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Community Corner: Understanding school finances
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Of all the attempted explanations of school finance, I have never once heard anyone refer to understanding school finance as being a “piece of cake.”

The truth is: I have spent a career in education and there are aspects of it that I struggle to understand. Add the explainer’s political affiliation into the mix and it generally gets even more complicated. Therein lies the problem … state budget development is as much a political process as it is a financial process.

If you have kept up on the news, there has certainly been a lot about the governor’s budget proposal and how it relates to schools. Most of us in education are of the opinion that this is a “bad” budget for public schools. How bad varies based on the person describing the situation. There are some “truths;” however, that I can share with the Platteville community.

Truth 1: The state budget determines the school district budget: The state budget determines not only how much state aid will come to the school district, but also how much revenue a district can collect without going to referendum.

By placing a zero increase revenue cap on the district for the next two years, it will mean that the district will need to find ways to reduce costs that are within our control (i.e. cutting staff or programming). To compare it to a household budget, it would be like setting a maximum limit on your paycheck for the next two years, but you have a long cold winter with rising energy costs, your health insurance premium goes up, your car maintenance costs go up because you are driving an older vehicle, and by the way, congratulations, you have added a new member to your family.

Truth 2: We are doing more with less: During the last biennial budget period, our revenue was cut significantly. Much of this was already passed onto our employees in the form of wage and benefit concessions. Our 2012–13 revenue authority is nearly $900,000 less than our 2010–11 revenue authority and we are serving 53 more students.

Truth 3: Sending more money to the schools doesn’t necessarily mean more money for the schools: The governor proposes increasing the amount of money sent to the schools in equalization aid. This helps the local taxpayers by reducing the amount of money the district levies, but does not change the overall amount of money that a local district can spend.

It would be as if you received a $100 check, of which $49 was paid by the state government and $51 was paid by the local government. The next $100 check had $51 from the state and $49 from local. The amount of the check hasn’t changed.

Truth 4: Giving more money to voucher schools means less money for local public schools: We can debate the merits of vouchers all day long, and to be fair, both sides have good and impassioned reasons for believing what they do. The bottom line is that a greater share of the pie to voucher schools means a smaller share of the pie to public schools.

Some might argue that more students going to the voucher schools mean less public school students, so districts should get less money. I can only answer that by sharing the following example. If there is a fourth-grade classroom with 25 students in it and one student leaves to go to a voucher school, the district will lose approximately $10,000 worth of revenue, yet the district still needs the full-time teacher and the same heated classroom. Clearly, the district cannot cut their costs by $10,000 and the loss of funds will negatively impact the remaining 24 students.

Truth 5: Report cards don’t and can’t tell the whole story: The governor has proposed rewarding schools that get good report card grades. Platteville is one of those districts that would potentially get rewarded.

Although the report cards provide good information for districts and parents to look at, they are not yet accurate enough to fairly distribute resources based on the grades given. There are inconsistencies and glitches that can result in some schools getting higher grades than deserved and other schools getting lower grades than deserved. Districts with large numbers of students from affluent families statistically get higher grades than districts with large numbers of students from impoverished families.

Truth 7: The governor’s state budget requires actions that will increase costs without providing the necessary funding. An example from the last biennial budget was the requirement that school districts test all kindergarteners for reading. The state budget covered the cost of the actual testing, but not the cost to train staff, nor hire substitute teachers in order for the regular classroom teachers conduct the assessment. There are many of these types of state mandates that fail to provide the necessary funding to implement.

While the political rhetoric around the budget continues, another truth occurs to me. I recently set up an appointment with Rep. Travis Tranel to discuss the impact the governor’s budget had on the Platteville School District. I believe that we both walked away from that meeting better informed and better able to carry out our respective responsibilities to the Platteville community. When citizens are able to sit down across the table and listen to and learn from each other, it results in a better process and product. I am hopeful that this will be the case with the proposed budget.

The Community Corner is a weekly column of opinion written by guest columnists UW–Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields; Platteville School District Superintendent Connie Valenza; Chamber Director Kathy Kopp; Main Street Program Director Jack Luedtke; Common Council President Mike Dalecki, Platteville Recreation Coordinator Jordan Burress, State Rep. Travis Tranel, Platteville City Manager Larry Bierke and Police Chief Doug McKinley.