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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Federal COVID Relief Backfires On Wisconsin Schools In State Budget Proposal

Second graders
Emily Files
Second graders at Prince of Peace School in Milwaukee work on a math assignment.

The $2.6 billion in federal relief being sent to Wisconsin schools for pandemic-related costs is backfiring when it comes to the biennial state budget, which is set to go to the full Assembly and Senate this week.

The Legislature’s Republican-led, budget-writing committee pointed to federal stimulus funds as a reason to keep state funding for schools relatively flat.

"It is hard to talk about how we’re going to fund our schools and ignore the fact that we have so much federal funding coming into the state," Republican Rep. Jessie Rodriguez of Oak Creek said at a committee meeting in May. "It is part of the conversation."

Kim Kaukl, director of the Wisconsin Rural School Alliance, says school leaders hoped the Joint Committee on Finance would reconsider its education budget when it was announced in June that Wisconsin would receive $4.4 billion more revenue from tax collections than expected.

Instead, the committee put the extra revenue toward tax relief.

"I think what joint finance committee came back with was kind of a slap in the face to educators," Kaukl says. "With the unprecedented surplus they had, they could have taken care of a lot of issues that they basically chose not to."

The finance committee’s plan increases spendable school funding by about $128 million over the next two years — less than a tenth of what Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed. Most of the new money would go toward reimbursing schools for special education and mental health services.

The finance committee also wants to direct about $408 million in general aid to K-12 schools, but that money would result in property tax relief instead of spendable dollars for schools because the budget does not include an increase in revenue limits.

Revenue limits dictate how much schools can spend per student in general aid and property taxes combined. Most past state budgets increased revenue limits along with the rate of inflation.

"Without that revenue limit, it really does handcuff a lot of our districts," Kaukl says.

But does it really matter, since schools are getting a windfall of federal money? Dan Rossmiller, with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, says yes.

"[The federal aid] is tremendously unevenly distributed," he says.

Ninety percent of the federal relief is distributed based on student poverty. That means for example, Milwaukee Public Schools is expecting about $11,000 per student compared to about $300 per student in Mukwonago.

"Some districts have considerable amounts of federal money. Some have far, far less," Rossmiller says. "And it’s those districts that have far, far less that I worry about —because they had COVID-related expenditures, they had student learning disruptions, they had all those same factors."

The Wauwatosa School District is one of them. School board member Shawn Rolland says the $6 million Wauwatosa is set to get in federal stimulus has already been spent on last year’s COVID-related costs.

"Right now we are projecting a deficit, and I think that runs counter to what a lot of people assume is happening with school districts — that we are just awash in cash," Rolland says. "That is just not the case for us."

Another district that is not getting a lot of federal aid is Waunakee in Dane County. School board president Joan Ensign says Waunakee crafted its budget for next year based on the assumption that state revenue limits would go up and the district would receive about $1.2 million in new money.

"Here we are in the middle of a lot of planning and it’s kind of like the carpet gets ripped underneath," says Ensign. "What we would get under the current [state budget] proposal is $48,000. That would be our new money. And we have already budgeted for over the $1.2 million."

Ensign says if the state budget passes with no revenue limit increase, the Waunakee school board might ask the community to raise property taxes via referendum, an increasingly common tool for Wisconsin districts.

READ: Balancing School Budgets Via Referendum Has Become Routine. What Happens When Voters Say No?

Under the finance committee proposal, private voucher schools are also set to receive lower funding than in the previous state budget. Voucher tuition payments are tied to public school funding.

"We've previously seen the voucher amount go up $200 a year per child," says Jim Bender, government affairs consultant with School Choice Wisconsin. "It will now go up $34 in the first year and $67 in the second year. So [it's] a smaller increase than what had been the trend in the last few budgets."

The joint finance committee’s budget is expected to go before the state Assembly and Senate this week, where it could be revised. Then it goes to Evers, who has expressed his desire for more education spending. It remains to be seen whether he’ll do that through line-item vetoes or if he might veto the entire budget.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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