Angst and uncertainty over Wisconsin’s budget for schools

By: - June 25, 2021 7:00 am
Milwaukee public school teachers, parents, students and supporters staged a large picket line outside MPS administration building on Vliet Street on Milwaukee's west side on April 24, 2018. (Photo by Charles Edward Miller/Creative Commons CC BY SA 2.0)

Milwaukee public school teachers, parents, students and supporters staged a large picket line outside MPS administration building on Vliet Street on Milwaukee’s west side on April 24, 2018. (Photo by Charles Edward Miller/Creative Commons CC BY SA 2.0)

Blaise Paul, the business manager for the school district of South Milwaukee, calls the Republican budget for schools “the very definition of fiscal irresponsibility.”

“It’s shocking to me,” he says. Back at the beginning of the year, Paul says he wasn’t worried about the state budget. He knew the state revenue picture was good and he expected the Legislature would maintain its commitment to fund schools with at least an inflationary increase. Instead, when he and other school district officials met with their state Rep. Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek), she informed them that there would be no per pupil increase in spending in the Republican budget — “a goose egg,” as Paul put it.

“I’m not a Republican, I’m not a Democrat, I’m a school official that wants to do right by all of our kids,” says Paul, “and a budget that would provide an inflationary increase would be doing right by our kids. Instead, this is a budget that provides no inflationary increase. And I don’t understand why.”

When school district officials asked how they could maintain school programs, Rodriguez told them to use federal COVID relief funds through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) program, “which completely caught me off guard, because those funds are for rebounding from the worst pandemic we’ve seen in 100 years,” says Paul. The Legislature’s idea that the district should use COVID relief money to cover ongoing operational expenses was so irresponsible, it “shocked me to my core,” he says.

South Milwaukee had already made some pandemic-related expenditures “even though we don’t have the money because we were just going to do it and then get reimbursed,” he says. Those things include a “summer school on steroids” to make up for pandemic learning loss and expanded tutoring options as well as beefed up transportation and special ed services to help families in need. The district also planned to spend about $3 million of the $8 million it expects to receive in federal pandemic relief to upgrade 1960s-era HVAC systems in two school buildings. 

“She was like, ‘Oh, you have a plan,’” Paul recalls of his meeting with Rodriguez. She told him that if the COVID funds were already spent, the district could go to referendum and ask property taxpayers to raise their own taxes to cover operational costs. 

“I don’t know which response was worse,” says Paul. “Personally, I don’t think funding schools through referendum is good public policy. .. Quite honestly, I think it’s a cowardly way to run a state by not funding schools at the state level with spendable increases, and telling every school to go at it by themselves and hope that they can get an increase in spendable revenue by passing a referendum.”

The worst part, he adds, is that the state is flush with revenue, with unexpectedly strong tax returns yielding about $5 billion more than expected. There’s no reason why schools could not get at least an inflationary increase to cover costs.

Like using disaster insurance to pay the mortgage

Paul uses an analogy to explain the shortsightedness of the Legislature’s insistence on using one-time federal COVID relief funds to cover ongoing education expenses “You have a really bad hail storm and your roof takes damage; you submit that to your insurance company and they send you a check to fix your roof. Well, here we have the Wisconsin Legislature at this moment, saying, ‘Nope, you’re not using that money to fix your roof. You’re gonna pay the mortgage.’”

“We’re taking on water here, because we have damage from this pandemic,” Paul adds, “and you’re not letting us use the money designed to fix it, to fix it. You’re telling us to use it for operating, and then shirking your responsibility as a Wisconsin legislator. That’s not right.”

If the Republican budget goes into effect, South Milwaukee will have to make hard choices about going through with its plans to either recover from the pandemic or sustain programs and staff. Staff cuts, bigger class sizes and eliminating extracurricular activities would all be on the table.

“I would guess we would probably abandon the ESSER plan [and give up on pandemic recovery] because the stuff that we’d have to cut if we didn’t would be very detrimental to the education that we provide the students,” says Paul. Using the federal funds to cover operating costs “may get us through two years,” he adds. “But I don’t even know if we can do it, because these ESSER funds aren’t just a blank check. … There are guidelines on how you can spend this money, and I know it’s not as easy as just getting the money and then paying for services with it.”

If South Milwaukee can somehow finesse the rules, abandon its COVID recovery plan and fund operations for two years with the one-time federal funds, “then we’ll have a huge cliff that we’ll end up having to fall off of,” Paul says, “unless the state comes through with a decent amount of money in that third year to make up for the lost federal revenue to continue those programs.”

Paul is not optimistic that it will work out. A new Legislature will have to appropriate new funds for schools when the current budget runs out, and, he says, given how badly they are handling school funding, “I doubt these legislators will be reelected.”

Despite partisan rhetoric from Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee who seemed determined to take money away from urban school districts that did not maintain in-person instruction during the pandemic and give it to rural and suburban schools that managed to stay open, the GOP plan for school funding is going to create lean times in Republican districts, too.

