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Insult on top of injury for frugal school districts PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 15 November 2017 18:08

It’s a pity Gov. Scott Walker and a delegation of influential members of the Wisconsin Legislature did not attend the Oct. 25 meeting of the Cedar Grove-Belgium School Board.
    No one expected them to be there, of course. Some of these powerful politicians might never even have heard of the school district that serves the residents of two small villages and the surrounding rural area in northern Ozaukee County and southern Sheboygan County.
    Well, maybe some of them read the news story about the meeting in Ozaukee Press. That might have opened their eyes a bit. In the article by Belgium reporter Mitch Maersch, board members voiced angst over the plight of small school districts that seemed so deeply felt it was almost palpable.
    “Do you think the legislators even understand what they’re doing?” Board President Chad Hoopman asked at one point. The answer from Kris DeBruine, the district’s business manager, was succinct: “No, they don’t.”
    The dialogue took place at a special meeting called to approve the budget and tax levy. The board accomplished that, with the result that school taxes will be slightly lower next year. But the process was painful nonetheless because it was affected by the profound unfairness of state mandates on public school funding.
    The unfairness is that small school districts like Cedar Grove-Belgium that for years demonstrated spending restraint are forced to subsist on far less funding per student than big districts with histories of extravagant spending.
    The state revenue limits on school districts are based on the level of per-student spending in effect in 1993. Districts that were frugal have been penalized ever since with more stringent revenue limits than the big spenders. DeBruine gave the example of the Nicolet High School District of Glendale. It operates with state and local tax revenue of $19,000 per student per year, about twice as much as the limit for Cedar Grove-Belgium.
    Especially galling to the CG-B board members was the fact that a measure of relief from this glaring inequity was in sight before it was snatched away. The budget approved by the Legislature in September raised the revenue limit for low-spending districts. The increase, described by its sponsor, Rep. John Nygren (R-Marquette), as “an opportunity to correct a long-term inequity in our K-12 funding system,” was about to become law—and then the governor vetoed it.
    The severely tilted revenue playing field also makes it harder for low-spending districts to deal with the erosion of public school funding caused by the Legislature’s expansion of the private school voucher program.
    The same budget that in the end gave no help to beleaguered low-revenue districts increased voucher amounts and raised the income limit, making more families eligible for taxpayer-paid private school tuition subsidies. Public school districts in effect pay the subsidies by having to forfeit state aid for every student from the district who attends a private school with vouchers.
    The voucher program will cost the Cedar Grove-Belgium district $112,000 in state aid this year.
    “Really,” the business manager explained accurately, “the local taxpayers are paying for the vouchers.”
    The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that the voucher program will shift as much as $800 million in state funding from public schools to private schools over the next decade.
    Wisconsin public schools have taken one hit after the other during the Walker years. For the first time in his tenure, state aid to public schools was increased in the new budget. It’s long overdue, but at $200 per student it does little to make up for the prolonged squeeze on public school funding and has no effect on the skewed revenue limits.
    Members of the Cedar Grove-Belgium School Board could give state officials an earful about that. Actually, they did. The governor and legislators just weren’t there to hear it.

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