Mon. Jul 26th, 2021

While I appreciate multiple legislative budget challenges, I am writing to encourage some compromise, flexibility, and revision to the current Joint Finance Committee’s school funding proposal. The JFC proposal will ultimately be voted upon by the full Legislature and then go to the governor. 

The current JFC budget proposal suggests that although there is a $4.4 billion state surplus of taxpayer money, schools should accept zero increase in revenue cap support from the statebecause we are receiving federal covid-relief dollars. It is true that the federal money is very flexible to allow schools to make wise, local decisions based on covid’s impact and overall local needs. The federal dollars are temporary and must be used over the next two school years.

What I do not understand is how the local community and Wisconsin values are represented when, with the wink-of-one-eye, we should accept federal emergency covid relief funds and simply forget the “relief” as it was intended. The intent was to help recover from covid’s impact on schools, children, and learning. 






Jamie Benson, superintendent of River Falls School District.


 

Our district has placed on hold, a two-year learning recovery plan due to politics in Madison. Our plan was designed to use the federal covid relief funds to recover and accelerate learning that was impacted over the last 15-months. But now, the JFC suggests we should take that money away from children and instead just use it in place of a normal/typical year of state funds.

In other words, there would be no “maintenance of effort” by the Legislature to provide state funds — instead, we should just play the shell game. Sometimes that game works when it’s only money under the shell. In this case, I think we are playing games not just with money but also with the best interest of our children.

To be clear, our district learning recovery plan is now being held hostage to the legislative political debate over the shell game, as we are told by the JFC proposal to use federal funds in place of normal/modest state financial support to schools. They tell us not to worry about the structural gap that will be created two years down the road because they will put some money aside in a piggy bank to avoid that financial cliff. This is where we should all wink the other eye.

What would be the result if this JFC proposal is approved? 

  • We would not implement most of our local learning recovery plan to include: 

  • hiring temporary math intervention staff; 

  • no temporary reading support staff; 

  • no new research-based tech-intervention tools to accelerate math and reading skills; 

  • no new transportation options for kids who live out-of-town and can’t attend summer school and tutorial programs; 

  • limits on our ability to hire and train temporary substitute teachers to work with small groups of students; 

  • no new before/after school tutoring programs; 

  • limits on new science, tech, engineering, art, and math acceleration and enrichment options;

  • greater limits program support for the social/emotional welfare of our children; 

The list goes on … . I’m not sure this is such a simple shell game that involves only money.

My confusion is related to how schools, communities, teachers, support staff, children, and families are to see the moral/ethical character that is represented when we ignore the spirit and intent of federal “emergency relief” funding and play the shell game by telling schools to take the federal COVID-relief funds and just use it in place of a normal, typical, annual state financial aid to help children recover lost learning due to covid.

When we are told to replace a typical round of state funds to not only pay for very modest salaries, health care (and inflation cost increases on materials, supplies, transportation, textbooks, etc.) but also, to somehow also have funds for a learning recovery plan.

The shell game feels disingenuous — and wrong! It also leaves funding gaps.

Recently the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (non-partisan) told legislators they were sitting on $4.4 billion of more surplus than originally anticipated. That $4.4 billion is taxpayer money. Surely education is part of our shared community value that ought to be better represented in our state budget priorities and in supporting local school children. 

Could the $4.4 billion provide some tax relief to property owners — sure. Could we improve support for our elderly populations in nursing homes — yes. Are schools looking for the entire $4.4 billion — no. But the shell game, and lack of maintenance of normal state funding through a shell game approach, needs to be revisited in a manner that represents the values of the communities here in this great state of Wisconsin.

I once heard a saying that you can tell the character of people by their love, support, and investment in the elderly, children, and those most in need. Where does this shell game fit within those Wisconsin legislative beliefs? I guess we will see how the final state budget is approved before we can answer that question.

Jamie Benson is the School District of River Falls superintendent.