Schools across Wisconsin are warning about the consequences of a K-12 budget that does not help students fully recover from the pandemic, adequately fund special education or sufficiently meet other local needs.

The challenges are as unique as the communities facing them, but there are some shared themes experienced by districts across the state.

The WASB has put together a summary of these themes, along with resources and data for each, to assist media in telling the story of how the state budget will affect their community’s children. A few school districts have been chosen to illustrate these themes, though each district’s budget and operations may be different.

The WASB is available to help local reporters put their public schools’ issues in the context of the state budget.

Mental health 

The Columbus School District, to take one example, has a need for school counselors, psychologists, social workers and others to mitigate the social and emotional impacts of the pandemic.

“None of these essential positions can be filled with the cuts to state education funding as approved by the JFC,” the school board wrote in a June 1 letter, referring to the Joint Finance Committee.

Resources and Data: 

  • 16.6% of Wisconsin children ages 3-17 received mental health treatment or counseling in past year, compared with 11.1% nationwide, according to KFF
  • Of the youth who receive mental health care, 70% to 80% of them receive it in the schools, according to the ACLU
  • Children’s mental health fact sheets from the CDC and NAMI
  • The Voice of Wisconsin Students Project, a report compiled from 23 focus groups held January and February 2021
Special education

Schools take pride in their ability to educate children with special needs. But these costs continue to rise.

Schools are not reimbursed for about 72% of their special education costs, requiring them to divert general education funding to fill the gap in special education.

For example, the Barron Area School District transfers about $1.5 million each year from general into special education — more than $1,000 for each of the district’s 1,168 students. Supt. Diane Tremblay wrote that a significant special education increase would “bring much-needed equity so we are not having to lessen the impact on our general education students.”

Resources and Data:

  • Before the last state budget, the reimbursement rate had fallen to an estimated 24.5% in the 2018-19 school year. The last state budget raised the reimbursement rate
    to about 28%.
  • The governor’s proposed budget would increase the state’s reimbursement from 28% of costs to 50% of costs over three years. The Joint Finance Committee’s proposed budget would increase the state reimbursement by less than 2 percentage points, to 30%.
  • A Jan. 2019 Marquette University Law School Poll found that 73% of Wisconsin respondents said they support a major increase in state aid for special education.
Pandemic-related enrollment drops

School districts’ per-pupil funding is set largely by counts of enrollment taken near the beginning of each school year. Many districts experienced temporary enrollment drops last fall that do not reflect their pupil counts going forward.

“Families across Wisconsin have been forced to make decisions about how to educate their children during an uncertain time,” the Whitefish Bay School Board said in a letter. Even temporary enrollment changes, the board says, “can have a large impact on school district budgets and local taxes for several years into the future.”

The governor proposed measures to mitigate the effect of pandemic-related changes in enrollment. In Columbus, for example, those measures would allow the district to save $100,000 a year.

The JFC budget includes no such allowances to address the unprecedented and temporary enrollment dip experienced by many schools in fall 2020.

Resources and Data: 

  • “Enrollment in public school districts dropped 3 percent from September 2019 to September 2020, compared to a 0.4 percent drop in the previous 12-month period,” including a 15.8% decline in 4K and preschool special education, according to WPR.

Per-pupil funding increases

There are multiple ways for the Legislature to increase per-pupil funding. The JFC budget proposal includes no increases in per-pupil funding.

With inflation forecasts of generally between 2% and 3% this year, many school districts are losing purchasing power without an inflationary increase.

This can affect a wide range of school district operations, such as efforts to reduce class size and provide before- and after-school programming or tutoring to help students recover from the pandemic academically.

Resources and Data

  • Only once in the last ten years (in the 2015-16 school year) has the Legislature not allowed schools an increase in spendable resources. (Graph is here.)
  • “Consumer prices jump 5% in May, fastest pace since the summer of 2008,” CNBC reports.
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