State Dem candidates use Merrill elementary school to attack Walker on education; district says declining enrollment, not governor's actions, led to need for referendumSubmitted: 09/05/2018
Ben Meyer
Ben Meyer
Managing Editor / Senior Reporter

State Dem candidates use Merrill elementary school to attack Walker on education; district says declining enrollment, not governor's actions, led to need for referendum
MERRILL - Top state Democrats used Merrill schools in a bold attack on Gov. Scott Walker on Wednesday.

At the Merrill press event, they said Walker's education policies put two district elementary schools on the brink of closure.

But the district says those claims aren't quite true.

Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Martha Laning said Merrill's Jefferson Elementary School was put in jeopardy by Walker.

"Clearly, Scott Walker's plan is harming education," Laning said. "The school that is right behind us here was almost a casualty of his plan."

It's true Jefferson Elementary would have closed if a spring 2018 referendum in Merrill had failed. That spending referendum easily passed, and Jefferson stayed open.

But was it fair to pin the tight situation on Walker education cuts in the early 2010s?

Merrill Superintendent Dr. John Sample says enrollment numbers, not moves by the governor, led to the referendum.

"Our referendum was based on our numbers. Our enrollment is declining," said Sample. "For us to be able to maintain the quality service that we provide our students, and, inevitably, our parents, we were looking at a referendum."

He agreed when asked if Wednesday's Democratic comments were tied to politics, not facts given by the district.

"We were continuing to decline," Sample said. "That was the primary purpose for us going to referendum."

Mandela Barnes, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, also spoke at the event.

Asked three times, he wouldn't say whether the campaign had contacted Merrill schools to ask whether Walker's policies had forced its referendum.

"Merrill, like so many other school districts, have had to go to referendum because of declining state aid," Barnes said.

Sample said the Democratic campaign didn't even tell Merrill schools it would be holding a press event in front of Jefferson Elementary.

A Democratic staffer took Laning away before we could ask her questions on camera.

The Democratic campaign also stopped at schools in the Green Bay and La Crosse areas on Wednesday. It said the tour visited districts forced to go to referendum because of Walker's cuts to education.

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