“Aw, Mom,” my son said, “Please don’t use the ‘s’ word. Not until Thursday.”
Our children might not be ready for school to begin but teachers and school officials have been preparing for the new school year for weeks. I will join other parents taking pictures of growing children before they head off for their first school day. School buses will be in front of us on the next early morning trip through town. We will all be reminded of school safety and the importance of public education.
But if you look beyond the new clothes and school supplies, the waxed halls and polished windows, schools are in trouble. Many school boards are grappling with budget deficits and administrators for most of our local schools have been stretching every dollar as far as possible for a long time.
Delayed maintenance and older buses have a way of catching up with administrators and some times create a crisis for the school board. Returning to property taxpayers is not an option for most school districts during difficult economic times. But school board members struggle to find other options.
Providing our children with a high quality education is the most important thing we do as a state. Forty-nine percent of our state tax dollars go to pay for schools. To keep our communities strong we must have strong schools.
Yet many schools struggle to continue offering the high quality of education we want for our children. Part of the problem is the way we fund education. Wisconsin has an antiquated formula that relies - too heavily - on the 150 year old notion that property equates with wealth.
Perhaps 150 years ago, the farmer with the most real estate was the farmer with the most wealth. But today financial wealth is often not found in land. Yet we continue to fund schools through the ‘equalized aid’ formula - a method based on the property values of a school district.
That formula is devastating for districts like Pepin where property values have gone through the roof as a result of wealthy people from out of the state paying top dollar for land along the bluffs on which to build their expensive second home. The district itself is made up of more moderate income earners.
A similar situation exists in Buffalo County where hunters from all over the Midwest paid exorbitant prices for hunting land, driving up land values but not the county income level.
The recent allocation of federal dollars to help ease the pressure on local school budgets demonstrated the problem with our current funding formula. The dollars were distributed through the ‘equalized aid’ formula - and while many districts received significant assistance - Pepin did not.
Adding to the school funding problems is what happens when school enrollment drops. People are having fewer babies. And our communities are graying. Fewer children in school mean fewer state dollars. Many schools cannot cut expenses fast enough to keep with the dramatic rate in which state aid has been cut.
In the past decade, the school funding formula has been studied and changes debated. But for the most part the Legislature has tinkered around the edges.
To accomplish significant school funding reform, we must reduce our reliance on property taxes; we must recognize that some students cost more to educate than others and school districts face different costs and we must base funding schools on an adequacy study of real costs in specific circumstances.
We cannot allow public education to die the death of a thousand cuts even in these very difficult financial times. Good schools prepare our children for productive lives. Good schools make vibrant communities. Good schools support a healthy economy.