Some of the most controversial cuts in Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2011-13 biennial budget are to education. Overall, this budget will cut $834 million in state aid to K-12 schools in 2011-12, reduce the annual per student revenue limit and proposes to freeze aid at the 2011-12 levels into 2013 and beyond.

Walker explained his vision for education funding and savings in Wisconsin in a televised press conference late Wednesday afternoon. He was flanked by officials from the New Berlin School District in Waukesha County.

Armed with a document filled with data on benefit savings and proposed general aid reductions for each of the state’s 423 school districts, Walker announced that school districts will come out ahead of the game by simply using the “tools” in his recently signed budget repair bill.

“This is a great benefit to our school districts,” Walker said. “And this doesn’t even count the additional savings districts will get from the additional reforms in the budget repair bill and the proposed biennial budget.”

Walker announced that, as a whole, the state’s public schools will see savings of $488.7 million during the 2011-12 school year if all district employees make the same health and pension contributions the state employees will make. If this practice was continued into the second year of his biennial budget, the savings would total 80% of the planned cuts, according to Walker. However, this does not take into account the districts that are already under contracts with different or no contribution levels set.

But in a perfect world, those savings would be even greater if districts change their health insurance provider from the current plan to the state employee insurance plan, or even a private plan. Currently, school districts use the Wisconsin Education Association Trust (WEA Trust) health plan, as bargained for by the teachers’ unions. Walker said if districts changed health insurance carriers to the state plan, another $68 million could be saved.

Walker’s document also showed an overall savings to all districts of $78.9 million when his reduced revenue limits are added to the benefit savings, capping property taxes to be levied for education.  However, some districts will see their revenue limits cut more than the benefit savings, forcing those districts to cut in other areas to balance the budget since tax levies won’t be an option.

This is where Walker really promotes the tools available to district administrators and school boards. Because of his recently signed bill, school districts are not tied to the 5.8% and 12.6% pension and health care contribution levels; if they want to go higher or lower they may do so, and also be flexible with hiring and firing.

“These reforms will give the school leaders the ability to make hiring and firing decisions decisions on merit, not seniority. I want it based on putting the best teachers in the classrooms.”

Walker reminded the public that former Gov. Jim Doyle also cut hundreds of millions from education, leading many districts, including MPS, to look at layoffs of teachers, support staff and para-professional personnel.

“They (Doyle and the Democratic legislature) gave them no tools and they backed off when they got federal stimulus funds.  They pushed it off to the future.  The future is now and we’re looking at balancing this budget in a way that the kids don’t face dire consequences,” he said. “The difference is we are giving them the tools they need to stop the layoffs and massive tax increases.”

As an example, Walker repeated the story about Megan Sampson, who was named Wisconsin’s Best New Teacher of 2010 one week, then laid off from Milwaukee Public Schools the next.

“She was laid off due to previous collective bargaining agreements that mandated hiring and firing on seniority.  That has to change and it will improve our schools and help our kids.”

Dr. Paul Kreutzer, superintendent of the New Berlin School District, praised the bill and said it will allow his schools to retain teachers.

“We will not layoff a single employee for financial reasons in this next budget,” Kreutzer said. “This is drastically different from last year when we faced laying off 30 teachers. We will work with our staff to create an educational environment from the ground up with no bureaucracy in our way as we find the best practices to teach our students. These changes increase planning time, removes barriers and the end result will be our ownership and how we choose to move forward.”

New Berlin won’t see savings from the benefit contributions and revenue limits; it will still be short and have to find $44,250  in savings with those tools.

Savings proposed by Scott Walker from benefit contributions

MPS could see a savings of $7,238,151. But even if achieved, all of that savings would be eaten up by MPS’ $13.6 million structural deficit going into the next school year.

Even though Walker has the support of some superintendents across the state, the voices on the other side of the equation are not convinced public schools will not come out unscathed.

John Forester, Director of Government relations for the School Administrators Alliance, said members of his organization are united in their opposition to Walker’s agenda of privatizing Wisconsin education.

“His dramatic de-funding of public schools, plus dramatic expansion of private school vouchers and independent charter schools equals privatizing public education,” he said. “The Governor proposes cutting school aid by $834 million over the biennium. He also proposes reducing the allowable revenues by approximately $825 per pupil over the biennium. Even under the worst fiscal circumstances, in the last 18 years under revenue caps, Wisconsin lawmakers have always increased allowable revenues for Wisconsin school children.”

He called Walker’s management tools controversial and said they will not provide enough savings to meet the challenges in many of the state’s districts.

“We fear these cuts will hurt children’s education and devastate many Wisconsin school districts,” Forester added.

Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts (D-Middleton) also slammed Walker’s savings perspective. Pope-Roberts, a member of the Assembly’s Committee on Education and Committee on Children and Families, said the Governor’s press conference highlighted “new, deceitful estimates that are blatantly false and should be immediately dismissed.

“The Republican approach to education is dishonest budgeting that will devastate our local communities and hurt Wisconsin students,” she said.

The Department of Public Instruction released a report earlier this week that shows school districts are expected to lose about $1.7 billion in revenue-raising ability under the governor’s budget, in addition to state aid cuts.

And the Legislative Fiscal Bureau said the 5.5% reduction in base revenue per student in the budget could cut the state aid and taxing ability of MPS by $165 million over two years and almost $12 million  in the same period in the Wauwatosa School District.

“Gov. Walker likes to crow about giving ‘tools’ to the local government while at the same time tying their hands when it comes to their own budgeting and forcing them to hammer their own communities,” Pope-Roberts said. “CEO Walker wants the state to run like a business, and now he wants to pursue the same folly for our schools. How can anyone look at Wall Street and think that should be the model for public education?”

But Walker seems to be standing firm in his beliefs, just as he did during the last three weeks of chaos in Madison. He calls those who are standing firm with him “brave souls” and boldly closed his news conference by saying these budget cuts are “ultimately good for our teachers to keep the best in our classrooms.”

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