The group of protesters arrived at Cambridge High School Sunday carrying a banner that read: Marching for the schools our kids deserve.
The seven marchers, who stopped at CHS Sunday afternoon after walking 11 miles from Fort Atkinson, were greeted in the high school parking lot by about fifteen Cambridge-area residents. With signs like “Fund with fairness” and “Don’t gamble on our kids' future,” the Cambridge residents cheered, chanted and brought the marchers into the school for a meal.
Cambridge is one stop on a four-day, 60-mile protest march from Palmyra to Madison, organized by the Wisconsin Public Education Network. The march continues Monday from Deerfield to Sun Prairie, with a midday stop in Marshall.
Marchers will depart from Deerfield at 8:30 a.m. Monday, stop in Marshall at 12:30 p.m. and plan to arrive at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie at 5 p.m. In all, they'll walk 18.5 miles on Monday.
The protest wraps up Tuesday with a 14-mile walk from Sun Prairie to downtown Madison.
The marchers will hold a rally at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at the State Capitol, after heading out from Madison East High School on the last leg of their trip.
Wisconsin Public Education Network Executive Director Heather DuBois Bourenane said more than 100 people have signed up to march over the four days. Some may complete the full 60-mile journey, and others may only march a few miles. But the goal is the same for everyone, she said.
“We are marching this march because the kids of Cambridge matter.” DuBois Bourenane said, speaking to those assembled at CHS Sunday. “The kids of Cambridge are just as important as the kids of Palmyra or just as important as the kids in Milwaukee or just as important as the kids in Madison and all those kids are all of those kids.”
The march is meant to protest the Wisconsin state budget. DuBois Bourenane said that the current budget draft would cut $900 million in education funding to state public schools.
Adequate funding for education, “should not be based on the success of an operating referendum,” Cambridge Superintendent Bernie Nikolay agreed.
“The quality of a child's education should not be based on their zip code,” Nikolay said in a speech during the event.
“The funding system we have in Wisconsin today is one of uncertainty and inadequacy,” Nikolay continued. “We need a budget in Wisconsin that is adequate to support our state schools.”
After speaking at the event, Nikolay joined the protesters in their march to Deerfield.
Dave Weingrod also joined in the protest, marching Sunday from Fort Atkinson to Cambridge. Weingrod, who worked for 30 years in the Milwaukee Public School District as a social worker, called the current draft of the budget “ an immoral document.”
In addition to funding cuts, participants said they were marching in support of a budget change that would increase the amount the state repays districts for special education services. The current 25 percent special education reimbursement rate is the lowest in the country, they said. Advocates are pushing for a 60 percent reimbursement rate.
Cambridge resident Donna Pahuski spoke at the meal about her daughter’s experience with special education in the Cambridge School District. Pahuski said her daughter, who “could hardly speak in kindergarten, who couldn’t tolerate changes in routine of any kind, even sitting at a different spot at a table, who couldn’t tolerate loud noises,” received services until sixth-grade for autism. Those resources were crucial, she said.
“That little girl went on and she graduated from Cambridge High School, and then she went to college, and then she went to graduate school,” Pahuski said. “And now, actually, she’s a research scientist and she’s a co-author on four cancer journal publications.”
When Pahuski got choked up sharing her daughter’s story, the audience responded with cheers, calling out,“You got this.”
“Please consider how state budgets affect vulnerable children. Not all kids with special needs will have the same good fortune that Mary had, but there is something that you can do to increase those odds for kids with special needs in Wisconsin today. You can call your lawmakers and tell them that children should not be penalized for the year they were born,” she said.
Advocates also said the march was inspired by the possible dissolution of the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District, after voters failed to approve an April 2019 referendum to fund the district’s operating costs.
“In Cambridge we do have a strong and effective school system but we are no better than our friends in places like Palmyra-Eagle. The only difference is that we have been able to pass funding referendums here and they have not, and other school districts cannot,” Nikolay said.
“The thought of small communities losing their school, and not having the resources they need to serve kids, all kids, is appalling to me. Our kids don’t deserve that,” said Dane County Board Supervisor Bob Salov, who represents the Cambridge area.
After listening to speeches by Cambridge community members, sharing a meal and charging their phones, marchers set out on another seven-mile leg of their journey, to Deerfield High School, where they would stop for the night – and on Monday begin day two.