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Budget woes worry western Wisconsin schools

State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) met with school administrators, teachers and school board members from around western Wisconsin on March 7 to talk about the state's ongoing budget discussions.

State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) knew she was on the hot seat when she showed up at Osceola High School on March 7.

School officials and teachers from across western Wisconsin had invited local legislators to a regional gathering to voice their displeasure with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's recently released budget proposal. Harsdorf was the only one to show up.

Among the governor's recommendations are a virtual freeze on school funding and a proposed expansion of the school voucher program to nine districts in Wisconsin.

Teachers, administrators and school board members in attendance were clearly upset with the idea that the state might not bump up school funding in its next budget. Representatives from Somerset, Osceola, Baldwin-Woodville, Amery, Unity, Clear Lake, Luck, Clayton, Turtle Lake and Frederic were on hand for the forum.

But before the crowd was given a chance to express their frustrations with the proposals, Harsdorf offered a few words to calm everyone's fears. A budget proposal, Harsdorf said, is simply a governor's wish list.

Just because something is proposed, she said, doesn't mean it will be approved.

"This is not the budget that is going to pass," she said.

Once the governor sends his proposal to the legislature, Harsdorf said of the process, then public input in gathered and changes are made. A final budget document isn't approved until May or June.

Mark Luebker, superintendent of the Osceola School District, opened up the evening's comments by outlining the likely impact on his district if school funding is not increased. Districts were hopeful of receiving a $200-per-student increase in state aids next year, Luebker noted. Without that funding bump, he said Osceola would run into a $218,012 deficit.

"There is a significant impact on local school districts if we don't get some additional funding," he said. "We understand it's a tough time and there are other needs. We really hope you will support the $200-per-pupil increase."

He also asked Harsdorf to oppose any plans that expand the school voucher program, which allows some parents in struggling districts to send their children to different private or public schools by transferring the per-pupil aid to the school they eventually attend.

Luebker said vouchers cost local school districts money in the long run.

Randy Rosburg, superintendent of the Somerset School District, said his district could face about a $500,000 deficit next year if funding isn't increased. That will result in teacher layoffs, deferred maintenance and program cuts, he claimed.

In the Unity School District, a $400,000 budget deficit is expected should the governor's proposal be adopted.

Unity Superintendent Brandon Robinson said the public always assumes that districts can juggle money around to make ends meet, but he said much of the money in school budgets is earmarked for specific purposes.

"There's not a lot of juggling that can go on," he said.

Turtle Lake can expect a $1.4 million deficit if funding remains stagnant. Clayton projects a $179,000 shortfall in that scenario.

Amery's projected deficit would run about $642,000, officials in attendance claimed.

Amery Superintendent Stephen Schiell said his district and others in the region have been cutting for years, and one more financial roadblock would be tough.

"It's been very, very hard," he said.

Schiell added that local districts have done a tremendous job educating students despite tight resources and rising costs.

"We do a great job with what we have," he commented.

Josh Robinson, superintendent at Frederic School District, echoed the other speakers.

"It does look bleak if we don't have that $200 per student," he said.

Not knowing if and when the added funding might happen is also a problem, Robinson noted. He said district have to inform teachers by April 15 if their contracts are not being renewed.

Because the state's budget process isn't done until May or June, Robinson told Harsdorf, most districts have to non-renew a number of teachers just in case the funding isn't available to pay them. Because of that uncertainty, teachers and their families have to ride an emotional roller coaster, he said.

"There's a little bit of panic about what's going to happen in the fall," he said.

Luck's Superintendent Rick Palmer urged Harsdorf to advocate for local districts and push for a hike in aid. He said the state's budget was balanced "on the backs of public employees" two years ago and now it's time to invest in education again.

"I think our teachers and students have suffered enough," he said.

Because the state is expecting a budget surplus in the next biennium, Palmer said a chunk of that money should go to schools.

Harsdorf said it's too early to know what the budget will look like once it's approved, but she encouraged everyone to provide input throughout the hearing and information gathering process.

She did note that some legislators are favoring a $150-per-pupil increase in funding rather than a freeze.

Harsdorf also said it's important for the state to pass a balanced budget, and pointed to other big ticket items (like Medical Assistance) that will see a hike in funding in the next budget cycle.

"These are challenging times, without a doubt," Harsdorf said.