Lancaster High School served as the host of the State Superintendent’s Advisory Council on Rural Schools, Libraries, and Communities last Wednesday, as Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction head Tony Evers and nearly 20 members of the council spent a portion of their day taking tours of the school, checking out technical education, art, and science offerings, as well as hearing instrumental and vocal music selections students planned to perform at state solo ensemble.
“It’s a great school, with caring teachers and great kids,” Evers said of Lancaster. “The best thing about it is we can tell the stories.”
A majority of the council’s time at the district, however, was spent discussing how the proposed state budget will make the jobs of those working at rural school districts like Lancaster all that much harder as legislators are currently debating whether or not to reduce the amount of money schools have for the next year, or merely freeze their funding.
The council is comprised of educators and citizens from across the state who meet twice a year to discuss what is working for rural education programs, and advocating for policies and programs that would benefit rural communities.
Under Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget, schools across the state would see less funding and a lower budget than they have this current year. That is because the governor proposed not renewing aid that gives every district $150 per pupil for the next school year, only bringing it back in the 2016-2017 school year at $165 per pupil.
That $150-per-pupil funding had come above state-imposed revenue caps for districts, which have been frozen since the 2011-2012 school year, and had been cut significantly in 2011 as part of the Act 10 legislation.
Walker has proposed taking the funding that had gone to that per pupil aid, and placing it in property tax credits for each of the next two years.
“We cannot be starving our schools,” Evers said, noting that some whispers around the capital are that the per-pupil funding will return, only if revenue forecasts show an increase in tax collections for the upcoming year. “That’s not where we want to be.”
Members of the council noted that the only reason the legislature is even thinking about getting to a point to keep funding the same instead of the cuts Walker proposed was due to a huge groundswell from the public urging them to maintain education funding.
“They are hearing a lot from local people, and that is helping a lot,” Evers said. “That is a critical change.”
Still, it would mean that if the funding is restored, it would mean school funding overall will remain the same as it did this past year. “When we are jumping for joy for a zero percent increase, we are in a bad position.”
Charter school impact
Not yet officially back to having the same funding as this past year, the council also reviewed the potential impact that expansion of the voucher and choice programs could have on districts across the state.
Part of Walker’s budget includes creating a statewide independent charter school program which would give schools participating $8,075 payments for students that chose to go to those schools over a public school.
That aid given to those schools would be taken out of the categorical aid fund for all public schools, reducing the aid all school districts receive for the coming year, regardless of if the student came from their district or not.
This would negatively impact rural schools more than suburban or urban districts that would likely have more students utilizing the program because rural schools receive a higher proportion of their budgets in aid than those other districts. That reduction would then be transferred onto the local school tax levy to compensate.
“To think that independent charters and choice money comes from someplace else, and public school money comes from another place….it all comes from one big pot, and every dollar going there is not coming here,” Evers said.
For many on the council, the proposals would likely mean that there will be higher local taxes for rural districts, and those districts will be going to referendum to try and get increases in frozen budgets.
“We are going to go back to mil rates of the early 1990s,” former Executive Director of the Wisconsin Farmers Union Scott Schultz said of the funding issues, recalling the large tax levies prior to the ‘two-thirds’ funding legislation the state imposed in the mid 90s, where in exchange for revenue caps the state would increase aid to districts, based on their number of students-to-property values.
Deb Pickett, business owner in Darlington, agreed, noting it would negatively impact agricultural-heavy districts, pitting teachers against farmers.
Broadband funding more of a promise than actual funding
One item that the Walker Administration had been touting as a keystone of their proposed budget was $6 million in broadband support for schools, allowing districts to increase data lines and improve infrastructure.
Evers noted that the $6 million was not spread out over the course of two years, covering the budget, but actually spread out over four years, meaning only $1.5 million will be available statewide. “Bottom line, instead of providing a big pot of money right away, it is spread out over the course of four years,” Evers told the council.
The council also reviewed current ways individuals can be licensed to teach in the state. Another proposal by Walker is to allow for an increase in ‘life-experience’ to count towards getting a teaching license. DPI staffer Tammy Huth showed several licensing options, including those who have gotten college degrees in fields they wish to teach, those that have been in fields where they have been in a leadership or educating environment.
Some of the officials from small districts wanted to see changes to who can be a library technician, which requires a masters degree.