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Scott Walker

Gov. Scott Walker, facing, greets State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers after his State of the State address earlier in 2017.

A looming $177 million budget deficit and potentially hundreds of staffing cuts for the Milwaukee School District should have prompted state Superintendent Tony Evers to take over schools there, Gov. Scott Walker said Sunday.

Appearing on WISN’s “UpFront with Mike Gousha,” Walker blamed his top Democratic opponent in his re-election bid for not doing more to address the state’s largest school district’s financial and academic troubles and floated the idea of a state-imposed intervention, such as breaking up the Milwaukee School District into smaller districts.

“By law, Democrats gave the Superintendent of Public Instruction back in 2009 the ability to take over failing schools and for whatever reason the current superintendent has failed to do that,” Walker said when asked by Gousha if the state should intervene.

“Maybe we’re going to have to look beyond that — if the superintendent’s not willing to do that, then I think there are probably other things we could look at. Maybe we should shake things up a bit.”

Milwaukee school officials and district teachers are in the midst of trying to avoid a projected $177 million budget deficit by 2022 — a shortfall caused, in part, by its student enrollment decreasing by about 1,000 students each year, and increasing health care and pension costs, according to the district.

According to state law, the state superintendent cannot administer school districts directly, but has the power to aggressively intervene in persistently low-performing school districts.

After consulting with school officials and teachers unions, Evers has the power under state law to direct school boards to change teacher training to focus on improving academic achievement, change administrative and personnel structures, and change practices such as expanding school hours or providing more services for students. The state superintendent may also direct the board to adopt practices that closely monitor the district’s finances.

Walker said changing school or district boundaries or breaking up the district into smaller districts should be considered as ways to address the projected deficit.

‘A dictator that

wants to tear it down’

Evers, in turn, said Walker himself had ignored the district when he was Milwaukee County executive, signed state budgets that resulted in funding cuts for the district, and failed to ensure a law succeeded that would have allowed county officials to take over low-performing schools in Milwaukee.

Walker is seeking a third term and faces more than a dozen Democratic challengers, including Evers, who is considered the Democratic field’s frontrunner.

“Textbook Scott Walker — blaming others for his own mismanagement,” Evers said in a statement. “(Milwaukee School District) faces real challenges, and Milwaukee kids need a Governor that will help the district grow and evolve, not a dictator that wants to tear it down.”

Evers said that since he was first elected in 2009, he has worked with teachers and administrators on improvement plans that resulted in more summer school classes and increases in graduation rates and number of college scholarships students receive.

Milwaukee School District spokeswoman Denise Callaway said the district faces “long-term fiscal problems” because state funding is “virtually stagnant” when compared to the cost of living index, and that state-imposed limits on how much revenue the district can collect doesn’t take into consideration the extra cost of educating students who are living in poverty, learning English as a second language, and have disabilities.

Evers on Sunday did not address the idea of a state-imposed takeover, but told the Wisconsin State Journal in 2017 that he did not support state “interference.”

“There’s no data to support a top-down interference by the state or federal government. I think the state has an obligation to remove obstacles. Have we done all those things? Yes. Have we turned the Titanic around? No,” Evers said in the April 2, 2017, article.

Department of Public Instruction spokesman Tom McCarthy said the department has never considered a “takeover” of Milwaukee schools because “how schools are governed or run isn’t going to change the challenges kids in Milwaukee face.”

Though fewer students enrolled means less funding schools receive, Walker said the district doesn’t have a funding problem given recent funding increases included in his 2017-19 state budget. Under one measure, the district will receive an extra $31 million over two years.

“Funding from the state is not the issue,” Walker said.

Callaway said the district used the extra money to graduate 250 more students last summer.

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.