By Cara L. Dempski
ELK MOUND — Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker visited Elk Mound High School to tour the building and speak to students and community members about the state’s education budget.
The district learned of the Governor’s February 16 visit on February 13.
Walker spoke to a group of nearly 30 people for approximately 15 minutes regarding his plans to increase total K-12 investments to $11.5 billion over two years. He noted in his speech that he is the first governor to propose spending such an amount in Wisconsin.
A press release from the State indicates Walker’s executive budget proposal, which was introduced on February 8, will increase categorical aid by $509.2 million and includes $649 million in new state aid for all Wisconsin K-12 schools.
The Governor’s budget proposal provides support for smaller, rural school districts through a $20 million increase in sparsity aid, a $10.4 million increase in high-cost transportation aid, and an extra $22.5 million investment for broadband infrastructure grants.
For a small district like Elk Mound, that means an extra $488,250 for the 2018 fiscal year and $709,590 in 2019’s fiscal year in per pupil aid. Per pupil transportation aid to Elk Mound could also increase $40,540 in 2018 and 2019.
While some are praising Walker’s efforts to improve education in Wisconsin, it has been projected that the increase in aid will lead to a nearly $1 billion structural deficit. The proposed budget does not cover the $782 million taken away from education spending in 2011, nor does it cover the nearly $1 billion in state aid to schools that was lost when Act 10 was implemented.
This is all in addition to the $1 billion transportation deficit that has left municipalities all over the state scrambling to provide safe driving surfaces.
Governor Walker seemed pleased to have an opportunity to visit the school district, and said the trip to Elk Mound is one of many he will be making in the next two months to speak about his upcoming budget.
“It’s great to be here, and it’s great to be hearing the importance of education, particularly as it relates to workforce needs we have in the state,” Walker said before taking questions. “One of the great challenges we have, is indeed a challenge, but a good one: with more people employed than ever before, with unemployment at a 16-year low, now more than ever we need to take the reform dividend and reinvest it.”
At the top of Walker’s list is workforce needs. He stated the state is putting more money than ever into education, to meet the needs of the state’s workforce. It is not just the K-12 schools getting more resources, either. Walker plans to spend more money on technical colleges and the University of Wisconsin System.
In addition to the monies invested in the local school districts, the Governor plans to plug $100 million into the UW System schools only one year after cutting $250 million from the system’s budget. Last year’s decrease in funding is one factor identified in the University of Wisconsin at Madison losing its status as a top research institution.
When asked about his plans for rebuilding the pool of qualified teachers in Wisconsin, Walker discussed his plan to make education degrees and credentials easier to obtain for teachers and workers who have classroom experience who may want to become licensed instructors.
“It really is important,” Walker explained. “It’s not just the funding, but the prudent use of dollars. We’re looking at ways to make it easier for people who may already be working in the classrooms at our schools to ultimately get access to what they need to get an education degree and enter the workforce as teachers.”
The Governor was asked about the importance of early childhood education programs. He acknowledged an increase in funding for mental health in schools is one way to monitor students who attend early childhood programming throughout their time in school.
He also said providing better mental health services in primary and secondary schools is crucial not only for catching any potential issues early in a child’s life, but can help remove the stigma that surrounds mental health diagnoses.
Elk Mound district superintendent Eric Wright said the district knew nothing of Walker’s intent to visit before Monday evening. He explained the stop at Elk Mound was part of the Governor’s tour of the state.
“He has heard some very, very good things about the district,” Wright stated. “It’s an honor to have a governor in our building. We’re pretty fortunate he asked to visit our school. It says a lot about school, our staff, and our community.”