By Brandi Makuski
Officials from the Stevens Point School District say changes in state government could force the district into the red — and then tie their hands from fixing it.
Lee Bush, interim superintendent, told the school board on Monday two “surprise” amendments were added to Assembly Bill 751 with little public notice and no public hearing. The amendments, he said, would not only net the school a loss of dollars for each student in the state’s Parental Choice Program (also known as the “voucher” program), but also change the formula districts are allowed to utilize in determining student counts for state aid.
“They would significant loss of revenue limit authority for school districts; our school district might lose $482,295 because it changes the funding formula for these kids,” Bush said. The assembly’s education committee approved the changes by a 9-5 vote, and comes before the full assembly for a final vote on Feb. 16.
Bush said the new formula is a confusing one, changing the revenue limit calculation for incoming choice pupils — students who enter the voucher program — for the purposes of revenue limit. Beginning with the 2016-17 school year, each student who enters the program will be counted as one-third of a student in the first year; two-thirds of a student in their second year; and finally being counted as a full student the third year of being in the voucher program. The program awards state vouchers to students’ families to offset the cost of attending private or parochial schools.
Under the change, Bush said, the district will lose about $6,700 for each student in the voucher program on an annual basis. Statewide, he said, that totals just over $400,000 in lost funding for the local school district.
Board President Meg Erler said there “always a chance” the changes won’t be approved at the state level, but she’s not holding out much hope.
“We can’t replace the $400,000 that they’re going to take away,” she said. “Up to now, mid-70 percent of students who are receiving vouchers to go to private schools, statewide, are students who were already in those private schools. They are not students who transferred. Even if they aren’t in the public schools and are eligible for the voucher, we as a public school district lose those dollars. It’s very irrational; there’s no logic behind it.”
Tom Owens, director of business affairs for the district, also told the school board while next year’s budget numbers are “very preliminary”, the district is already coming up more than $130,000 short in the category of wages and benefits, based on the estimated $868,000 in wage increases he expects for the 2016-17 school year. That’s in addition to $1.8 million in wage increases he expects to be paid out during the 2015-16 school year — the product of recently-negotiated past employee contracts dating back to the 2013-14 school year.
“That’s just in increases,” Owens said. “That doesn’t include the total number paid out for wages.”
In a memo to the board, Owens said an “infusion of $2 million in operational recurring funds is needed to sustain the district for several years, and that is only possible by the passage of a referendum,” but he said no referendum is currently being considered by the board.
But the district’s ability to ask for additional funding via referendum is also in trouble, Bush said.
“Another bill, Assembly Bill 481 would restrict districts from holding more than one referendum in a two-year period of time,” he said. That’s problematic because referendums are often unsuccessful on the first try, but often are approved by voters after tweaks at the committee level, he added.
“Something pretty drastic could happen; a boiler goes out, you need extra money, but you can’t do that for two years,” Bush said, adding that currently, districts can go to referendum at any time of the year. “There’s emergencies that could take place, you just never know. We’re talking about local control; they’re really micromanaging, not letting local control deal with referendums.”
Bush, along with others on the school board, are asking the public to call state legislators to voice their disapproval of the proposals.
“We’ve been talking, ever since I’ve been here for the last six months, every board meeting, we talk about funding issues,” Bush said. “We feel this is something the local citizens needs to get involved with now. The voucher program takes away from your public school system.”
“The phone call is very simple; it takes a minute,” said Board Member Angel Faxon. “You don’t have to be able to debate the issue, just tell them you’re opposed, so if it’s something you’re afraid you don’t know enough it, you don’t need to be.”
“It’s an assault on funding for schools in our state. It’s a direct assault,” said Erler. “Thirteen districts statewide are going to referendum in February; another 53 are going to referendum in April’s General Election. We have districts in our area who are on their second recurring operating referendum.”
Erler said the current board has done “everything that we can” to be fiscally responsible, but unless there’s a change at the state level the district may have no choice but to ask taxpayers for more money.
“The reality in this state is, we’re becoming a ‘have’ and a ‘have not’ state. Districts that are passing referendums have more dollars available to support public education; those districts that have not passed referendums are seeing the existing pie of funding being carved away by the legislature month-by-month,” Erler said. “It’s essential members of the public who are concerned about what’s happening speak to those representatives.”
Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, chairman of the assembly’s education committee, can be reached at (888) 529-0052. The committee’s vice-chair, Rep. Joel Kitchens, can be reached at (888) 482-0001.
Local Assembly Rep. Katrina Shankland can be reached at (888) 534-0071.