In 2009, Wisconsin lawmakers gave school districts the opportunity to raise $86 million for school safety improvements, but in the last state budget, Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-led Legislature eliminated the provision.
Now, in the wake of last month’s horrific school shooting in Connecticut, some Republicans and Democrats are talking about reinstating the measure.
Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine, said he plans to advocate restoring it in the upcoming budget. He led a Legislative committee on school safety that in 2009 recommended boosting safety funding with an exemption from state-imposed limits on district revenues.
“This nonclassroom expenditure shouldn’t be capped in the same way that classroom expenditures are capped,” Lehman said. “School boards ought to be able to put school safety first.”
Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he would consider supporting such a proposal.
“Folks are sensitive to what happened out in Sandy Hook,” Olsen said, referring to the elementary school in Newtown, Conn., where the shooting took place. “They’re looking at saying, ‘What do we need to do to keep our kids safe?’”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said such exemptions are unnecessary.
“School districts can use the money they already receive to address security issues as well as to provide an excellent education for our children,” he said.
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said the exemption was removed from the last budget because “numerous exemptions made it difficult for communities to hold the line on property tax increases.” Detailed school funding proposals will be included in the governor’s budget proposal next month, he said.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said through a spokesman it’s too early to discuss budget questions.
Dan Rossmiller, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said he wasn’t aware of any school districts that scrapped plans to add security measures as a result of the 2011-13 budget change, but the association will be discussing with members the need for more school safety funding at its annual meeting later this month.
Under the complex school funding formula, the state puts caps, known as “revenue limits,” on the amount of state aid and local property taxes school districts can use to pay for education. The amount doesn’t include federal funding or some special state program dollars.
The limit averaged about $9,809 per student last year, which was the lowest level since the 2007-08 school year and the first time the amount had decreased from one year to the next.
In 2009-11, the Legislature created four exemptions to the revenue limits, allowing districts to raise additional property taxes for certain expenditures, such as school safety. They were the first targeted exemptions since revenue limits were created in 1993.
But lawmakers eliminated all of the exemptions except one for energy efficiency projects in the 2011-13 budget.
The school safety exemption would have allowed districts to raise $100 per student for things like security officers, door lock systems or anti-bullying programs. For Madison, that would have raised about $2.5 million.
Madison spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson said the district considered using the school safety exemption before it was removed but determined it wouldn’t apply to safety projects that were already in the works.
Districts can ask voters to exceed revenue limits with more property taxes through a referendum, but the energy efficiency exemption requires only a school board resolution. So far, at least 79 school boards have passed 122 resolutions approving more than $29 million in additional property tax revenue for the energy efficiency projects, according to the Department of Public Instruction.
Safety plan required
School districts are required to have a safety plan and many urban districts, including Madison, have a police officer assigned to some of the schools. But in rural areas, where school safety problems don’t occur as regularly, safety is more likely to take a back seat to technology or other curricular needs, Lehman said. But since the Connecticut shooting, rural districts are talking about what else can be done, Olsen said.
School safety doesn’t only refer to an external threat, said Glenn Schmidt, a former local union director for the Wisconsin Education Association Council who testified before the 2009 Legislative committee. In visiting dozens of schools in recent years, Schmidt found teachers concerned about an increase in youth violence, bullying and aggressive behavior toward adults.
“Danger for kids runs a very, very wide spectrum and as you address it, you end up taking resources from something else,” Schmidt said.
Still, there may not be much legislative support for reinstating the school safety exemption, said Dale Knapp, research director for the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. Republicans, who control the Senate and Assembly, would prefer to let districts decide what to fund rather than introduce specific exceptions to the revenue limits, he said.
“It’s kind of like how they mucked up the income tax when you add exemptions for this, that and the other thing,” Knapp said. “If you think these things are a priority, just bump up the limit and let districts decide.”
Increasing school funding
Questions about adequate funding for school safety will be part of a larger debate about K-12 education funding in the upcoming state budget after the last budget made the deepest education cuts in state history.
The state share of K-12 education is $5.9 billion this year, or about 62 percent of district revenues. The share is down from a two-thirds commitment required by a 1993 state law that was eliminated in 2003.
Olsen supports a $200 per pupil increase in school district funding in each of the next two years, which would boost money available to districts by about $510 million over the biennium.
However, he said he would support increasing state aid by only about $300 million, meaning the rest would come from local property taxes.
Other Republicans, including Walker and Vos, want to keep property taxes frozen.
State Superintendent Tony Evers has proposed increasing revenue limits by $225 per student next year and $230 per student the following year. He also has proposed increasing state aid by $615 million, which would keep property taxes flat under those revenue limit increases.
DPI spokesman John Johnson said the department would support reinstating a revenue limit exemption for school safety.
“We support targeted revenue limit exemptions that we consider wise investments,” he said.