Michael Johnson
Eau Claire Area School District Superintendent Michael Johnson speaks Monday at a press conference at which education advocates urged lawmakers to increase state funding for schools as part of the 2021-23 state budget. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Wisconsin faces a $4.4 billion surplus over the next three years, but Republicans are providing just a $128 million school funding boost. Evers proposed $1.6 billion.

When the coronavirus pandemic struck the Osseo-Fairchild School District she oversees in west-central Wisconsin, Superintendent Lori Whelan quickly realized the 800-student district would face unprecedented costs. 

There was personal protective equipment to buy, along with extra cleaning supplies. In an effort to ensure social distancing, staff worked extra hours, and additional bus routes were added. Technology equipment was bought for teachers and students to make virtual learning workable. 

Those purchases and the payment of other additional costs incurred during the pandemic were made possible by federal coronavirus relief funds. However, Whelan and other school leaders in the state are now being told that because their districts received an influx of federal money, they will get little in the way of state funding as part of the 2021-23 state budget lawmakers are expected to approve next week. 

The Legislature’s Republican-led Joint Finance Committee (JFC) voted Thursday to include no per-student state aid increase for the next two years, outside of a $128 million boost that will go largely to increase special education reimbursement from its current rate of about 25% of costs to 28% the first year of the budget and 30% the second.

“We used the [federal money] in the way we were supposed to. We used it to keep our schools open, to keep our students learning while keeping them safe,” Whelan said. “Now I feel like we’re being punished for doing that.”

Republicans said Wisconsin schools don’t require as much state funding after receiving $2.4 billion in COVID-19 relief dollars from the federal government. 

The $128 million increase the JFC approved is far less than Gov. Tony Evers’ initial $1.6 billion proposal and nearly $400 million less than required to secure an additional $2.6 billion in federal coronavirus relief.

Republicans found a workaround to still receive the federal funding by cutting taxes for schools and technical colleges by $647 million and using increased state aid to make up for that lost revenue, thereby qualifying for the relief funds without passing on more dollars to schools.  

“The Republicans allocated nothing,” said US Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee), who spoke Monday at one of several press events around Wisconsin organized by the Wisconsin Public Education Network (WPEN). “What they did is a shell game.”

Education advocates say the $128 million increase significantly lags the needs schools face, especially as they continue to recover from educational challenges posed by the pandemic. In the press conferences—held in Eau Claire, Milwaukee, Madison, Appleton, Oshkosh, Green Bay, and other locations—advocates called on state lawmakers to increase funding for schools as part of the 2021-23 state budget expected to be approved by the Legislature next week.

RELATED: Evers Wants to Use $4.4 Billion Surplus on Schools. GOP Wants Tax Cuts.

At a press conference in Eau Claire Monday,  Eau Claire Area School District Executive Director of Business Services Abby Johnson said the district faces a projected deficit of about $2 million each of the next two years if the current Joint Finance Committee recommendation for schools becomes law. 

“We’re very concerned about repurposing those funds to help balance our budget the next few years,” Johnson said.

Moore said she was pleased to allocate federal funding to help students make up for learning loss because of the pandemic. But Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) “would have to shelve so many of those plans” with the JFC proposal, she said during the press event in Milwaukee. 

Increasing state aid for schools without lifting spending caps and allowing districts to spend that money, then giving it as a tax cut, is a disingenuous way of Republicans saying they support education, said Chris Thiel, legislative policy manager for MPS. 

“When people say it’s a shell game, frankly, that is true,” he said. “None of this money is going toward the intended purpose of funding education.”

If the JFC recommendations are approved as part of the state budget, Whelan said her district faces a projected deficit of between $300,000 and $350,000 for each of the next two years. Spending such as replacing outdated school buses would be delayed without more state funding, she said. 

The JFC’s action comes even as Wisconsin officials learned this month the state is projected to take in $4.4 billion more in tax revenue during the next three years than previously anticipated. Republican leadership subsequently developed a plan to reduce property and income taxes by $3.4 billion during the next two years.

Republicans said tax cuts are fiscally responsible and will help spur a continued economic bounceback from the pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) praised the tax cut plan, calling it “a complete game-changer for the people of Wisconsin” in a news release.

However, school advocates said not increasing per-pupil spending during the next two years, especially on the heels of the pandemic, is a slap in the face to Wisconsin’s education system. That strategy will leave students and educators without the resources they need, said Heather DuBois Bourenane, WPEN executive director. 

“It is not a substitute for regular state aid in any way,” she said of the idea that federal coronavirus aid money should replace state education funding. “What I sense is a willingness [on the part of Republican lawmakers] to jump through any amount of bureaucratic hoops necessary to ensure that none of the taxpayer surplus goes to support Wisconsin children. It’s absolutely unconscionable.”

After watching years of education cuts in Wisconsin, after seeing continually low reimbursement of the special education program in the Eau Claire Area School District her twin sons Sam and TJ have been part of, Beth Ivankovic felt compelled to speak at the Eau Claire press event Monday. 

She said she was optimistic when she heard about the budget surplus, that it could be used to help better fund schools. Now her hope has turned to disappointment. 

“We’ve had cuts and cuts and cuts, and at some point it’s not sustainable,” she said. “Now, on the heels of COVID, it seems like this could be a breaking point. We have a lot of catching up to do, and that means we need more resources, not less.”