Kindergarten
Emily Farwell, a kindergarten teacher at Falk Elementary School, reads to students in this December 2009 file photo. MIKE DeVRIES - The Capital Times

A Wisconsin superintendents survey last fall found state budget cuts prompted school districts to eliminate thousands of staff positions, increase class sizes, raise student fees and reduce extracurricular offerings this school year.

But this week, Gov. Scott Walker's office said those results don't tell the full story and that similar surveys from past years show school districts fared better after his education changes went into effect.

Further, the governor's office contends the organizations that conducted those surveys — the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators and the Wisconsin Education Association Council — were unhelpful, and in WEAC's case actually worked against the administration as staff tried to compare recent results to past surveys.

"It's unfortunate that WEAC stands in the way of survey data that they have released in the past, which shows the governor's changes are working and are good for their members and the state's schoolchildren," said Cullen Werwie, Walker's spokesman.

The older surveys show more school districts increased class sizes, reduced extracurricular programs, raised student fees and tapped reserves to balance their budgets in each year between 2002 and 2008 than they did in 2011-12.

In past years, about two-thirds to three-quarters of districts reported increasing student fees each year. This year, 22 percent of districts reported doing so.

More than half of districts said they reduced sports and extracurricular programs, compared with 11 percent this year.

Walker's office also pointed out that in past years, 62 percent to 70 percent of districts reported laying off teachers, compared with 31 percent this year. However, that doesn't account for this year's unusually high number of teacher retirements. Overall, 65 percent of districts reported a net loss of teachers this year.

In a statement, WEAC said last fall's survey is different from those conducted in previous years and the results are "too unique to compare" to past ones.

"Gov. Walker's cuts to education — including the greatest reduction in state aid since the Great Depression and the largest combined cut to education in our state's history — caused unprecedented harm to Wisconsin's tradition of quality public schools," the WEAC statement said. "The effects of Walker's actions are still being felt now, with record-level staff and program reductions."

Gray areas

Walker's budget cut about $749 million from state education aid over two years and mandated a reduction in how much school districts could raise from property taxes to offset those cuts. It was the first reduction in the revenue limits since they were imposed 20 years ago and, combined with flat revenue limits for next year, resulted in a $1.6 billion swing from what districts would have been able to raise under the previous law to what they can raise now.

As a result, school property taxes statewide declined this year by about 1 percent. It was only the second decline in school property taxes in the past decade.

To offset the cuts, most districts in the state negotiated higher pension and health insurance premium contributions from employees. Andrew Reschovsky, a UW-Madison economist, said the pension contributions could explain why they didn't raise student fees or cut extracurricular programs as they did in past years when teacher contracts guaranteed annual raises.

Reschovsky said interpreting last fall's survey results has become a "glass half-empty or half-full" scenario.

"On the one hand, (the employee pension and health insurance contributions) prevented really bad cuts that you would have expected given the cuts in the revenue limits," Reschovsky said. "On the other hand, even with these one-time cuts in compensation, you still had districts still making cuts."

Playing keep-away?

Officials with WEAC did not make themselves available for an interview. The organization, which is the state's largest teachers union and one of the lead organizations seeking to recall Walker, conducted the previous surveys and at one time posted them on its website.

However, the links to those surveys no longer work, and WEAC has ignored the State Journal's requests for the prior-year results. Emails obtained through a state open records request show the governor's office unsuccessfully tried to get copies of the old surveys from WEAC, WASDA and the state Department of Public Instruction.

In one email, Miles Turner, WASDA executive director, told a Walker staffer, "Our office went paperless several years ago and we do not have copies of anything on that project. We truly are not trying to conceal anything."

DPI responded that it didn't have the surveys.

Werwie said WEAC never responded. He said it seemed the groups were trying to hide the surveys, perhaps in an attempt to keep people from realizing the benefits of Walker's changes.

Walker staffers finally found the surveys through an unlinked section of the WEAC site that still contained the surveys.

Contact Matthew DeFour at mdefour@madison.com or 608-252-6144; contact Clay Barbour at cbarbour@madison.com or 608-252-6129.


School district surveys

Percentage of school districts responding affirmatively to questions about how they balanced their annual budgets.

Year Incr. class sizes Used fund balance Raised student fees Reduced extracurricular/
sports programs
2002-03 68 69 75 55
2003-04 68 64 73 51
2004-05 70 65 65 53
2005-06 74 65 67 54
2006-07 75 66 67 56
2007-08 69 74 68 53
2011-12* 59 49 22 11

*The most recent survey was conducted by the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators and used a different format. The other surveys were conducted by the Wisconsin Education Association Council. WEAC didn’t respond to questions about whether it had results for the 2008-09, 2009-10 or 2010-11.

SOURCE: WASDA/WEAC surveys

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