 public education funding would be approximately a $300 increase per pupil in categorical aid for the School District of Colfax for each year of the biennium,” Yingst said.

The categorical aid “is not part of the equalization aid formula. In this categorical aid scenario, each student is worth the same in terms of dollars across the state. The lack of balance in aid becomes an issue when wealthy and poor districts are treated the same while wealthy districts have a much greater ability to pay more while poor districts do not,” he said. 

Sources

Although it is not entirely clear where the additional money will come from to increase spending for education, the idea is that the state will have more revenue than predicted, Kremer said.

Kremer wondered if the school superintendents were worried about where the money would come from.

The biggest concern will be competition with the state’s transportation budget, Kaukl said. 

“I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Who is going to win out?” he asked.

Transportation and education are the two biggest parts of the state budget, and “I’m waiting to see how the numbers will be crunched,” he said.

“The proposed K-12 public education budget [with Yingst putting emphasis on proposed] is greatly needed as presented. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that this a proposed budget which needs to be approved by the Legislature. Already, there appears to be some prominent legislative leaders speaking out against the proposed budget which pits schools against roads in our state,” Yingst said.

Wisconsin is facing a $1 billion deficit in the transportation budget. 

Governor Walker is adamantly opposed to increasing vehicle license fees and the gas tax and has said he will not consider increased transportation spending without a corresponding decrease in spending elsewhere in the budget.