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Joint Finance Committee - Marinette

Lawmakers will likely keep intact the $649 million increase for K-12 schools proposed in Gov. Scott Walker's two-year budget, the leaders of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee said Friday.

MARINETTE — Lawmakers will likely keep intact the $649 million increase for K-12 schools proposed in Gov. Scott Walker's two-year budget, the leaders of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee said Friday.

"Education is a huge priority," said committee co-chairwoman Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.

Teachers, administrators, school board members and public education advocates spoke in support of that funding boost as the budget-writing committee held the last of six public hearings throughout the state at Marinette High School. 

But they balked at a requirement included in Walker's spending plan that would make some of that funding contingent on teachers paying at least 12 percent of their health care costs, in compliance with Act 10. 

Peshtigo School Board member Julie Muenster described herself as a "huge fan of Act 10," which she said has saved the district "hundreds of thousands of dollars." But she said having to adhere to a specific percentage metric would be a burden for districts. 

"What is the connection between that and student learning and staff morale? I don’t see that connection there," Muenster said. "I do see it with the money (increase), though."

The Marinette School District has also taken advantage of flexibilities afforded under Act 10, said superintendent Wendy Dzurick, but not imposing the compliance requirement would give administrators "the continued flexibility to allow us to do what works best for our district."

Beyond funding the proposed increase in per-pupil aid, districts like Marinette would benefit from a boost in funding for districts that spend below the state average, said Brian Walters, director of business and finance for the Marinette School District.

The proposed per-pupil aid boost would make the difference in funding at least one teacher and one class offering in the Three Lakes School District, said school board member Terry McCloskey, who added the money is "critical" to the district. 

While lawmakers on the Joint Finance Committee heard from members of the public in Marinette, Walker promoted his proposal at Freedom Middle and High School, where he said an investment in students today is an investment in "Wisconsin's workforce of tomorrow." 

"While the governor’s budget takes some steps to restore educational funding, the reality is we’ve heard from schools that this will help them stay afloat, but they’re concerned that commitment won’t be there in two years," said Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh.

Natalie Nienhuis, principal of Green Bay's Doty Elementary School, said the money would help Green Bay schools "meet their bare needs." Doty has struggled with shifting demographics and shrinking resources, Nienhuis said. Seventy-eight percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch, and 50 percent speaks English as a second language, she said, adding that the school needs to funnel more resources into support and staff training. 

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Marinette schools faces some similar challenges, said student services director Cynthia Russell-Smith. More than 50 percent of the district's students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and every school in the district now qualifies for federal Title I support, which offers assistance to schools with high percentages of children from low-income families. 

Marinette has seen an increase in incarcerated students and an increase in enrollment in special education classes, Russell-Smith said. Additional student services support is needed to address homelessness, truancy, alcohol and drug abuse and bullying prevention, she said.

Russell-Smith urged lawmakers to support Walker's $6 million proposal to put more social workers in schools and expand screening and treatment options for students. Vicki Bayer, director of special education and pupil services for the Green Bay Area School District, echoed the request, noting that Green Bay schools have one social worker for every 596 students. The recommended ratio is one for every 250 students, she said.

"Mental health support for our students is critical in order for them to learn and to succeed in the school setting," Russell-Smith said. "Students cannot learn when they are not mentally healthy."

Asked whether the budget committee will adjust the level of funding proposed in Walker's budget, Joint Finance Committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, pointed to the 2015-17 budget, when the committee upped the level of K-12 funding and reversed the $127 million cut Walker had proposed.

"We're always the ones that actually put additional revenues toward education, so I don’t see us going back," Nygren said. "We might refigure where the dollars go a little bit so some of the schools that have been the most frugal have a way of being rewarded for that, but I don’t see us going back on the governor’s commitment to K-12 education."

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.