Last Monday I attended the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding held in Fennimore. The Commission, initiated this winter, is a series of public hearings to explore our education funding system. These hearings, scheduled throughout the state, give local citizens and education professionals a chance to inform legislators of how students, schools and communities are doing under the current levels.
By all accounts on Monday, our public schools in SW Wisconsin are hurting, and hurting badly. Four citizens, including me and several school board members, and seven superintendents testified. Two superintendents, who just happened to be male, teared up on the stand as they listed the effect that years of repeated budget cuts have had not just on facilities and services, but on the people and small towns involved. Bryce Bird, Superintendent of Riverdale Schools, said that the district has been cutting the budget for 17 years. “I don’t think we can cut our way out of a deficit,” he told the commission, which is co-chaired by Sen. Luther Olson and Rep. Joel Kitchens.
In response to heart-wrenching testimony, Olsen said that the rural districts were simply “inefficient” and required “out of the box solutions.” Kitchens said that since projections for rural populations were for more shrinkage, consolidation was inevitable. Tom Wermuth, Superintendent at River Valley Schools, said his district has consolidated 4 high schools and closed 21 elementary schools already. He detailed long bus rides for pre-K children and hard feelings between towns, before addressing district resident Sen. Howard Marklein, who sits on the panel, saying “Howard, how do you think I’m doing with consolidation?”
Sen. Marklein didn’t answer, but in his “2018 Summer Legislative Update” he published a graph – also published in Rep. Todd Novak’s literature last week - showing that state support for public education had risen every year since Act 10 dramatically cut funding in 2011. Gov. Walker, in recent campaign speeches, has made the same claim as the graph, that the state has never spent more on education than it has in this budget.
Politifact has rated this assertion “mostly false” on the grounds that the numbers don’t take inflation into account. In spite of the fact that Marklein’s newsletter touts "historic investment" in K-12 and Novak used the term “record funding” for the same chart, 55% of Wisconsin's public school districts received LESS state aid in 2017-2018 than they did in 2016-2017, according to the Department of Public Instruction. When adjusted for inflation, Wisconsin public schools received less state aid in 2017 than they did in 2009.
From my seat in the audience, I heard superintendents thank legislators for the extra $100 per student that some schools will get in sparsity aid, but they went on to talk about how they can’t operate into the next decade without dramatic changes in the funding formula and in actual investment. From my seat as a citizen, parent and Senate candidate, I think it is time to elect legislators who will put real taxpayer dollars back into our communities, and stop playing games with the numbers, with our children, and with our future.
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