How far can schools stretch their dollars?
Education funding is central to budget debate in Madison
By ALAN J. BORSUK and AMY HETZNER, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Posted: June 18, 2005
Let’s say your parents base your budget for gasoline for the year on $1.75 a gallon.
The next year, Mom and Dad say, we’re increasing your allowance to cover $2 a gallon.
But gas now costs $2.30.
There has to be more of a middle ground here that I would challenge both parties to deal with. They’re not serving the state very well with this kind of polarization.
Have your folks given you an increase? Of course. A big one, if you look at the percentage.
Have they given you a decrease? Of course. There’s no way you’re going to be able to drive as far you did last year with less gasoline.
Welcome to the intense, real and genuinely important debate over state funding of education for the next two years.
Here’s a two-sentence summary of an issue likely to dominate the Capitol for the next few weeks as the state budget comes to a head:
Republican leaders are saying the increase in education funding for the next two years, approved by the Joint Finance Committee and heading toward approval by the Legislature itself, calls for $458 million more for kindergarten through 12th-grade education for the next two years, a large increase that taxpayers can afford.
Democrats and a huge chorus of superintendents, teachers and school board members around the state are protesting, saying that the increase will mean large cuts in the number of teachers and the levels of service for children because it doesn’t contain enough fuel to drive the educational system the same distance as before.
At the root of the issue is an education funding system approved by the Legislature a decade ago, when Republican Tommy G. Thompson was the governor. It created a cap on how much school districts could spend each year for general operations. In general, two-thirds of that amount was to come from the state with the rest from local property taxes.
The revenue cap plan included a formula for figuring out how much the cap would increase each year. The state has stuck to the formula since then, even as battles over high taxes and school aid have escalated. The revenue cap was to increase $248 per student next year and $252 per student the following year. School districts, which are generally well along in their budget work for next year, have been using those numbers to make plans.
The budget proposed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle called for two-thirds state funding of schools, a level the state backed away from two years ago. Doyle wanted a $938 million increase in state education funding over the coming two years.
The finance committee, made up of Assembly and Senate members and with a strong Republican majority, voted, among other cuts, to reduce the revenue cap increases to $120 per student for 2005-’06 and $100 per student for 2006-’07.
The resulting $458 million increase amounts to a 2.8% increase in total school aid and school levy credits in 2005-’06 and a 3% increase in 2006-’07. But the committee’s plan would allow actual school revenue to grow by only about half of those amounts. The rest is earmarked essentially for reducing property taxes.
The Joint Finance Committee proposal would allow the average district to increase the amount it receives under revenue limits by 1.43% for next year, according to data from the state Department of Public Instruction. In 2006-’07, that increase drops to 1.17%.
Districts decry plan
The Wisconsin Association of School Boards issued a statement saying the Joint Finance plan would mean that, statewide, there would be “an estimated 4,739 fewer teachers over the next two years.”
Data from the DPI show that as of 2002-’03, there were about 74,000 teachers statewide. The school board association said the effects of the budget would be widespread and serious.
In the Mequon-Thiensville School District, which expects a drop of 20 students in the coming school year, Superintendent Robert Slotterback said the Joint Finance plan would allow his district’s revenue to grow only 0.36% in 2005-’06 and 0.26% in 2006-’07.
The district has cut 20 positions, including 14 teachers, and shut an elementary school to help balance its budget next school year, he said.
“Either they don’t understand school finance or they’re not being totally honest with the public,” Slotterback said in response to Republicans’ contention that allocating more money to schools over the next two years is not a cut.
“It’s true that it’s $400 million over what was spent on schools this year. That would be the equivalent of you at your home having a 10 percent increase in gas and electricity, 4 percent in cost and maintenance stuff you can’t really control, and your boss saying ‘What are you complaining about? You’re getting a 5-cent-an-hour raise.’ ”
Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent William Andrekopoulos used words such as “catastrophic,” “historic” and “devastating” to describe what the cuts would mean. MPS has reduced its teaching staff by more than 10% over the last two years, and Andrekopoulos said the proposed budget, which would provide $40 million less over two years than what MPS was expecting, would mean such things as substantial increases in class sizes.
“We’ve been making cuts in this district for the last 10 years,” he said. “There just isn’t $40 million to absorb without it having a direct impact on teaching and learning.”
With health insurance costs still rising, Waukesha School District Superintendent David Schmidt said teachers in his school system might receive only 1.4% salary increases next school year, even as the district faces the possibility of $1.6 million in additional program reductions under the Joint Finance budget.
One cut expected in Waukesha: The district estimates it will save $150,000 next school year by reducing health room aide time. Schmidt said such a cut can affect learning.
“When we send a child home who has an asthma issue on a Tuesday morning at 10 o’clock rather than being treated or at least monitored by a health room clerical person, they’re home for the rest of the day. They lose learning time,” Schmidt said.
State Assembly Speaker John Gard, a key figure in crafting the budget, was unmoved by the school leaders’ statements.
“We believe a $458 million increase is an enormous commitment to schools, and at the same time, we’re going to keep our word and freeze property taxes,” he said.
Asked what he thought the budget would mean to schools, he said: “It means more money. Every school is going to have more money, and I don’t know if we’ll ever live to see the day when it’s enough in (the school officials’) mind.
“At the end of the day we are trying to give the taxpayers a budget that they can afford. I know schools are going to say the sky is falling.”
But, Gard added, they always say that.
The Joint Finance proposal is not the final act in the budget battle. Doyle is clearly considering how to use the cards in his hand – especially his veto power – to change things. He told teachers lobbying Thursday in the state Capitol that he would keep fighting for education.
Even some Republicans are uncomfortable with the proposed level of education spending.
Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), chair of the Senate Education Committee, voted for the proposal as a member of the Joint Finance Committee. But he said in an interview that he did not question statements from people such as Andrekopoulos or groups such as the school board association on what the Republican budget would mean.
“Honestly, there will be negative consequences,” Olsen said. But he said there also are big problems in increasing state spending the way Doyle has proposed.
“Right now, it’s the second act in a four- or five-act play,” Olsen said. Much could change before the curtain goes down on the budget process. Olsen said he thought that, in the end, schools will get more money than is now on the table, although Gard dismissed that prediction.
Olsen and other Republicans also have said that if school boards choose, they can go to voters in their districts with referendums to increase property taxes.
Some school administrators criticized both parties for political gamesmanship. They complained Doyle has been ineffective in working with Republicans, and that GOP legislators seem more concerned with backing the governor into a corner than solving problems.
“There has to be more of a middle ground here that I would challenge both parties to deal with,” said Keith Marty, superintendent of the Menomonee Falls School District. “They’re not serving the state very well with this kind of polarization.”