State School Superintendent Dr. Tony Evers unveiled a proposed school funding plan last Monday that would take some of the burden of funding K-12 education in Wisconsin off property taxes, insure that many cash strapped districts – such as Merrill Area Public Schools – would receive a fairer share of the pie, and go a long way to fix what many have called a broken funding formula.
The problem, Republican lawmakers who will take control of the legislature and the Governor’s office, have all but pronounced the proposal dead on arrival.
Under Ever’s Fair Funding for Our Future plan, every school district in the state would receive more state aid while at the same time lowering the overall gross tax levy. Under the plan, MAPS would receive $1,106,560 more in state aid, or a 5.1 percent increase. The amount is close to the total in budget cuts the district has to make to cover a structural deficit caused by reductions in state aid due to declining enrollment.
However, MAPS Finance Director Louise Fischer said that the reception the plan has received from Republicans since the announcement last week has her not optimistic that it will become reality.
“I’m really skeptical that it will help us right now,” she said Friday.
Incoming Senate President Mike Ellis has called for three percent cuts in all departments in the next bi-annual budget to close the state’s $2.8 billion budget deficit.
“Our schools are going to have to do a belt-tightening, just like the state’s got to do,” Ellis said in a published interview.
He said that during the next budget cycle, districts are going to have to be more innovative and work together to find greater efficiencies.
“If they want more money, they can always go to a referendum,” Ellis said. “If the population is willing to pay for it, that’s fine.”
Twice in recent years, MAPS has gone to area residents for permission to exceed the revenue cap for general operations. Both times the voters rejected the referendum.
Incoming Assistant Senate Majority Leader Glenn Grothman was even less supportive of Evers’ plan. He blasted the proposal as a “money grab” in a press release the day after the plan was unveiled.
“At a time when all responsible elected officials are looking for ways to do with less, the state’s leading education official has created hopelessly unrealistic expectations for local school districts,” Grothman said in the release.
Fischer said when district administrators and the school board were putting together the budget for 2011-12, certain assumptions were made on the amount of state aid MAPS would receive. With the early indications the Republicans are giving, the assumptions may have been overly optimistic.
“We assumed that the per pupil increase would be $200 as it has been the last two years,” Fischer said. “If that is reduced to $100 or eliminated completely, it will mean hundreds of thousands of dollars more in cuts next year.”
As part of the budget process the last two years, the school board has established a multi-tier system of cuts to allow for various levels of state aid. The second and third levels of cuts are triggered when aid falls below certain levels. The school board is already planning to take the same approach for next year’s budget cuts.
It is this contingency planning that allowed MAPS to better weather the drop in per pupil aid from $300 to $200 in the last bi-annual budget where some other area districts had to scramble to cover the reduction in funds.
Fischer said despite the opposition to Evers’ plan by the incoming legislative leadership, she sees it as the best way to fix the state’s troubled school financing system.
“If they can embrace the concept, maybe it will come to pass once the economy rebounds,” she said.
In the press release unveiling his plan, Evers declared the current funding formula for state schools “broken.”
“No matter where you live or work in our state, if we are to build and sustain Wisconsin’s economic future, we must do better for our public schools,” Evers said. “Our current school finance system is broken. We can do better. We must do better. We must take a first step.”
According to the press release, all “Fair Funding” changes to the school aid formula are in fiscal year 2012-13, the second year of the biennium. In the plan, which must be approved as part of the 2011-13 budget process, Evers requests that public school districts receive a minimum of $3,000 in general school aid for each student.
The plan includes a weighting factor in the proposed school aid formula of 0.2 for students who are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch, moving the state away from considering only property wealth in the distribution of state school aid.
General school aid would increase by 2.0 percent in the first year of the budget and by an additional 4.0 percent in the second year. In 2012-13, the School Levy Tax Credit and the First Dollar Credit, currently funded at $897.4 million, would be folded into general school aid, ensuring that state education dollars are directly spent on educating children.
According to aid projections, implementing the “Fair Funding” plan would result in 93 percent of districts receiving an increase in state aid and no districts experiencing a decrease in their level of state support.
“This plan holds the line on property taxes by providing additional state resources for schools and by maintaining current revenue limits,” Evers said. “My plan also directs school levy tax credits toward educating children, ending the shell game that has been played for years with school funding.”
According to the release, the “Fair Funding for Our Future” plan:
• fixes the school funding formula.
• holds the line on property taxes.
• guarantees state funding for every student.
• strengthens rural schools and schools with declining enrollments.
• accounts for family income and poverty.
• ends the school funding shell game.
• provides predictable growth in state aid.