Affluent suburban districts that don’t qualify for as much federal funding, including Milwaukee suburbs Wauwatosa and Oak Creek, will also face revenue caps.

Paul recalls meeting with his Republican legislators, including Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), a certified public accountant who was critical of former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle for using one-time federal funding from the federal stabilization fund after the Great Recession to cover operating costs for Wisconsin schools. 

“It’s just ironic, I guess, that we have a Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee that’s recommending that we use one-time money for ongoing expenses,” Paul says.

In 2011, after the federal money ran out, Republican Gov. Scott Walker made drastic, unpopular cuts to school funding. “We’ve learned our lesson as a state on why you don’t depend on one-time revenue to fund ongoing expenses,” Paul says.

But after the current GOP budget passed the Legislature’s finance committee, in newsletters to their constituents, Republican legislators touted what they described as their “historic investment in schools.” That investment is mostly comprised of federal funds, and those funds are only supposed to be used for pandemic-related expenses.

“First, I don’t think they are fooling anyone,”  says Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. “Second, I think there are plenty of legislators in our State Capitol who are acutely aware of the needs of the kids in their districts. They don’t want to go back to their districts having betrayed those kids. I hope they are going to be honest with themselves and voters and do the right thing.”

By the right thing, she means voting to raise revenue caps on local school districts.  “They know they have to lift the caps if they want money to get to kids; they have to let voters know if they want money to get to kids or not,” she says. “I want to hold out hope in the decency of people that they can find a way to do that by next week.” (The budget is scheduled for a vote in the Assembly on June 28 and the Senate on June 30.)

Sen. Alberta Darling, a Republican who represents parts of Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha Counties, recently released a statement urging her colleagues to recall the $350 million they moved out of education funding and put into the state’s rainy day fund, where it could be used for any purpose.

“This allocation should instead be spent on special education reimbursement rates and per-pupil funding,” Darling said in her statement. “These critical investments in the classroom will help offset the loss of revenue from COVID-19 expenses and address the learning loss that took place last year. This investment will ensure we receive the full amount of funding available from the federal government while also giving schools the ability to plan for the future.”

But in a recent newsletter to his Racine-area constituents, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos was staying on message, writing that he was “excited to announce that Republicans were able to reach the milestone 2/3 state funding for education. For Wisconsin schools, the $2.6 billion in federal funds AND $500 million in new state money for K-12 comes to an average increase of $2,900 per student in the budget. This is a historic investment all Wisconsin’s students will benefit from.”

The “question of the week,” says DuBois Bourenane, is whether Evers will veto the budget over the Republicans’ dishonest school funding scheme. A veto would mean extending the current budget, which was unsatisfactory to public school advocates. It’s a hard call, she says. “What’s worse? A status quo budget that does nothing to support kids or close gaps, or a status quo budget that does nothing to support kids or close gaps? The option that works for kids is now in the garbage.”

“My biggest hope,” she adds, “is that they’ll revive some of it [in the Legislature] — lifting caps and restoring the special ed reimbursement.

Is the budget really “not that bad”?

Public school advocates were upset when Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point), who sits on the Legislature’s budget committee, told WKOW Channel 27 News that the Republican budget that will come to the floor for a vote next week is “not bad.”

“I don’t know what he was talking about,” says DuBoise Bourenane. “When we are talking about schools, it’s terrible. It’s the worst budget we’ve seen since the first budget in the Walker administration.”

As a member of the Joint Finance Committee, Erpenbach “is in full receipt of the needs of our schools and knows with crystal clarity that this budget is insufficient to meet their needs,” DuBois Bourenane says. 

She and local school officials and community members from around the state are engaged in a full-court press to try to get the Legislature to change course and lift revenue caps before the floor vote early next week.

In response to Erpenbach saying some Democrats would probably vote for the budget, and that it was not all bad, she says, “I would hope he’d clarify his remarks,.”

“I don’t like the school part and what they did at all,” Erpenbach told the Examiner, “but at the same time, if I’m comparing this to past budgets that have been passed by Republicans, it’s not that bad. There isn’t just godawful policy in there, there isn’t, you know, things that really absolutely skew things totally the wrong way.”

Republicans could have inserted measures to seize more powers from the executive branch, for example, Erpenbach says. They could have loaded the budget down at the last minute with “all sorts of pork projects.” They could have done worse on environmental stewardship programs. And the process was smooth, in Erpenbach’s opinion, wrapping up in the budget committee in record time. All in all, compared to previous Republican budgets, Erpenbach says, “It’s not that bad.”

“The school funding, obviously I’ve got a problem with,” he adds, pointing to the Republicans’ historically low increase in spending of $128 million for schools. “And I’ve got a problem with the buy-down on the property taxes but not allowing flexibility in the revenue caps for schools to spend the money. That’s not good, and they knew exactly what they were doing when they were doing that. But again, the process was better. And like I said, there aren’t unbelievable poison pills in there that would just absolutely sink it.”

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.