Finding A Fair Way to Pay for Schools

“Why are our schools in trouble?” my friend asked. It is Easter break for the Senate and I am enjoying a bit of time in the district. The conversation, as usual, turned to the problems of the day.

This day was Election Day. From Sparta to Shell Lake residents were asked to vote on money for schools. Thirteen local referendums were on the ballot; 52 out of 425 school districts state-wide had referendums. This was the largest single day effort by Wisconsin schools.

Taxpayers complain that school referendums are Band-Aids. It is true that the problems our local schools face are not going to go away with a referendum. But for a bleeding wound, sometimes a Band-Aid is critically needed.

Why are our schools in trouble? And what will happen to the districts that had referendums that failed on Tuesday?

To understand the problems it helps to follow the money. Our schools are financed mostly with money from local property tax and state aid. About two-thirds of the dollars come from the state. But this is an average. Some districts, like Pepin, see only 40 percent state dollars; others in our area are funded at 80 percent. The reason is a complex state formula that is designed to make payments fair. Unfortunately it is not working - especially for rural schools.

Schools are paid by the state on a per pupil basis. Many of our local schools are losing students. As fewer students are enrolled, state aid drops.

As local property values go up, state aid also goes down. Because of the way the state aid formula works, when a district has growing property values and declining enrollment, the school loses money from the state – at a rate much faster than it can cut expenses.

In addition, since 1993, schools have had a revenue cap designed to keep property taxes down. But some uncontrolled costs are growing faster than the cap. Last winter fuel costs nearly doubled. For some districts, health care costs are growing at 20 percent a year. One superintendent saw his costs go up $400,000 in one year – without adding anything.

When superintendents cut budgets, buses are not replaced, class sizes are bigger and programs are trimmed. To complicate decisions, some of what the school does is dictated by others: the state and the federal government. These rules limit options and sometimes force bad choices.

Sooner or later, communities feel the cuts. I spoke with one superintendent who had cut his own job (he will be leaving at the end of this term). Those communities that had failed referendums are faced with cutting programs, teachers and extra curricular activities.

More than half of the districts in the state are rural. Smaller school districts are more expensive to operate on a per pupil basis – the same as a smaller farm – fixed costs are spread over fewer students. Transportation costs are higher. The state formula does not adequately provide for these differences, making the problems more acute in rural areas.

Rising property values, declining enrollment, higher per pupil fixed costs, higher transportation costs, uncontrolled costs, like fuel and health care all can hurt school finances. Add in some students that cost more to educate – special education and non English speaking – and a formula that does not allow for these increases in costs. These are some of the reasons our schools are in trouble.

What to do? We need a funding system that is flexible – that can adapt to the differences in districts. We need to decrease our reliance on property tax –especially in districts that cannot afford to pay more. We need to recognize some students cost more to educate than others. We need to address the challenges facing rural districts and assure that students are not losing ground because of geography.

Next week almost 60 legislators will announce their support to change school funding through Assembly and Senate resolutions. Critics will claim it is only a “plan for a plan.” And they will also be correct. But it will be a time for people to acknowledge that the school funding problems are too great for the state to continue to ignore. We all need to get to work and solve the problem.

If you have thoughts on school funding or any other state related topic, please call or write: in Black River Falls at (715) 284-1730; In Eau Claire at (715) 838-0448 or in Madison at (877) 763-6636 (toll free); or write: State Capitol; P.O. Box 7882 Madison, WI 53707-7882 or email Sen.Vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov.