Taxpayers Here Foot Lion’s Share Of Bill For School Mandates
The Capital Times :: EDITORIAL :: 9A
Wednesday, December 3, 2003
Property tax bills will soon be in the mailboxes of Madison property owners. Over the last year, much has been written and said about property taxes in Wisconsin. The issue is complex and one that merits scrutiny by state policy-makers. Who pays and how much they pay are good starting points. But an equally important question is, what are people paying for?
As members of Gov. Jim Doyle’s Task Force on Educational Excellence begin to examine these and other questions about funding schools, it is critical that they look at the burden placed on school district budgets due to under-funded mandates. Both the state and federal governments direct local governments to provide an array of services and, unfortunately, often times the money doesn’t meet the mandate. Since 1993, when schools began operating under the state-imposed revenue limit law (the state restricts the amount of revenue a district can raise fromthe local property tax levy), Madison schools have cut nearly $28 million from budgets and eliminated nearly 300 positions. Each year over the last decade, the Board of Education diligently worked to keep cuts from the classroom. Increasingly, that has become extremely difficult.
Financial support for our schools from different sources dwindled or was eliminated during the last decade.
In the mid-1990s, the city of Madison modified its student transportation partnership with the district, resulting in higher costs for the school district. The district paid an additional $311,617 last year for transportation costs no longer supplemented by the city.
From 1993 to 1995, the district received over $400,000 from the University of Wisconsin to offset the loss of revenue to the school district from the tax-exempt Eagle Heights apartments, the residence for married students. After two years, the university discontinued the supplement, which is now borne by our property taxpayers.
Two huge underfunded mandates are particularly troublesome for Madison property taxpayers — state and federally mandated special education and English as a second language programs. The special education budget for the current school year is $56.9 million. Of that total, $3,865,000 (less than 7 percent of the total budget) is federal grants/entitlements. Thus, the remainder of the district’s special education budget — $53,054,019 — is paid by the state and Madison property taxpayers.
But the state has frozen the amount of money available to Wisconsin school districts for special education, and prorates payments to districts at about 30 percent of costs, or $17.9 million for Madison. The bottom line is that Madison property taxpayers pick up 66 percent ($35.1 million) of the costs for this mandate!
Equally vexing for local property taxpayers is the bilingual/English as a second language mandate. In the past three school district budgets, nearly 60 positions have been added to handle skyrocketing enrollment. For the 2001-02 school year the ESL budget was $7.2 million; it is $12.4 million for the current school year — a 72 percent increase. The federal government reimbursement to the district is $185,000, the state $965,000 — a combined $1.15 million, about 9 percent of the total ESL budget.
Last year the state reimbursed school districts at about 14 percent of costs, and the reimbursement will probably drop below 13 percent this year due to increasing enrollments statewide and a frozen state reimbursement allocation. Madison property taxpayers are picking up more than $11 million –over 90 percent — of the ESL mandate.
* The underfunded mandate costs are huge for our property taxpayers — over $46 million in just special education and ESL costs, about 15 percent of the district’s entire budget. Anyone who is serious about helping reduce the burden of school costs on property taxpayers has to fund these mandates. Otherwise, in Madison, our property taxpayers will continue to foot the bill.
Posted by Janet Morrow