Another area where damage was mitigated was the increase in per pupil adjustment/spending. If you will recall, the original proposal in the state budget put forward by Governor Walker was ZERO. As in zip, zilch, nada... Democrats in the Legislature and Senate stood strong on this issue and proposed an increase of $250 per pupil. This amount was in line with what that average increase was in years prior to 2011 and was relative to CPI. In 2011, Walker's first budget, that amount per pupil was actually cut by -$528.81 per pupil, followed by an anemic $50 increase in 2012. This was just one level of the cuts levied by Walker's first budget, which was the largest reduction to public education in our state's history and the largest in the nation at the time. So basically he made a huge draconian cut one year which was followed by an minor increase the next and everyone should now be grateful because it wasn't zero or even negative! Oh thank you Mayor Quimby. The $250 level proposed by the Democrats would not have gotten our public education funding back to where it was over the last decade, but would have been a reasonable start to put the system back on sound footing. In the end, after much negotiation and pressure from education groups across the state, the Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee, led by Jon Richards, were able to get $75 adjustment for 2013-14 and $150 each year thereafter. This increase helped to offset property tax increases that had occurred across the state in recent years. In Greenfield we were able to reduce property taxes by an average of 7.39%. Remember to thank Rep. Richards for this the next time you see him.
This all leads me to yesterday's meeting and why I was eager to attend. The program led off with a presentation by representatives from the Department of Public Instruction on a variety of subject including overviews of General Equalization Aid, Categorical Aid, and issues related to the way the state performs student counts. All in all it was a very informative program that was well received by the 40 or so public school administrators and board members in the room.
The second part of the program, the reason our Board President thought to invite me, was a Q&A session with Governor Scott Walker. I know what you're thinking, you really wanted to attend such a session? Just let me state, I was willing to do this so you don't have to. Also, I found it an intriguing opportunity most voters wouldn't get to partake in. This wasn't a campaign event or a speech, this was a very select group of public officials on their ground, not his.
The session began with some comments by the Governor about his connection to public education. He retold the story about his own children and looking at Marquette University High School and Wauwatosa East and deciding Tosa East was the best option for them. He emphasized this story by stating, "Our choice is public schools." Let that bit of irony sink in. If that were truly the case, why has he pushed so hard throughout his career in Madison to build up private schools by allowing them to receive public funds at the expense of public schools? He again stated, "My goal is not one system or the other, my choice is public schools." Why has he not acted forcefully to ensure accountability in the voucher program if that is the case? He responded by stating "I absolutely believe in accountability, not only for tax payers and the public but for parents." and that he will be supporting, "a school accountability measure next year to make schools receiving public funds accountable for how they use those funds." When asked about his proposal to further expand the voucher system, he again stated, "there must be accountability." and added that, "measurements must add value, not just paperwork." and that, "Accountability shouldn't be measured by a focus on testing." Think about that for a moment. Now I am certainly not a testing advocate by any means, but testing does provide data points where certain achievements and comprehension can be measured and compared. If public schools have mandates for testing and those tests are used to formulate the success or failure of those schools based on the state report cards each district receives, why would accountability mean voucher schools are exempt from that? As for the rest, based on his past lack of support, I will file his responses in the "I'll believe it when I see it" file.
The discussion then turned to school funding and legislative policies. When asked, "What is your position regarding a sustainable model for funding public education in Wisconsin?" He responded by stating that he, "would like to change the aid formula to address the ways in which aid is affected by capital improvements and referenda." Finally something I would like to see. Currently, if you make large capital expenditures from Fund 10 (General Fund/Fund Balance), it negatively affects your state aid the following year. There are ways to reduce the hit in state aid, such as what we passed in our district to expand our technology capabilities. We set aside $3.5 Million in Fund 10 to be used over the course of 4 years. This will help us absorb the negative impact. I always found it odd that districts that underspend their budget were rewarded with more aid the following year, but then take a hit when they spend the money they saved. Vigilance on behalf of the tax payers in this case ends up harming them with increased property taxes later. It is my belief that a smart school board should be saving money over time to offset the need to go to referendum for major upgrades in their district. Tweaking the way that formula works needs to be done and should be managed in a way that provides balance so districts have ways to provide the next level of education in a responsible manner. I would be surprised if the Governor actually proposes something regarding this, but if he does and does it in a reasonable fashion, it would be the first initiative he has pushed that I would support.
Next the Governor was asked to explain his vision for public education in Wisconsin. He first went to the standard, "We have to make education relevant." and discussed the need for, "an aggressive push to change the perception of tech and career colleges." Which tied into a statement about the need to, "target aid to areas of need." OK, I don't disagree. He then brought up Act 10 stating that, "Act 10 provides more control at the local level but he would like to see even more flexibility." If instability among staff equates to more control, that's a new one on me. We continue to see districts across the state that are dealing with teacher resignations that are becoming harder to fill because of less people seeking education degrees. Districts are beginning to engage in bidding wars for teachers with specialty degrees. He further stated that Act 10, "allowed districts to focus on curriculum instead of grievances." Interesting. I don't know what the central office in his district looked like when he was going to school, but we have a Director of Human Resources and two Directors of Curriculum and Instruction. One deals with grievances, the other handles curriculum. It's pretty clear and basic. If that is his reason for stripping away workers rights, I'd suggest he think of a better excuse than that. He did let slip his contempt for unions with the statement, "unions didn't care about newer membership." when discussing eliminating tenure. Hmmm...not any union I ever experienced.
Finally it came time for my question. First I need to explain that I am a firm believer in the income tax over the property tax. I believe the property tax to be regressive and disproportionately affects lower income home owners. At the same time, the current state of our income tax in Wisconsin is also regressive in that higher incomes are taxed too low while middle and low incomes are taxed too high. Because of loop holes in the tax code many high income individuals pay very little in taxes when compared to middle and low income individuals. My other objection comes from the fact that at one time the state provided 2/3 of the funding to local districts. That has not been the case for many years and as a result property taxes sky rocketed over the last decade and a half. So I began by stating my concern on the impact of reduced aid to districts as it has a negative effect on the property tax levy. I asked, "In light of the recent report from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau of a projected $1.8 billion structural deficit in the next budget cycle, what is your plan to maintain school aid from the state and protect property tax payers?" It might have been too much to ask for a real answer on this question as well. He began by expounding on the great work that the LFB does. He then went on to criticize their numbers, stating that the LFB do not project revenue growth in their assessment and that his office projects a balanced budget. Of course, the budget has to be balance by law. The question was, in not so many words, how do you intend to get there? He continued by saying that he believes revenues will increase. OK? So you're wishing for a good quarter to fix the problem? Or perhaps some fairy dust? He then went on to state that he wishes to see changes to how school aid is calculated. Once again sir, not the question. Unfortunately the way the program was set up, there were no follow up questions and his denial of the numbers in the Bureau's report was left hanging in the air. The woman sitting next to me leaned over and said, "What does he mean they don't project revenues? That's exactly what they do." I found out she was a former IRS employee and really followed the budget numbers.
In conclusion, our union men and women best be ready for the next attack, it's coming, and it will be swift. He is evading answering questions honestly even when there are no cameras and many in the audience were probably friendly to his philosophy. Most importantly, if you care about having leadership in this state that really understands the needs of providing the best education for our children so that they have every opportunity to succeed, get out there and knock on doors, make calls, and vote for Mary Burke.