Bill to increase rural school aid excludes Gillett

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Measure blocks districts with failed referendums for three years
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The Gillett School District is locked out of a bill that would provide a needed state-aid boost to smaller, rural school districts.

The Assembly Committee on Education voted 14-1 Thursday to recommend the bill (AB 835), which would increase funding for the sparsity aid program and increase the low-revenue-ceiling adjustment.

Sparsity aid is a program that helps with funding for school districts with fewer than 745 students and fewer than 10 students per square mile of the district’s geographic area. The low-revenue-ceiling adjustment is a base level for the state-imposed revenue limits that have been part of public school budgeting for about 25 years.

Gov. Scott Walker last year vetoed a 2017-19 budget provision that would have increased the base for districts near the lowest revenue limits — now set at $9,100 per pupil — by an additional $100 per year before reaching $9,800 in the 2022-23 school year. AB 835 reintroduced the proposal as a separate bill starting with 2018-19.

The bill specifically excludes school districts where voters have rejected a referendum to exceed the revenue limits for three years, applied retroactively.

That means Gillett could not benefit because of the failed referendum measures in April and August 2016.

Gillett Superintendent Todd Carlson told the school board that the district’s revenue limit currently is around $9,400 per pupil, but some higher-end districts are around $18,000.

The disparity can occur between neighboring schools. For example, according to a document submitted to the Assembly committee for a Jan. 25 public hearing on the bill, revenue limits in Waukesha County range from $9,200 per pupil in Mukwonago to $11,631 in Elmbrook.

When he vetoed the measure in the budget, Walker said he did so in part because in some districts voters had already spoken that they did not want to exceed the revenue limits.

Carlson said he doesn’t understand the logic.

“I kind of compare it to, if … we agree that the minimum wage is not enough to make a good living and everyone should receive an increase,” Carlson said, “but oh, by the way, if you talked to your boss about ever getting a raise, we’re not going to let you have one.”

State Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, the bill’s main author, said the bill has a net positive impact on area schools.

“The increase in funding for sparsity aid is critical to ensure our most rural school districts have the necessary resources to provide a top-notch education,” Nygren said in a statement. “And the low revenue adjustment directs resources to low-spending school districts so that all students have a top-notch school.”

During the public hearing, he cautioned that any changes to the bill could jeopardize what he described as a carefully negotiated compromise among the two houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office.

State Rep. Jeff Mursau, R-Crivitz, asked whether the three-year window could be modified.

“It’s going around the voters anyway, whether you did a referendum or not, you know. It’s just that some (districts) were in tough enough shape that they asked to get the money from the voters, and it just didn’t happen for whatever reason,” said Mursau, whose district includes Gillett. “So is there any way that window could be lessened so it’s a little bit less of a punishment on those schools?”

Kim Kaukl, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, spoke in favor of the bill but also said the three-year exemption seems to punish districts that asked voters for approval to exceed the revenue limits.

“This language could put these schools in an even tougher situation, because they may need to go to another operating referendum within the next three years to meet their financial needs,” Kaukl said. “If the districts were to fail again, it would fiscally push them further behind compared to their neighbors.”

Nygren warned against amending the bill.

“As with any compromise, anytime you look to potentially change a piece to it, you risk the greater effort not becoming law,” Nygren said.

On balance the bill would benefit most school districts, he said, even if it does not help the eight or nine districts that are left out.

“If this bill passes, and I believe it will, those districts are no worse off than they are today, based on the fact that the voters in those districts said no,” Nygren said.