Bill that would increase school sparsity aid, low revenue ceilings passes Assembly 91-2

QUORUM CALL

After lengthy debate, the Assembly today passed a bill 91-2 that would increase sparsity aid and low-revenue ceilings for school districts.

The bill, authored by Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and championed by Gov. Scott Walker, would gradually lift the low revenue cap and pump $6.4 million into sparsity aid.

Under the bill, the per-pupil sparsity aid payment would go up $100 to $400 starting in the 2018-19 school year. Districts with a maximum of 745 students with a population density of less than 10 per square mile would qualify.

Currently, low-revenue districts are capped at spending $9,100 per student between state aid and property taxes. The bill would boost that to $9,400 in the 2018-19 school year and then allow increases of $100 a year until hitting $9,800 in 2022-23.

Districts would not be eligible if their voters rejected a referendum to exceed spending caps in the previous three years, and the Legislative Fiscal Bureau identified nine districts that would not qualify because of that.

But the JFC added an amendment Thursday that would allow those with a failed referendum to present another one to voters. If successful, they would then qualify.

This provision in the bill, even with the added amendment, received sharp criticism from Dems.

Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Mt. Horeb, the ranking member of the Assembly Education Committee, voted for the bill, but said she was still troubled over its retroactive provision.

“Now that the majority party has finally decided to take meaningful action in funding education, they want to punish districts who did what they had to do just to survive,” Pope said.

Several Democrats, such as Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, criticized Republicans for not doing enough to invest in schools since 2011. And Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, said the bill falls short for schools that do not receive sparsity aid. He proposed a failed amendment in committee that would have allowed 52 more districts to become eligible for sparsity aid.

But Republicans, such as Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, argued that the JFC amendment emphasized local control over funding.

“We are giving the taxpayers the right to use the low revenue,” Felzkowski said. “But we aren’t going to override the previous decisions you made. If you talk about local control, how much more local does it get?” she asked.

The discussion also included a jab from several Dems at Republican cuts to education and their 2011 passage of Act 10 after Gov. Scott Walker took office.

“[Act 10] ran thousands and thousands of experienced, dedicated teachers from the profession. There’s no more respect for public education,” said Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee.

Felzkowski countered that Democrats, under Gov. Jim Doyle, cut funding for education, and Rep. Romaine Quinn, R-Barron, chided Dems for opposing Republican efforts to increase school funding.

“Every time Republicans crafted a budget that put more money into schools, even if its wasn’t enough for their standards, they still voted no,” he said.

The bill now heads to the Senate.

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