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What the Walker Budget Means for Wisconsin's K12 Schools

Whitney Curtis - Getty Images

Public school supporters swarmed the streets aroundGov. Walker’s home in Wauwatosa Monday. The demonstrators are upset with his proposed budget, which would reduce K12 school aid by nearly $130 million next year.

Two years ago, the Legislature created a special grant for public schools – an extra $150 per student. The money was meant to restore some of the massive cuts Gov. Walker made to K12 schools in his first budget. His new spending plan cuts $130 million during the 2015-2016 school year, meaning the grant would disappear. But it would reappear the following year and add $15 per student.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos reacted to the governor’s plan.

“I think there are gonna be people who have concerns that the first year actually reduces spending. The second year, more than makes up for it, which I appreciate. So on a two-year budget, we’re looking at higher spending for education, which is a good, positive thing,” Vos says.

That’s not the way many public school leaders describe the plan. They see it as a one-two punch. The budget cuts millions the first year and second, it bars schools from raising property taxes to offset the loss.

The state Department of Public Instruction did a breakdown of the impact. It says Milwaukee Public Schools stands to lose $12 million. The next biggest district in the state, Madison, would face a $4 million cut.

“Quite clearly, (schools are) going to have to make choices about cutting programs. Or, potentially going to a referendum to raise the revenue limits above the amounts that are currently allowed,” says Dan Rossmiller, a lobbyist with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

Gov. Walker allows districts to exceed property tax caps, only if local voters agree.

Rossmiller expects some districts to go the ballot route, if they want to avoid cutting programs or staff. The last time the governor cut education spending, school districts used his Act 10 to achieve savings. It gave them the authority to control employee benefits.

But Rossmiller says that ship has pretty much sailed.

“Districts are in a competitive environment for employees. They want to attract and retain the most effective teachers that they can. And so when they ask more of their employees, in terms of contributing more for various things, or denying them wage increases, it can make a district a more or less attractive place,” Rossmiller says.

Erin Richards covers the education beat for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“At the moment, everybody is trying to figure out how to realign their budget projections,” she says.

Richards says public schools in Wisconsin have weathered many budget blows over the years.

“There’s kind of this scenario every year where you hear a lot of districts around the state say, ‘Oh my goodness, this is a catastrophe.’ And every year, they manage to find ways to make it through and kids go to class and parents get report cards things kind of continue,” Richards says.

Yet, Richards says it appears districts can’t take much more. Leaders tell her if Gov. Walker’s $130-million cut stands, the impact will almost surely be felt in the classroom. Some districts warn sizes could swell, or students could lose programs, such as art or music.

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