Property Taxpayers Want School Reform

How can we help get school funding reform done? This question was asked by residents from Pepin who traveled to the Capitol last week.

Rep. Chris Danou and I gathered with a bus load of Pepin taxpayers for a very productive conversation on taxes and school funding reform. Many shared their deep frustration over property taxes.

“Property taxes are killing Pepin,” said one man. A lot of it has to do with how we fund our schools.

Under the current school aid formula, as property values go up, state aid goes down. When a school district has growing property values and declining enrollment, the school loses state aid – at a rate much faster than the school can cut expenses.

The Pepin School District is the “canary in the mine” when it comes to schools and property taxes. Everything wrong seems to shows up first in Pepin.

From 1996 to 2007, Pepin Area School District enrollment dropped from 373 to 312 students. At the same time Pepin property values shot up. With completion of a new development, property value per student nearly doubled. Combine the declining enrollment with rising property values and state aid dollars drop from 64% of school costs to 24%.

In a perfect world, the wealth of those who bought expensive homes should offset the reduced state aid. But the wealth was uneven. Many who bought expensive homes did not have children in local schools. Many middle and lower income people saw dramatic increases in assessed value even though nothing changed in their homes or their income.

As desperately as Pepin residents want property tax relief they also want to save their school. A few years ago they passed a school referendum. While sorely needed, this referendum increased property taxes.

Now many residents organized to make changes in school funding. They came to Madison to join the Assembly Education Committee as members heard testimony on the School Finance Network’s school funding reform proposal.

The School Finance Network is a statewide coalition of nine organizations. They worked long and hard to craft a plan to change funding for public schools. Their proposal would increase categorical aids for high cost students and effectively align school district revenue with annual costs.

Fixing the funding formula costs money and money is in very short supply. The conventional wisdom around the Capitol is “we don’t have the money to do school funding reform.” But our schools and property tax payers cannot wait.

At the hearing, Rep. Danou and I explained the plight of Pepin taxpayers and others in our district. We also proposed a solution.

I introduced our Rural Schools Initiative. The plan bites off a piece of the School Finance Network’s reform proposal. Our plan would directly address the funding for rural districts and those with declining enrollment.

Dramatically declining enrollment can be softened by adjusting the impact over two years. Small but necessary schools can be assisted through changes in sparsity aid. This direct assistance, which I fought to create in the last state budget, makes a big difference in helping rural schools balance their budgets.

Finally, we proposed special transportation aid for districts transporting students 12 miles or more.

Our rural schools have long since cut the fat. They are down to the bone and still cutting. Essential courses and activities face elimination.

Adopting the Rural Schools Initiative will help rural schools across the state survive while we finish the work of more comprehensive school funding reform.

As one man from Pepin said, “We have got to start somewhere and we have got to start right now.”

Got ideas about school funding reform? Let me know! Contact me 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.