Gov. Tony Evers during the State of the State speech, Jan. 22, 2020. (Photo © Andy Manis)
Gov. Tony Evers during the State of the State speech, Jan. 22, 2020. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Special session called as 55 more school districts are holding referenda

In a move to funnel roughly $250 million of surplus funds into the state’s public school system, Gov. Tony Evers signed an executive order calling for the third special session in as many months Thursday. This time, the focus is education.

The announcement comes as 55 school districts across Wisconsin are again going to voters, hat in hand, requesting money to keep their districts up and running. 

Voter referenda requests include everything from building new facilities, upgrading existing buildings or adding services. Thirteen of the 53 referendums are requests for basic operating costs, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Education. 

“This is a win-win for our kids,” Evers said at a Capitol press conference to announce the special session. “This will help districts get out from going to referenda every two years.”

As quickly as Evers put forth his plan, top Republicans indicted it does not have their support.

A portion of the suggested $250 million investment would go toward school-based mental health services and toward students with disabilities. An additional $10 million would invest in rural districts, specifically through rural sparsity aid, and another $130 million in property tax relief through the equalization formula.

Evers’ plan calls for renewing a promise he made to voters for the state to fund two-thirds of the cost of public education. That recommendation was also made by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Education, Evers said, suggesting the idea has bipartisan support.

Evers’ call for restoring funding levels follows the release of a report last week by the Wisconsin Budget Project that found funding for the state’s public school system, when adjusted for inflation, will be $3.9 billion less over a ten-year period than if funding levels remained constant at 2011 levels. 

Last week, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau announced a projected $818 million budget surplus. About half of the surplus is deposited in the state’s rainy day fund, leaving roughly $450 million to be allocated in what remains of the 2020 legislative session.

Top Republicans have called for using a portion of the surplus on property tax relief and additional programs to assist struggling farmers and small businesses in rural Wisconsin.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed an additional $1.4 billion in school funding for his 2020-21 budget, but Republicans whittled the boost down to $500 million. Evers used a partial veto to add an extra $70 million into the pot when he signed the budget last July, but the number was still far short of his original proposal. 

“This is about our kids. This is about tax reduction,” Evers said. “But at the end of the day, it is the right thing to do for the state of Wisconsin.” 

Click here for a breakdown by district of the additional $79.1 million for special education funding and here for more information on the 83 districts eligible for sparsity aid.