Local educators are bullish on proposed legislation to aid low-spending and low-enrollment school districts.
State Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, has introduced legislation to allow low-spending districts to increase the amount they spend from the current $9,100 per-student limit to $9,400 per student next school year. The limit would increase by $100 each school year until it reaches $9,800 per student by the 2022-23 school year. It would also increase sparsity aid payments to small school districts from $300 to $400 for student.
Black River Falls and Tomah are among 120 school districts defined as low-spending under the bill. Black River Falls School District superintendent Shelly Severson welcomes the change.
“We’re very excited the Legislature has re-opened the discussion on low-spending districts,” Severson said. “This will definitely help us.”
She said Black River Falls has been near the bottom of per-pupil spending since revenue caps were created in 1994. She said districts like Black River Falls “have been penalized ever since.”
Severson said Black River Falls, which spends more than $500 per pupil less than the state average, would gain between $150,000-$170,000 in additional spending authority under the bill.
Tomah would be able to raise per-pupil spending by $300 per student during the first year. Tomah voters in 2016 passed a referendum to exceed revenue caps for three years and the district was looking at another referendum in 2019.
“It may change how much we go for in a referendum,” school district business manager Greg Gaarder said.
Gov. Scott Walker last year vetoed a similar plan in the 2017-19 state budget over concerns that it would raise property taxes. The veto came after the Legislature reduced the amount of money Walker initially proposed to help districts in rural areas, where many of the low-revenue districts are located.
Walker, however, supports Nygren’s bill. Tom Evenson, spokesman for Walker, said the governor is backing Nygren’s new plan because it includes a provision that would prohibit school districts from raising taxes if voters rejected a referendum in the last three years.
“The budget provision would have allowed the increase even in places where voters voted down referenda,” Evenson said. “This ensures accountability to local voters who have rejected revenue increases within the last three years.”
The sparsity aid provision applies to school districts with 745 or fewer students and a density of fewer than 10 students per square mile. Alma-Humbird-Merrillan is one of 144 districts that qualify. The school district has a 4K-12 enrollment of about 650 students. Superintendent Paul Fischer said that would result in $55,000-$60,000 in additional revenue for the district.
“An increase in sparsity aid certainly would help rural districts,” Fischer said. “While I feel this would be beneficial for the district, I think that we must continue to look at the overall funding formula for school districts, especially the revenue limits that are placed on districts throughout the state.”
State Superintendent Tony Evers, who oversees the DPI and is running for governor, said the proposal is an answer to a longstanding request.
“Our rural and low-spending districts have been asking for this funding for many years. Increases to sparsity aid and the low revenue ceiling were in my budgets, and I am pleased to see them considered after the governor’s veto cast doubt on their future,” Evers said.
Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, who sits on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee and last fall expressed concern over the decision to reduce funding for rural schools, praised the new plan released Monday.
“The legislation ... demonstrates our commitment to find common ground among the legislature to support our K-12 schools,” he said.
If approved by lawmakers, Nygren’s plan would accompany an additional $649 million in new funding spread over this school year and next.
Walker announced support for the plan about two weeks before he is expected to give his annual State of the State address in the state Capitol. It also comes during a re-election year during which he is being challenged by Evers and more than a dozen Democratic candidates.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, called the announcement a re-election tactic.
“Republicans must think taxpayers have a short memory when it comes to their actual priorities,” she said. “This is another hollow campaign gimmick from Gov. Walker to further his own political ambitions at the expense of local schools.”
Even if the bill passes, Gaarder said local school districts could face a different funding problem. Gaarder told the Tomah School Board Monday that the district could face cuts in federal funding if President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress agree on a federal budget.
Tomah receives $1.5 million per year in federal funding, mostly through Title 1 reading grants and special education aid.
“We really haven’t seen a federal budget under the Trump administration,” Gaarder said.