Gov. Scott Walker, Assembly Republicans reach deal to help Wisconsin's rural and cash-strapped schools

Jason Stein
Wisconsin State Farmer
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker describes a proposal he supports designed to help both low-spending and rural schools on Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in Madison, Wis.

MADISON - Gov. Scott Walker and Assembly Republicans have reached a multimillion-dollar deal to help schools in rural areas and districts with fewer funds, but it remains unclear if the GOP-controlled Senate will agree to the proposal. 

The deal could resolve an unusually contentious fight among Republican officials over what to do about schools with special challenges like a sparsely populated district or low revenues. 

In the state budget last year, Walker proposed helping the thinly populated districts. Assembly GOP leaders moved instead to help schools that have been locked into tight budgets by state law, only to see the governor veto that provision and leave schools without either proposal. 

On Monday, Walker and Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) proposed a compromise at Coleman High School in northeast Wisconsin to help both groups of districts at Coleman High School in northeast Wisconsin.

“Our top priority is driving student success and ensuring our children receive a quality education, regardless of where they live,” Walker said in a statement. “This legislation provides additional support for our rural school districts to address their unique circumstances.”

Nygren, co-chairman of the Legislature's budget committee, called the bill a "step in the right direction."

"Does it solve all the problems for rural schools or low-revenue school districts? No. But it's a significant step," Nygren said in an interview. 

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) said part of the plan would take another year to kick in and didn't do enough. Democrats have put forward their own proposal to give more for schools and have published a map showing how their plan would benefit districts. 

“If Governor Walker and legislative Republicans were serious about funding our local schools, they wouldn’t have scrapped this plan in the 2017-'19 budget," Shilling said. 

In that budget, Walker wanted to make aid available to more thinly populated districts and increase the aid. 

In Monday's compromise, the aid for districts currently receiving it will increase to $400 a pupil from the current level of $300 a pupil at a cost of $6.5 million. But the deal would not expand the number of schools receiving the aid — about 145 of the state's 420 districts. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) at right and Gov. Scott Walker.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) had no comment. But Nygren said he had been working with Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) to build support among GOP senators. 

Since it includes a modest spending increase, Monday's proposal was a sign that Walker and GOP lawmakers are not expecting dire tax revenue numbers to show up in next week's projections. 

The package would provide additional aid to school districts that spend the least on their students.

Starting in 1993, state law limited how much districts could raise in property taxes and state aid per student, but districts were locked in at different rates depending on what they were spending at the time. Leaders of the most frugal districts said they have been punished for years with lower revenue limits because they were spending less a quarter-century ago.

The Assembly GOP plan that Walker vetoed last year would have evened out some of those differences. All districts could have gotten at least $9,300 per student this year — up from $9,100 under current law — and then $100 more every year after that until they hit $9,800 per student. 

Monday's deal would essentially bring back that deal starting next year and catch low-revenue districts up by allowing all school boards to raise at least $9,400 per student in the 2018-'19 school year. 

The deal could end up increasing property taxes in those school districts, so the plan includes a provision to placate conservatives concerned about rising taxes. If voters in a district have rejected a referendum to increase taxes within the past three years, that district would not be able to raise taxes under the plan without a new referendum. 

Eighty to 90 districts would be able to raise property taxes by up to $22.5 million next year under this part of the bill, according Walker's office and the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, which supports the plan.

A handful of districts would be blocked from using the plan because of a failed referendum, with Walker's office putting that number at 11. 

The deal could help to repair the relationship between Walker and Assembly Republicans, which was tense throughout the budget process and even hostile amid the budget vetoes. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) texted Walker about those vetoes, saying that he was "very disappointed in the way that I've been treated."

“I won’t forget this,” Vos texted then.