Kids at Stake

Another budget fails public schools.

School will have long been out for summer by the time legislators finish work on the state budget and send it to the governor.

At this point, Democrats and Republicans have gone several rounds on major issues, including taxes, the economy and health care. And while K-12 schools have not been absent from the discussion, it looks as though the system the state uses to fund them may get merely a short-term fix rather than the extreme makeover it needs.

Many reports, studies and task forces have been dedicated to the problem over the last several years, with proposed solutions ranging from raising the state sales tax to lifting the state caps on how much districts can spend. But none have resulted in change.

Meanwhile, some school districts are struggling to survive.

In southwestern Wisconsin, Cuba City passed a four-year referendum to give the district enough money to keep up with operating expenses, hoping to buy enough time for the state to tackle the issue. But that was two years ago and there’s still no sign help is on the way.

Cuba City without a basketball team, let alone a school? It’s hard to imagine the state basketball tournament without busloads of exuberant fans from all corners of Wisconsin flooding State Street and packing the Kohl Center. They are the living and breathing embodiment of the community and opportunity their schools provide. Losing that would be devastating for any town, but recent events suggest it might not be as far-fetched as it sounds. Florence County schools narrowly avoided shutting down two years ago after voters approved a referendum to keep the northern Wisconsin district going for at least five years.

Madison is getting a similar dose of the pressure rural schools have been facing. School Board members voted this spring to consolidate Marquette and Lapham elementary schools on the east side to help fix a major budget shortfall, despite vigorous and heated opposition from parents.

Two Democratic lawmakers introduced a resolution calling on the Legislature to overhaul the funding system by 2009, but critics complained they proposed no ideas for reaching that goal.

Gov. Jim Doyle proposed some fixes, including more aid for rural schools facing declining enrollment and the subsequent loss of state funding. He also pushed for lifting state-imposed limits on the salaries and benefits districts can offer employees, an idea that legislative leaders scrapped early in the process.

In the end, many districts will still see this budget as another missed opportunity.

Jenny Price is a Madison native and covered Wisconsin politics and the state capitol for The Associated Press from 1999 to 2005. E-mail her at

Madison Magazine - June 2007
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