Who’s in Charge Here?

Slovak_referendum,_2015,_portable_ballot_boxBy Peggy Wuenstel – There is a piece of proposed legislation making its way through the Wisconsin state house that every free-thinking Wisconsinite should be aware of. Bill 355 seeks to put significant limits on the ways in which local school districts can ask for financial assistance from their taxpayers through referenda. It is a drastic move away from the traditional local control of schools to the state government assuming the authority to determine what kinds of schools our children attend. Why should the lack of local control of Wisconsin schools concern you?

  • There is a reason that local governing bodies that direct the policies and funding of schools are called school boards or boards of education and not boards of tax control. The charge of these bodies is to determine the needs of local students and their families and the willingness of the community to meet those needs. While some members seek office with the intent of reducing tax burdens, the majority are motivated by their desire to direct and support education within their political, social, and personal point of view. The service of these individuals is often direct democracy at its best, with these public servants attending meetings, making decisions and meeting directly with constituents in ways that far outpace other representative bodies.
  • School expenses continue to rise as costs of materials, insurance, energy, security, and staffing to meet expanding student needs grow. There are state and federal mandates which much be met. Even after exploring supplemental funding sources like grants, charitable donations, naming rights, and expanded student fees, the gaps remain between what it costs and what state and federal governments provide.
  • State funding has been slashed in Wisconsin over the last few budget cycles. With rising costs, and shrinking state support, local districts are forced to go to property owners to make up the difference. The overall cost of educating children does not go down, the responsibility just shifts from one level to another. Property taxes are often a very unfair way to apportion support for schools.
  • Wisconsin schools are diverse and proudly so. While a common set of standards drives the curriculum and content of instruction, local needs, strengths, and preferences vary widely. Areas of the state have different priorities. Some districts highlight athletic programs. Others demonstrate patronage for the arts. Agricultural programs might meet local community needs and closely bond schools, industry and community governments. The varied cultural and socio-economic needs of home districts require local control to understand, direct, and make these visions reality. Some districts are large and urban in nature serving tens of thousands of students. Some boards of education govern a single school. Wisconsin education has historically been the antithesis of one size fits all.
  • Schools are often the heart of a community, its social life, and its hope for the future. Leadership in government, civic, church, and are connected, nurtured and directed by schools and school personnel. Our buildings, staff, facilities, and initiatives are rich resources for cities, towns, and villages all over Wisconsin. They deserve, and thankfully often receive, community support.
  • The Wisconsin system for financing schools contributes to significant inequities between districts. Property rich districts are well-funded and offer superior facilities and outstanding educators due to the ability to attract and retain employees with salary, benefit, and continuing education packages that support professionals in their work with children. Rural and revenue-challenged districts face the dual challenges of smaller labor pools and limited tax bases. Providing quality education statewide should be the goal of every parent, local community leader, and school official regardless of where they live.

The current proposal before the legislature seeks to reduce how often, what time of year, and how frequently school boards ask their communities for support. It seems to be another example of fixing a problem that doesn’t exist. The ability to ask at a local level for support for education gives that say to voters, not state senators who want to centralize control of Wisconsin schools. One has to wonder if this attempt to limit “the ask” of local school boards is a reaction to a recent up-tick in positive outcomes of local referenda.  An administration that hangs its political hat on the promise of tax reduction might find it hard to convince citizens that shifting responsibility to local school boards from state tax revenues saves anything except politicians’ reputations as being tough on tax increases or as advocates for centralized, depersonalized education for Wisconsin’s children.

In my three decade career I have trained and worked in large districts and small. My own children have attended urban and rural schools. I have had the opportunity to compare per pupil spending, student to teacher ratios, course offerings and extracurricular offerings, all before the expanded school choice system. I have been employed by districts that never passed referenda, and those who have graciously supported the schools every time they were asked. I hope we continue to live in a state where the ask as well as the answer remain local decisions.

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