Public school advocates call for funding to ‘fill the gaps’ at state budget hearing

Schools must be able to raise taxes beyond current revenue limits and the state must increase funding for special education, school advocates said on Wednesday at a state budget hearing in Rhinelander .

The budget proposed by Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, would increase spending on K-12 schools by more than $ 1.6 billion over the next two years. It would increase general assistance to schools by about $ 613 million and add $ 713 million to funding for special education. Republicans who control the legislature have said they will reject Evers’ budget proposal and create their own. Many who spoke at Wednesday’s hearing urged members of the Joint Finance Committee to keep these elements of the governor’s proposal.

“We want to see a budget that really works to fill the education funding gap,” said Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network.

Under current funding, the state covers about 29 percent of the district special education costs. Evers’ budget would bring that to 50%.

Patti Clark-Stojke, Fox Cities Advocates for Public Education, said serving students with disabilities is “not only a federal mandate, but also a moral and ethical obligation to the most vulnerable children in our communities.”

As part of the economic bailout passed by Congress in March, the federal government will distribute $ 350 billion in state and local aid, and $ 122 billion to schools. DuBois Bourenane said the schools funding is for specific COVID-19 mitigation measures such as replacing heating and air conditioning systems or covering the costs of new technologies that districts have purchased over the course of the year. last year.

“These are costs that have already been incurred,” she said. “These funds are not a substitute for responsible funding of our schools as a state, and cannot be used to make up for mistakes made by past budgets by widening the gaps that make it harder for children to succeed.”

Also on the agenda for school advocates: Changes to the way Wisconsin deals with school referendums. The law limits the ability of schools to raise local taxes without holding a referendum on voters. In many of the state’s larger districts, voters have tended to approve new referendums. But smaller, more rural districts have seen more difficult times. In April, voters said no to referendums in Wausau, Tomahawk, Wisconsin Dells, Edgar and Elcho, among other districts.

“We often hear people say, well, if the districts need more money, they should go out and have a referendum,” said Tim Prunty, director of business services for the Antigo Unified School District, during of his testimony before the committee. “Antigo tried this several times, and failed.”

The problem, Prunty said, is that in “poor property” districts the impact of a referendum on local taxpayers is greater than in richer districts.

The hearing at Rhinelander’s Hodag Dome, an inflatable arena that houses a football pitch, was the second of four state budget hearings. The first took place on April 9 in Whitewater; a hearing is scheduled for Thursday at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie; and on April 28, the committee will hold a fully virtual session.

The sessions bring advocates and local leaders from across the state before the state budget makers to call for funding and policy changes. In Wednesday’s testimony, the committee heard from locally elected leaders across Wisconsin calling for increased state aid to municipalities; advocates for criminal justice reforms and the legalization of marijuana; and a vaping shop owner in opposition to a proposal to increase taxes on vaping products.

Youth from Lakeland Star School Academy in Minocqua, a school that helps students with autism, testified on behalf of their school’s funding. Lincoln Hills School Juvenile Prison staff spoke about the unsafe conditions there; the budget proposed by Governor Tony Evers would close the establishment. Milwaukee officials have asked the committee to grant the city the option of increasing sales taxes.

The position of lawmakers on the committee was difficult to discern on Wednesday; they largely did not respond to the procession of dozens of speakers during the five-hour hearing.

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