In Athens, governor promotes policy tweak to help small, rural districtsSubmitted: 01/09/2018
Ben Meyer
Ben Meyer
Managing Editor / Senior Reporter

In Athens, governor promotes policy tweak to help small, rural districts
ATHENS - Gov. Scott Walker and legislative Republicans hope to help state school districts that feel stuck in 1993.

A law from that year still has many local districts scrambling for money to keep schools open and help students learn.

But a new bill could help change that.

"This is just one more tool to help local school districts, particularly smaller, rural districts that have been revenue-challenged in the past [to] have the resources they need," Walker said Tuesday at Athens High School as he promoted the bill.

The 1993 law locks in the per-pupil revenue cap for each district in the state. Districts are limited to how much money they can raise through property taxes. The limit corresponds to the per-pupil spending of the districts in 1993. Districts which budgeted frugally in that year have had little ability to raise more since then without going to a referendum.

A new bill proposed by Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) and supported by Walker would change that for low-per-pupil-spending districts. District school boards would be allowed to raise per-pupil revenue up to $9,400 per student without going to a referendum.

"It finally happened this year," said Terry McCloskey, the president of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and a member of the Three Lakes School Board. "I don't know why they waited 23 years to fix it, but they waited 23 years to fix it."

The fix targets many rural schools, but could also help some larger school districts.

"It's not simply a bill for small, rural schools, because some big schools in the state were frugal in 1993, and they got hit the same way," McCloskey said.

Rhinelander, Tomahawk, Merrill, Phillips, Medford, Wittenberg-Birnamwood, Marshfield, Rib Lake, and Stevens Point are among the local districts that could raise more revenue by raising taxes, according to the Department of Public Instruction. The DPI counts 105 districts statewide eligible for more revenue, if the bill passes.

In northcentral Wisconsin, Antigo would be disqualified from raising more revenue, even though it's currently below $9,400 per student. A provision in the bill would block any district with a failed referendum in the last three years from taking advantage of the change.

Athens, the site of Walker's Tuesday stop, wouldn't benefit from the per-pupil revenue change. It can already raise more than $11,000 per student. But it would get help because of its small, rural nature.

"We have some unique challenges because of our demographics and where we've been," said Athens Superintendent Tim Micke.

Athens and other small, rural districts are eligible for sparsity aid, special state funding because of high transportation costs.

The bill would also add an extra $100 in funding for each student of these districts.

"We're all a part of Wisconsin, and we want to feel as included with all school districts in the state of Wisconsin," Micke said.

"Students here and at other school districts across the state deserve to have access to a great education, because good schools equal a good life," agreed Walker.

McCloskey said the Wisconsin Association of School Boards strongly supports the bill, and its lobbyists will work to get it passed. He's confident it will become law.

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