September brings children back to school. In state government September also sheds light on the upcoming state budget.
The state follows a two-year budget cycle. Agency decisions made now will affect what happens in our communities two years from now.
By mid-September all state agencies must submit their 2013-2015 budget requests to the Governor. The new requests provide the framework for the Governor’s budget - which is submitted to the Legislature early next year.
The Legislature will pass the two-year budget usually by the end of June.
Budget decisions made in Madison will affect what our local schools, parks, cities and towns look like two and three years from now.
In a letter recently sent to agency directors, the Governor made clear to officials no new spending will be allowed. Agencies must work with the resources they have now.
Most citizens want frugality in state government. But how money gets spread around is a subject of much debate.
Most of our tax dollars go to fund five things: schools, local government, higher education, prisons and health care. Roads and bridges come out of a separate fund paid for mostly by taxes on gasoline.
The largest item our state tax dollars buy is education for our children. Almost 45% of all general tax dollars go to fund schools. As the biggest budget item, education can be the biggest target.
Between changes in local and state money, $1.6 billion was removed from funds available for local schools in the last budget.
For some schools the cuts fell even harder. The school funding formula penalizes schools that lose students. The combination of overall budget cuts to education and formula flaws meant many of our schools disproportionately lost more money.
The effect of these cuts will be the subject of a public hearing called for by the new Chair of the Senate Committee on Education, Senator John Lehman.
In a recent radio address Senator Lehman asked, “What did our schools have to cut? Was it textbooks that we cut? Was it computers? Or did we squeeze more kids into each classroom? School board members and administrators have been creative in finding room in their budgets for years, but this 1.6 billion dollar blow left our budget crunchers with no more room for creativity.”
As teachers prepare to welcome back students, state budget directors are pondering cuts that will affect state and local government.
Recently the Governor sent directions to his agency directors to prepare the state budget. In his letter, the Governor mentioned the past budget repair (Act 10) and budget (Act 32) bill – which took $1.6 billion from schools. He said, “The tools and cost savings measures of Act 10 and Act 32 can be more fully realized in the coming biennium.“
When I asked a local school official what this meant, he said expect deeper cuts to salaries and forced lay-off of staff. The majority of a school’s budget goes to staff – there is very little else to cut.
Most school budgets are very lean. Many schools operate with reduced staff, larger class sizes, fewer course offerings and older equipment. For example, a local superintendent told me his best school bus is almost thirty years old.
People value schools. Even in tough times voters approved school referendums to breathe life into schools. Citizens want both frugality and a strong education system.
To accomplish this, Wisconsin must consider overhauling the way we fund schools. The formula itself continues to punish schools with high property values and fewer students. Schools lose money faster than they can trim budgets.
Consequently the education students receive varies considerably from one community and region to the next. The state constitution requires educational equality but the funding formula makes achieving equal education difficult.
State officials should use the new round of budget cuts to take a hard look at how the state provides services. The focus should be on efficiencies and streamlined operations. By changing priorities the state can adequately fund public education.
But we must take a hard look at a complicated education funding formula and consider a new way of doing the state’s business.