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Northwoods School Districts Ask for Funding Formula Change and Increased Funding at Budget Hearing

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Katie Thoresen/WXPR
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Rhinelander School District’s Hodag Dome was a main draw for the Joint Committee on Finance to hold the budget hearing.

“This is probably the most unique setting that we’ve ever held a public hearing at which is pretty cool,” said Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) in his introduction at the budget hearing.

Rhinelander School Board Foundation President Dave Heck said the dome has already been a great addition to the community and the state.

“We’ve had tremendous interest and benefit from multiple schools and communities across the state to utilize the Hodag Dome and it’s been a fantastic collaboration,” said Heck. “Yet as excited as we are for the Hodag Dome for the entire state, a comment is also the funding formula is not fair and equal to the entire state.”

The sentiment that the school funding formula is broken was shared by many district representatives that spoke during Wednesday’s budget hearing.

Nearly half of funding for public schools in Wisconsin comes from local property taxes. But to make sure that schools in areas with low property values get proper funding, places that are considered property rich don’t get as much state aid in an attempt to balance it out.

Northland Pines District Administrator Scott Foster says that doesn’t work for the Northwoods.

“In the world of school finance is considered property rich. We are reaching the point of zero state aid. When some hear property rich they think we don’t have to worry about finance, but that’s not the case,” said Foster.

Many districts in the area now depending on voters to pass referendums to just maintain current operational funding. As Tomahawk and Elcho School Districts found out this spring when their referendums failed, that’s not a reliable funding option.

Governor Tony Evers’ budget proposal calls for $1.6 billion for K-12 education in the state, with more than $600 million going to general aid for schools. That many is meant to make up the difference and make sure the state is providing 2/3 of a school district’s budget.

Foster and other administrators also called for increase special education, transportation, and sparsity aid funding.

Florence County District Administrator Ben Niehaus told the Joint Finance Committee the district has seven bus routes that travel 600 miles a day.

“We basically drive to Madison and back with seven buses at six miles per gallon. I would ask for your support of a budget motion that Senator Felzkowski and Rep. Mursau are looking to introduce that would revamp and further investment in the high-cost transportation aid formula,” said Niehaus.

Governor Evers’ budget proposal does call for a change in the Transportation Aid program.

It would increase the amount paid to school districts for each student transported over 12 miles to and from school from $365 to $375.  It would also increase the reimbursement rate for high-cost transportation aid from 91-percent to 100-percent of eligible expenditures.

“All the dollars you put toward education are not expenses they are investments in our students and our state’s future,” said Foster.

The Joint Committee on Finance has one more virtual budget hearing planned for next Wednesday.

After the hearing, the budget committee will hold agency briefings before taking votes on making changes to Evers’ budget plan before the full Legislature votes on it sometime this summer.

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