Support public schools

Lake Mills community members and members of Citizen Advocates for Public Education held a rally at Commons Park Monday to encourage lawmakers to adopt a state education budget that will meet the needs of local students.

Citizen Advocates for Public Education (CAPE) hosted a rally Monday at Commons Park asking legislatures to approve a state education budget that will meet the needs of local public schools as a part of Wisconsin Day of Action June 21.

According to CAPE, the Joint Finance Committee’s proposal for the next state education budget fails to meet the needs of Wisconsin’s students.

“The Joint Finance Committee is proposing a state education budget that provides a $0 increase to general aid for public schools and $0 increase to revenue limits. Failure to adjust for inflation is a cut to public education,” said Sandy Whisler, CAPE president.

Superintendents and other school officials in the state have been criticizing the amount of state aid for schools the Legislature’s Republican-controlled finance committee inserted in the state budget proposal last week. The full Legislature is expected to pass the budget, which would run from this July through mid-2023, as soon as next week.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed giving K-12 schools $1.6 billion over the next two years. Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee scrapped that plan and instead allocated $128 million to schools. That was about $400 million less than they needed to allocate to ensure that the state’s schools would receive about $2.3 billion in federal pandemic relief aid.

The budget committee last week solved the problem by cutting schools and technical colleges’ share of local property taxes by $647 million and backfilling the lost revenue with state aid. The move would ensure that the state is spending enough on schools to qualify for the federal aid, but it wouldn’t provide schools any additional money beyond the $128 million Republicans already earmarked for them.

“Few things can attest to the strength and unity of a community like a public school system. At their best, public schools are vehicles of formal and informal learning, social connections, and democracy. The way our community bands together to support our students inside and outside of the classroom is a testament to our values,” said Annika Purisch, a 2021 LMHS graduate during the CAPE event. “I would not be the person I am today without my public education. Without my public school teachers and principals and staff to support me over so many years. I would like to make a not-so-radical statement and say what happens inside of the walls of a classroom matters. And it’s about time our state government started acting like it.”

The group says there is $5.8 billion in additional revenue that could be used to close the gaps and restore the 50% special education reimbursement.

The budget proposal would leave the Lake Mills Area School District with a $307,000 deficit without an increase in the revenue limit and a $155,000 deficit without an increase in per-pupil aid. The $462,000 deficit by the second year of the budget could result in staff cuts and larger class sizes, the group said.

Democrats have decried the maneuver by Republicans as a shell game and challenged the GOP to devote more state funding to schools in light of the state’s unprecedented $4.4 billion surplus. Republicans have defended the funding level, pointing out that schools are receiving $2.6 billion in federal aid.

Districts can tap that money over the next four years to reimburse themselves for a host of expenses, including providing mental health support, sanitizing facilities, maintaining operations, keeping staff on the payroll and addressing learning loss among students. Milwaukee Public Schools is in line for nearly $800 million. The Madison school district is in line for $70.6 million.

But rural districts are slated to receive considerably less in federal aid and school advocates say it’s not wise to rely on one-time federal money to keep districts afloat. They insist that Republican legislators need to commit to Wisconsin schools by sending them more state funding.

“It is irresponsible to use one-time money designated for a pandemic response to meet ongoing needs, instead of a committed investment from the state, which our youth deserve,” state Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor said in a statement Friday.

Wisconsin Association of School Boards Executive Director John Ashley praised Republicans for securing the federal aid but lamented how the finance committee “minimized” state aid.

“The one-time federal relief funding, while substantial for many districts, is temporary,” Ashley said in a statement Friday. “If this state budget is signed into law as is, schools will once again be denied sustainability and predictability in setting their budgets to fund normal, ongoing school operations.”

Heather Dubois Bourenane, executive director of the public school advocacy group Wisconsin Public Education Network, echoed Ashley on Monday, saying that “just because we got a stimulus check we don’t stop paying our mortgages.”

People driving by the Lake Mills event were invited to “Honk for Public Schools” and information was distributed for contacting lawmakers about the state budget.

CAPE is encouraging people to contact their legislators in Lake Mills: Rep. Barbara Dittrich, State Capital Room 17 West, PO Box 8952, Madison, WI 53708-8952 or call 608-282-3638 and Sen. John Jagler, State Capital Room 131 South, PO Box 7882, Madison, WI 53707-7882 or call 608-266-5660.

The Assembly is expected to take its first floor votes on the budget next week. It’s unclear when the Senate might take up the spending plan. Once both chambers approve the budget, it will go to Evers, who has broad partial veto power. Evers, a former state superintendent of schools, has also called on the Legislature to increase K-12 funding more in line with what he proposed.

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