General Aid for Schools Down

More than half of Wisconsin public school districts will receive less general aid in the 2015-16 school year than they did for the 2014-15 school year according to estimates released June 24 by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

Although the 2015-17 state budget has not been finalized, the most recent version of the biennial budget maintains the same level of general school aid ($4.476 billion) as was appropriated in the 2014-15 fiscal year.

Actual aid payments are estimated at $4.346 billion because of statutory reductions for the Milwaukee voucher program and for independent (2R) charter schools. Of the state’s 424 school districts, 55 percent (234) are estimated to receive less general aid in 2015-16, while 44 percent of districts (188) are expected to receive more aid. Two districts have no change in the aid estimate between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 fiscal years.

With school aid being held at the same level as the prior year, other factors such as property valuation, enrollment, and shared costs in the general equalization aid formula impact whether the aid estimate for a district increases or decreases.

General aid is not limited to any specific program or purpose, but can be used as the district sees fit. State statute requires the department to compute an estimate of the general school aid each public school district will receive for the coming school year by July 1. School personnel use the estimate to complete their annual budgets. On Oct. 15, the department will certify state general aid amounts for 2015-16 based on audited 2014-15 data. Estimated general aid to districts may change.

There is another category of aid called equalization aid, but only two of Door County’s five school districts are eligible for equalization aid – Southern Door and Sturgeon Bay.

Linda Underwood, superintendent of the Sevastopol School District, said everything is really up in the air until the state budget is finalized with amounts for categorical aid, which is money that must be used for specific instructional programs or for a targeted group of students. Categorical aid is based on student membership from the 2015-16, 2014-15, and 2013-14 school years (third Friday in September count). That aid will be paid in March 2016. The current budget appropriates $127 million for that aid, which is $150 per pupil, the same amount as it was in the 2014-15 fiscal year.

“We are really counting on that additional $150 per student, which is comparable to what we had this past year to keep our budgets flat,” Underwood said. “That categorical aid would keep us even.”

Unfortunately, keeping even also requires additional taxpayer support in the form of school referenda. Voters in both Sevastopol and Southern Door approved referenda for their districts in the April election to help pay for operational costs. Sevastopol voters approved a $1.5 million-a-year three-year non-recurring referendum, and Southern Door voters approved a $390,000 referendum for the 2015-16 in order to not make program cuts.

“We were not surprised by the DPI projection because we had already planned for that decrease,” said Southern Door Superintendent Patti Vickman. “We used PMA Financial Planners when we were doing our projections for this coming year, in order to prepare for what we needed in the referendum, so that 15 percent decrease was already projected because that’s what’s been happening with our Door County schools. With that current funding formula based on land value and not the income of the residents, most of our schools have been seeing those decreases in state aid. I believe we saw a 15 percent decrease last fall as well.

“We have a pretty conservative budget and we were planning on that 15 percent decrease. Of course the referendum we passed is really helping in that respect. We have a very good budget projection model and we work with some great financial experts to help us do that forecast.”

However, it is still a big unknown what will happen with the state budget.

“I was pleased to see the DPI based their numbers on what is coming out of Joint Finance, but we also know that anything could happen in the Legislature as the budget moves through that process,” Vickman said.

“The funding formula, because it’s based only on property tax, any deviation in the value of your property can have an unbalanced effect when you get to the end of the formula,” Underwood said. “People have really been having heartfelt conversations with their elected representatives about this.”

Here are the DPI general aid figures for the county’s five school districts.

• Gibraltar Area School District:  2015-16 general aid, $4,872, which is $866 less than 2014-15, for a 15.09 percent decrease.

• Sevastopol School District:  2015-16 general aid, $31,656, which is $5,619 less than 2014-15, for a 15.07 percent decrease.

• Southern Door County School District:  2015-16 general aid, $1,673,182, which is $291,513 less than 2014-15, for a 14.84 percent decrease.

• Sturgeon Bay School District:  2015-16 general aid, $3,673,169, which is $322,190 more than 2014-15, for a 9.61 percent increase.

• Washington Island School District:  2015-16 general aid, $2,888, which is $3,402 less than 2014-15, for a 15.11 percent decrease.