Joint Finance co-chairs

Along with the rest of the Joint Finance Committee, Republican co-chairs John Nygren and Alberta Darling backed a measure Thursday that would increase school revenue limits for low-spending school districts and increase aid for small, rural districts.

PHOTO BY JESSIE OPOIEN

Wisconsin school districts that spend less than others or are located in rural areas would boost their budgets under a measure approved unanimously Thursday by the Legislature's budget committee.

The legislation approved by the Joint Finance Committee would give more sparsity aid to small, rural school districts and would allow districts that spend less than most others to raise their revenue limits without a vote from local property taxpayers. 

Similar provisions were approved by lawmakers but ultimately vetoed by Gov. Scot Walker in the 2017-19 budget. Walker announced his support for the plan as standalone legislation last month. Given the finance committee's endorsement Thursday, the bill is expected to pass the full Legislature sometime this session.

The bill would increase sparsity aid, per pupil, from $300 to $400 starting in the 2018-19 school year for small, rural districts.

It would also increase the revenue limit for low-spending districts from $9,100 per pupil to $9,400 in the 2018-19 school year. It would increase by $100 each following year until it reaches $9,800.

By way of comparison, the statewide average for school spending was $10,312 per pupil in the 2015-16 school year. When the Legislature enacted revenue limits in the early 1990s, many districts that were low-spending then found it difficult to ever catch up given that the only remedy is to seek higher spending through referendums.

Under the measure endorsed by the budget committee Thursday, if a low-spending district has held a failed operating referendum within the last three years, its revenue ceiling would be set at wherever it was the year of the referendum. The district could go back to referendum, however, and with a "yes" vote would again become eligible for limit increases. 

"We need to continue to have conversations about how to best provide education in more rural areas," said Joint Finance co-Chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who spearheaded the issue during and after the budget process. "Simply dollars are not going to make the issue go away. We’re still going to continue to see that on the horizon, our schools are getting smaller and it’s getting more difficult to provide that education in a cost-effective way."

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Democrats voted to approve the bill, but lectured Republicans in the majority for not having addressed the issue sooner and chastised them for doing so in an election year. They accused Republicans of having starved public schools for years, while Republicans argued they inherited a budget "mess" from Democratic former Gov. Jim Doyle. 

"You have supported some of the biggest decreases in the history of the state," said Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee. 

Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, offered an analogy, arguing that when Republicans took the majority after Doyle left office it was like when the "woman of the house" kicks the "man of the house" to the curb for a handful of sins, and then a new "man of the house" enters the picture, discovers the first man ran up a lot of credit card debt and has to cut back on expenses in order to get the budget in order.

"Since 2010 we have made some really tough decisions," said Joint Finance co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills. "The reforms have worked. … that’s why we can invest today in low-revenue districts and in sparsity aid."

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.