FENNIMORE — The Wisconsin Association of School Boards and Cooperative Educational Service Agency 3 teamed to host an Education–Legislator listening session April 29.
Sens. Dale Schultz (R–Richland Center) and Jennifer Schilling (D–La Crosse), and Reps. Travis Tranel (R–Cuba City), Lee Nerison (R–Westby) and Sandy Pope (D–Cross Plains) attended the bipartisan event. Joining them were area school board members and district administrators.
The 2013–15 state budget bill proposes expansion of the parental choice (voucher) program for eligible school districts. Eligibility for a voucher program would be expanded to public school districts with an enrollment of at least 4,000 and having two or more schools in the district placed in a performance category of “fails to meet expectations” or “meets few expectations,” per the school report card published by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
WASB Region 9 Director and Barneveld School Board member Wanda Owens was the first to address the legislators. She predicted a dim future for public schools if the voucher school program expands.
“Vouchers aren’t going to stay in the nine schools that have been proposed,” said Owens. “They are going to come out here and they are going to decimate our small, rural schools.
“I shudder to think of the future of our small, rural schools when vouchers are expanded.”
Seneca School District Administrator/Principal David Boland was the first of many in attendance to suggest the voucher expansion should be removed from the budget bill.
“Anything that is that widespread, and is going to affect that many taxpayers, should be pulled out and talked about separately,” said Boland. “It should be argued on its own merits,” Boland said. “It is too important.”
Belmont Superintendent Jim Siedenberg pondered a question to himself while traveling to the meeting.
“I was trying to think of a reason why it would be stupid to say this, but I couldn’t come up with one, so I am going to ask,” he said. “Belmont, and every other school, is every so often challenged on separation of church and state. How is it OK that we are spending public money to fund private religious schools?”
Dodgeville School District Superintendent Diane Messer pointed out that since the 2000–01 school year, the district has provided $787,612 in aid to the Milwaukee voucher school program.
“Absent that aid, we have not been able to purchase materials and supplies we otherwise would,” she said. “A definite problem with the voucher expansion would be that now additional money would be going out.
“This money leaving our school district is definitely harming our students. It will unfairly affect every school district here because that formula is flawed.”
Jerry Fiene, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, also questioned the voucher expansion.
“Expanding vouchers and charters statewide in many ways is a very direct assault on rural school districts throughout the state,” he said. “The enormous quality and tax implications of expanding vouchers is not really understood by the general public.
“As more details become known, it is really important and critical that this policy be taken out of the fast track and be debated on its own merits.”
The WASB supports removing the proposal to expand the voucher program from the budget bill and debating it as separate legislation.
Schilling, who sits on the Joint Finance Committee, warned removing the voucher program from the budget might be a daunting task.
“I do not think that there is the appetite to remove the voucher program from the budget,” she said. “This is a priority for the majority party.
“I too believe that this is too big of an issue that we just hold our nose and vote for the budget. There are always things we don’t like in the budget and every governor puts policy in the budget. There are no angels in that building when it comes to that issue.
“I think the voucher issue is there to stay, but it is clearly an issue that rises to the level we should not have to plug our nose and vote for it. I think it has a lot of exhaustive issues that we need to be looking at.”
Schilling encouraged those in attendance to do their part to educate the community by sharing their knowledge through editorial boards or letters to the editor in their local newspapers.
“Start the conversation within the paper in your communities and at the barber shop and the coffee shop to get this on people’s radars,” she said. “Thank you for what you are doing.”
Schultz also urged those in attendance to become involved.
“This is as much about you as it is about us,” he said. “If you don’t talk to your fellow board members or staff, not much is going to happen.
“This is as much your issue as it is ours. If people don’t call in and don’t express strong views on this, don’t be surprised if it stays in. I am going to do my part, I want you to know that.”
Schultz noted the last time he ran for re-election he made a “big deal” of the policy Democrats included in the budget, calling it “unwise and unfair.”
“What is good for the goose is good for the gander, we all know that,” he said. “Now that the Republicans are in charge, I have not changed my view.”
Last month, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau identified 58 pieces of policy included in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget. Schultz is in favor of pulling 58 pieces of policy out of the budget.
“The budget is a bill that has to pass,” he said. “When it doesn’t pass we wind up with what we got in Washington D.C. and nobody wants that here in this state.
“So the easy question is: are you willing to vote to pull the policy out of the budget? And the answer is yes. All of it. All of it. I have made that clear to my leadership.”
Current law provides for the same per-pupil revenue limits imposed on public school districts in the 2013–14 fiscal year and thereafter. The proposed 2013–15 state budget makes no change to the law.
Siedenberg questioned that rationale.
“Why would we increase spending by about an average of $1,000 for voucher students and at the same time freeze revenue limits for public schools,” he asked. “Why would we do that? What are we trying to accomplish here?
“It seems to promote a self-fulfilling prophecy for those who would lament the welfare of public schools.”
State Senate President Mike Ellis (R–Neenah) and Senate Education Committee Chair Luther Olsen (R–Ripon) have called for a $150-per-pupil increase in the revenue limit.
Fennimore District Administrator Jamie Nutter said the 2013–14 budget is his sixth in Fennimore. Though there are more students and fewer staff members in Fennimore than six years ago, the revenue limit will be less.
“We are getting no revenue cap increase for two years, after we cut $500,000 out of our budget, cut positions and have more students,” said Nutter. “When we heard that it was like a punch in the gut.”
“I really think that we are in danger in creating, at best, two mediocre systems and I think that is a problem,” said Schultz. “If there is something wrong with the public school system, then we should fix it.”