Dozens of educators called on Wisconsin’s powerful budget committee on Wednesday to ensure public education funding remains a top priority as the GOP-controlled state legislature works to write its own version of Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposal.
One by one, attendees of the Joint Finance Committee’s first public hearing took to the microphone at the Waukesha County Expo Center to air their concerns. Many have called on the committee to protect education funding in the budget for the 2023-25 biennium. Others at the hearing discussed the need to modernize the state’s shared revenue system.
Evers proposed that 20 percent of state sales tax revenue be allocated to municipalities — and while Republicans didn’t endorse an exact number, they said there was a need to boost local government funding.
For education, Evers’ budget proposal set aside $2.6 billion in funding for schools. It also calls for $270 million to be invested in student mental health through a mix of state and federal funding. The governor is asking for more than $1 billion on private education, and the budget proposal would raise the amount districts can collect from local taxpayers by $350 per pupil in the first year of the budget and $650 per pupil in the second year.
When Evers unveiled the proposed budget in February, Assembly Speaker Robin Foss, R-Rochester, said it was “totally devoid of reality.” It remains to be seen how far his proposal will make its way into the legislature’s version.
However, some educators and local groups, including the Association of Southeast Wisconsin Schools, have asked lawmakers to increase that number. The Schools Coalition wants the commission to increase spending to $1,510 per pupil in the next two years, while increasing reimbursement of private education funding from 60 percent in Evers’ proposal to 90 percent.
At the end of this school year, the district will have spent all federal money earmarked for pandemic relief, said Greenfield School District superintendent Lisa Elliott.
“Because there was no increase in the revenue limit, or spending per pupil, we had to use those dollars to refill our budget, which created huge gaps in the operations budget,” Elliott said.
Many districts across the state have been forced to use pandemic relief to fill budget gaps due to a lack of government funding, said Mike Sprague, president of the Franklin Board of Education.
“The decision not to properly fund schools will ultimately affect the educational quality of our state’s children,” Sprague said during the hearing.
Public school districts are also highly dependent on local taxpayers. Last year, counties across Wisconsin asked voters for an additional $1.9 billion in spending power through no fewer than 70 poll questions from 50 counties. a 2020 analysis The nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum found voters increasingly willing to support school referenda.
If the state does not increase funding for public education, they may have to cut teaching positions, cancel sports and music programs, and stop modernizing school buildings, said Jonathan Mitchell, director of business services for the Greendale School District.
“We believe these cuts will undermine services to our students, our community and our state,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell also called on the commission to increase per-pupil spending and spending on special education: “Investment in K-12 public education in the 23-25 biennial budget must be at a level that supports the academic needs of our students.”
Calls for increased joint revenue
Others who spoke at the session asked the Joint Finance Committee to prioritize increasing joint revenues for local municipalities. Joe Pulvermacher, the fire chief for the city of Fitchburg, was one of those people.
Combined Revenue is the largest state aid program for local municipalities, and many of them face imminent budget and service cuts due to revenue constraints and diminishing state aid.
Pulvermacher said Fitchburg has seen an increase in calls as well as a decrease in headcount. He said the reason for this was the lack of joint revenues from the state.
“Those reductions affected readiness and response,” Pulvermacher said. “If you live in rural areas, sometimes you’re lucky to get a response. It’s crucial at that point.”
Milwaukee General Council President Jose Perez also spoke about the need to update the shared revenue program.
“We need additional revenue, whether it’s in the form of sales tax, increased joint revenue, I’m asking you today please, let’s continue this, let’s strengthen this relationship,” he said.
Committee convenes Three more public hearings across the state in the coming weeks, including:
- April 11 at 10 a.m. in Eau Claire at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire Davis Student Center.
- April 12 at 10 a.m. in Wisconsin Dells at the Wilderness Resort Glacier Canyon Convention Center.
- April 26th at 10 a.m. in Minocqua at Lakeland Union High School.