AMPS followed the travails of the Wausaukee School District as the pressures 0f Wisconsin’s broken school finance system led it to the brink of dissolution. A successful referendum in August 2008 gave the district new life. This Wednesday, Wausaukee celebrated three prestigious awards, the High School won a Federal Department of Education National Blue Ribbon School citation, Waunakee Community Middle School was selected as a Association of Wisconsin School Administrators Middle School of Excellence and both the High School and the Elementary School earned Wisconsin Promise Schools of Recognition.
Supt./Principal Jan Dooley explained the criteria for the Blue Ribbon award:
The Department of Public Instruction nominated our high school based on the category, “dramatically improving schools with at least 40 percent of our students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.” In analyzing our data at the federal level, the federal review team moved our high school from this category to the category, “schools in the top 10% in their state with at least 40% of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.” We are extremely proud of our students’ scholastic performance which led to the selection of our high school as a 2009 National Blue Ribbon School.
Dooley is right to be proud of the students, the staff and the community.
Wausaukee is a classic “small but necessary” district that is squeezed by the state finance system. The Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES) has long fought for reforms that recognize the diverse circumstances of districts, schools and students in targeting educational investments. As a result, Wisconsin now has a (too) small “Sparsity Aid” (Wausaukee got about $39,000 this year). Progress, but not enough and other state actions have undercut the good of this reform. In particular the decreases in state aid have brought schools around the state to the brink of crisis (Wausaukee lost about 15% in state aid, over $100,000 in total).
WAES continues the work on sparsity and other reforms, but this crisis has led to a stepped up action to address revenues through the Penny for Kids campaign for a dedicated 1 cent per dollar sales tax to fund education. Sparsity, poverty aids and other moves in the right direction are part of the proposal, but the immediate revenue needs are the main focus.
Wausaukee was able to pass a referendum in 2008, but the cuts in state aid and the consequent raises in property taxes make that very difficult now. Madison was also able to pass a referendum in 2008, but last year they they lost 15% in state aid didn’t tax to the max and next year — when they will again lose 15% — they will likely tax well below the limit. Here are the figures for state aid to Madison Schools for the last seven years ( from Asst. Supt. Erik Kass via Board Member Ed Hughes):
2004-05 – $50,064,391
2005-06 – $58,996,880
2006-07 – $56,984,763
2007-08 – $57,301,616
2008-09 – $60,743,743
2009-10 – $51,513,826
2010-11 – $43,761,093 (projected)
The old problems are still around — costs and allowed revenues not aligned, mandates underfunded, diversity not accounted for… — but there is also a new/old problem and that is that property taxes are becoming unsustainable. The last time that happened, the state stepped up by pledging to provide 2/3 of educational investments. In his first budget Governor Jim Doyle walked away from the pledge and it has been downhill ever since, reaching new lows with the 2009-11 budget (Doyle’s last). This is why the Penny for Kids revenues are necessary. Click the link and sign the petition.
I want to write more happy stories about education in Wisconsin, like this one started out to be. Wausaukee and other districts are doing great things and that work needs to be celebrated and to continue and expand. Till the continuance and expansion become real state priorities, I guess I’m stuck doing the jeremiads and calls to action.
Thomas J. Mertz