Governor Scott Walker’s proposed 2015-2017 budget would result in cuts for the Racine Unified Schools District; but Wisconsin State Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said Monday that he’s not opposed to restoring some of the funding in the second year of the biennial budget if the state sees a bump in the state’s revenue in May.
Representatives Peter Barca (D-Kenosha), Cory Mason (D-Racine), Robin Vos (R-Rochester), Tom Weatherston (R-Caledonia), and Senators Robert Wirch (D-Kenosha) and Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) answered questions from the Racine Unified School Board of Education during a public meeting held Tuesday about Walker’s proposed budget.
Walker’s proposed budget cuts have prompted Racine Unified administrators to outline several concerns around funding, specifically around state aid, desegregation aid, and school accountability measures. Racine Unified School District Board of Education president Dennis Wiser said the meeting was not held to fix the state budget, but rather so that the public could hear the positions of each state Legislator on those key areas.
“That way the public can be more effective in communicating with them if they’d like to lobby their positions,” Wiser said. “This way, they know what points to touch on with each public official.”
But Vos’ stance on increasing state aid surprised Wiser.
“In my experience, the Governor’s version of the budget often comes in higher and then as it goes through the Joint Finance Committee things usually get worse for us, but it sounds like if the revenue numbers come in higher things might improve,” Wiser said.
To brace for the possibility of losing the funding, the school district has a non-prioritized list of cuts it plans to make up the $3.1 million loss. If funding remains the same, Wiser said the district could maintain those programs. But the district also has a list of $6 million in instructional programs that have been piloted in the district that have been proven to close the achievement gap, which it hopes to expand, Wiser said.
During the meeting, members of the teachers’ union raised green cards when they agreed with what the speakers were saying and red cards when they didn’t like what was being said.
Aaron Eick, vice president of the REA and teacher at Horlick High School, said the event was positive because it was a way for members to show that they aren’t going to give up on public schools.
“Under Walker’s budget, he’s allowing a window for it (people to give up on public schools) to happen, where they are being given a choice on whether to support their own self-interest and the interest of the community,” Eick said. “It’s the job of organized educators to expose that as a false choice. Everyone wins with thriving public schools.”
Eick said that decreasing the state aid, then restoring it in the second year is problematic for urban school districts to have instability in funding.
The district says the cuts are being used to fund a statewide private school voucher program, which is “the main threat to RUSD’s continued progress.” Under Walker’s proposed budget the voucher program would be expanded state-wide, but the amount of the voucher would be reduced compared to the rates being paid in Racine. Right now vouchers are set at $7,200 for elementary and middle school students and $7,800 for high school students, but under Walker’s proposal the rates would be decreased to $4,800 and $5,200.
But Wanggaard said that if a voucher student leaves the district, the state still allows it to use the student’s enrollment as the basis for its state aid formula.
“So it’s not like the state is taking the dollars away and not giving the opportunity to make adjustments for that,” he said.
But Racine Unified chief financial officer Marc Duff pointed out that the “‘state’ is not paying the district at a decreased level for three years. The formula used to determine how much state aid a district receives is based on the prior year student membership. There is no 3 year average for state aid determination.”
If a student leaves or comes into the district, the student is counted as 1/3 of a student the first year, 2/3 the second year, and a 100 percent student the third year.
Mason said that if public schools were adequately funded public schools, “that would be a great step forward.” But Mason believes the voucher school program has been “a horrible distraction from public education the last 20 years.”
“I think it has done little to improve — with 20 years of experimentation in Milwaukee — to improve the lives of student achievement and we need to have a conversation to adequately educate every child,” Mason said.
The Joint Finance Committee has completed the public hearings that were scheduled. Once the Committee receives the new revenue numbers, they will start working on making changes to Walker’s budget over the next six weeks. It is expected to be presented in the Senate and Assembly in the first part of June.
*Editor’s note: This version of the story clarified and corrected Wanggaard’s statement about how student enrollment is used to calculate state aid.