Door County Schools Funding for Failure

“We’re locked into the past in our school district funding,” Seyfer lamented. “The concept of land value determining a person’s worth is Jacksonian in nature.”

Fifteen years after the state legislature capped school funding revenue the superintendents and school boards who head Wisconsin’s public schools are grappling with a vision of what they say is a bleak future.

Few schools in the state face quite the conundrum encountered by the peninsula’s five geographically isolated school districts and that was the focus of a discussion spurred by a presentation given by Tom Beebe of the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future Nov. 8 at the Paul Bertschinger Center in Egg Harbor. Beebe spent a decade with the state’s Department of Public Instruction and another six as a Fort Atkinson school board member.

The advocate for school funding reform lambasted the current system as unfair and inadequate for Wisconsin’s children, and began by explaining how it’s formulated.

“The system is based on 1993 spending levels,” Beebe explained.

Basically, a school’s budget parameters are raised by $260 per student each year, so schools that spent less in 1993 are squeezed, tied in perpetuity to that year’s spending. In the case of Door County schools like Sevastopol and Gibraltar, parameters are squeezed even tighter because enrollment is declining.

The spending restrictions come at a time when fiscal demands are rapidly outdistancing the pace of inflation, with health care costs, utilities, fuel, and other costs rising rapidly.

While the state legislature has capped school spending, its members have added costly new mandates the school must provide, as has the federal government. Increased testing, security, and monitoring account for some of the new requirements, but one of the largest factors is the cost of special education. The state mandates public schools provide special education but fund only about a third of the cost, leaving schools to cut from other programming to meet the mandate.

This, Beebe said, creates an ugly situation in which “advocates for special education are squaring off against advocates for basic education.”

To deal with the funding dilemma schools across the state have explored options ranging from programming cuts, to increased fees, to the formation of school foundations to cover the costs. Others have gone to referendum, and one – Florence – has closed.

In Door County, Gibraltar has gone to referendum to gain permission from the taxpayers for a revenue limit override for the last decade to cover the cost of educational programming.

“This system is designed to fail,” Beebe said.

That’s because he said the public will eventually chafe at passing referenda. “You can pass referenda, but the moment you don’t, you fall off a cliff.”

For Gibraltar, the override now constitutes 20 percent of the annual budget revenue. If it were to fail, the school would have to make immediate substantial cuts in staff, leading to increased class sizes and myriad programming cuts.

But the problem, Beebe explained, is statewide. Rather than directing frustration at local school boards and administration he said people should “take your anger and frustration and point it to where you can fix the problem – Madison.”

“The system now is based on spending,” he said. “What did you spend in 1993? It’s not based on what the kids need. It should be based on the cost of an adequate education.”

Beebe is a proponent of the Adequacy Plan, in which the state would determine the foundation cost for an adequate education for all students in the state and commit to funding at least that level. That plan would meet special education needs, transportation costs, small districts with special circumstances, and other cost factors.

But the plan would have tax implications. It includes a statewide property tax level, one that would likely raise an uproar in Northern Door.

“A one-size fits all formula may not be a plan that works well,” Gibraltar Superintendent Dr. Steve Seyfer said. “Our property values are ten times the state average.”

Seyfer said the school is now at “down-to-the-bone level of services and maintenance.

Sturgeon Bay School District Administrator Joe Stutting said there is a misperception in the public and the legislature.

“Sturgeon Bay has done all the trimming we can do,” he said. “Legislators think there’s a lot of fat. We’ve shown we’ll cut and we’ve now cut all the fat. I don’t think the point was to bankrupt districts and cut services.”

He said the funding formula works well to pit schools against each other and communities against their school. He said the complicated school funding formula is extremely difficult to explain to voters and requires a substantial educational effort to pass referenda.

“If you’re going to rely on that you’re going to be one failure away from crisis,” he said.

Last year Washington Island passed an override referendum by just 13 votes.

“If seven people change their minds we’re in trouble,” said Washington Island school board member Robert Cornell.

He said the school is fortunate that enough of their teachers have multiple certifications as it is, so a math teacher can teach social studies, for instance.

Stutting said there’s even a contingent out there who have suggested the schools not pass referenda just to make it evident to the public how drastic the problem is.

“We’re locked into the past in our school district funding,” Seyfer lamented. “The concept of land value determining a person’s worth is Jacksonian in nature.”

The premise of the current system is one of winners and losers he said, and it has left Gibraltar “one election away from being one more toilet bowl district,” where the school dwindles, families leave, and workforce and community deteriorate.

Though little has changed in school funding throughout the country, and not in Wisconsin despite the cries from the majority of the state’s school districts, Beebe is optimistic a commitment to a new formula is in the offing.

“There’s a hearing Nov. 15 on the floor,” he said. “A legislator has finally stepped up and said, ‘let’s listen.’”

That hearing is to consider a resolution introduced by Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts (D – Middleton) and Sen. Roger Breske (D – Eland) which calls on the legislature to 1) establish school district revenue based on the actual cost of providing education, 2) provide sufficient resources to meet state and federal mandates, 3) include resources and flexibility for school districts to meet the special needs of diverse student populations and district demographics, and 4) rely on equitable taxation.

As the legislature considers, the state’s schools continue considering raises in fees, cuts in teachers, trimming educational programming, and generally deciding what students deserve less today than yesterday.