Sun Prairie referendum (copy)

Students crowd a hallway at Northside Elementary School in Sun Prairie last fall. Northside will start a new school year on Sept. 5 but lawmakers have not yet passed a new state budget which sets spending levels for schools in Wisconsin. 

AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL

Schools across Wisconsin are starting a new year without knowing exactly what’s coming from the state as lawmakers continue to put off passing a new two-year state budget.

For many school officials, the delay isn’t worrying them much at this point. But for some, spending on staff, new course materials and training is on hold. And if a new budget isn’t in place soon, payments to schools in rural areas could be delayed and school officials there may turn to borrowing to fill the gap.

“With the state budget not being settled, there’s a lot of uncertainty across all superintendents and people managing the finances of school districts across the state of Wisconsin,” said Brad Saron, superintendent of the Sun Prairie School District. “And what that means is, really, everything is on hold.”

Most schools in Milwaukee and in the state’s voucher programs have already started their 2017-18 school year, and schools in the rest of the state will have their first day on Sept. 5.

But lawmakers are more than a month late in passing a new two-year spending plan that includes funding for public and private-voucher schools and determines how much money districts can raise in property taxes.

Republicans in the Senate and Assembly have failed so far to find consensus on transportation funding, prompting the budget delay, and have now turned most of their attention to legislation providing $3 billion in subsidies for Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn to build a massive campus to create LCD panels in southeastern Wisconsin.

“Legislators keep saying it looks like the budget is baked, it’s soup … but it’s not,” said state Superintendent Tony Evers, who is considering running against Gov. Scott Walker in 2018.

‘There will be ongoing concerns’

Evers said school officials are worried funding increases they have been told for months are coming could be diminished as lawmakers work on an incentive package for Foxconn.

“I think there is a fair amount of concern (from school district officials) that we’re not sure we’re going to get this money,” Evers said. “So until a budget is finalized, I think there will be ongoing concerns.”

The leaders of the state Senate have said lawmakers on the state’s budget-writing committee could resume work on the budget Aug. 23. But if a budget is not in place eight days later, schools in rural areas will miss state payments they usually get in September to subsidize school operations, according to a memo from the Department of Public Instruction sent to budget-writing committee members this month.

“(The delay) may cause some districts to have to short-term borrow to cover this deficit,” said Kim Kaukl, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance. “The majority of our districts are already working with very tight budgets and any aid delay in payments can have a serious impact.”

DPI spokesman Tom McCarthy said the department could push back the rural school payment deadline if lawmakers gave DPI a “clear signal” that the budget was going to be passed quickly.

Saron, who oversees a district in Dane County of about 8,000 students, said the delay has paused plans for staffing and training, purchasing some course materials and reserving money for wage increases and benefits for school employees. He said his district will need to hire staff for about 100 new students, but that it’s difficult to figure out exactly how to pay for them.

The Madison School Board “intentionally” did not use all of its taxing ability in a preliminary spending plan it passed earlier this year “to be mindful of the impact on our taxpayers,” Madison School District spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson said. But if aid comes in less than projected, that may change.

“The lack of a state budget increases our risk for having to make adjustments down the road, which would impact our local taxpayers. We’ve often asked for stability from the state level, but this is another example of the opposite,” she said.

Delays in hiring and purchasing possible

Walker has proposed $649 million in new spending for schools, including increasing the amount of money schools get per student by $200 in the 2017-18 school year and by another $204 in the 2018-19 school year. The current level is $250 per student.

But Republican lawmakers in the Senate and Assembly have each proposed separate education spending plans. Kaukl said a number of rural school districts have delayed hiring and purchasing until they know what is included in the state budget.

“This may mean classes may begin with substitute teachers covering a class, classrooms being overloaded or, worse case, courses being dropped,” Kaukl said.

Dan Rossmiller, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said more than 90 percent of contracts with teachers were issued in May but there may be cases in which district officials must fill recently vacated positions, or want to fill additional positions.

School districts don’t have to approve their final budgets for the school year until late October, but DPI must set general state aid payments by Oct. 15, which is used by districts to set their tax levies by Nov. 1.

Dean Gorrell, superintendent of the Verona School District, said the lack of a new state budget “has had some impact on us, but not much at this point.”

“The impact is in our negotiations on base wages with our support staff union,” he said, adding that the union and district officials have agreed to wait until a new state budget is in place.

Monona Grove School District Superintendent Dan Olson said the delay doesn’t have much of an effect on his district’s budget because the School Board there already approved final staffing plans and a preliminary spending plan.

Uncertainty over voucher payments

Meanwhile, most schools in the state’s private voucher programs have started the new year without knowing exactly what taxpayer-funded payments they will receive for each student enrolled using a voucher, according to the DPI memo.

If the budget isn’t in place by Sept. 5, the first payments to the private voucher schools will not reflect proposed increases in funding and the payments the schools receive beyond September will need to be adjusted to reflect the new amount. Summer school payments to the schools also could change based on what the state budget ultimately includes.

And if a new state budget is not in place by Oct. 3, the amount of state aid deducted from school districts’ share to pay for private voucher schools and independent charter schools could be insufficient to cover the true cost.

Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who head the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, both said Tuesday they want the budget to have Walker’s signature by Labor Day.

“This really isn’t fair,” Darling said. “This is one of our biggest investments in education we’ve ever made and to keep the districts hanging on what their budgets could be is really not acceptable.”

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.