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Scott Walker touts more funding for K-12 schools

Gov. Scott Walker talks with reporters after addressing a meeting of state school district officials in Milwaukee. He touted what he called "historic" funding of schools.

MILWAUKEE — Gov. Scott Walker plans next week during his annual state of the state address to lay out a proposal for how Wisconsin should use an unanticipated $137.5 million budget surplus, with some of the money covering a plan to increase funding for rural schools.

At an annual state convention of school district officials, Walker also previewed a message he’ll deliver on Wednesday, touting historic spending on K-12 education in his latest budget and the impact of his controversial 2011 Act 10 law that hobbled the ability of public teachers unions to negotiate benefits, working conditions and wages.

“Making a historic investment in K-12 education is great, but knowing with certainty those dollars will be invested in improving the quality of the classroom is priceless,” Walker said.

Walker also took a dig at state Superintendent Tony Evers, one of several Democrats vying to challenge Walker’s bid for a third term, who was in attendance.

Walker read from a February 2017 Wisconsin State Journal article that noted Walker’s 2017-19 budget proposal put $227 million more into public schools than Evers’ budget proposal and quoted Evers’ saying at the time it was a “pro-kid budget” and “an important step forward.”

“I’m glad to see at least last year there was pretty broad-based support,” Walker said.

Immediately after Walker’s speech, Evers came on stage to hand out an award and deadpanned, “How ironic,” before responding: “Any time any governor adopts my budget, it’s a good day.”

In an interview with the State Journal afterward, Evers said he’s happy that Walker added money for K-12 schools — some $649 million in new spending over the biennium — “but the fact is for the last five years he cut $1 billion out (and) not counting inflation we’re not back to where we should be.”

“We’re still running behind,” Evers said. “That’s one of the reasons why I’m running (for governor). We haven’t made up that money they took from us in the past.”

Evers, who spoke at the convention on Wednesday, said school board members told him they saw the increased education funding as either not enough, given how many districts are still proposing referendums to exceed state-imposed revenue limits, or they see it as a political ploy.

Terry McCloskey, past president of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and a Three Lakes School Board member, said Walker’s budget had a calming effect on school officials around the state. He noted school boards have typically brought to the conference 18 to 25 resolutions for changes they would like to see at the state level, but this year there were only eight resolutions.

“I don’t think everybody’s happy, but I don’t think anybody’s unhappy,” McCloskey said.

Ken Neuburg, a Republican and Colfax School Board member, said he particularly appreciates Walker’s support for career training and college credit in high school and encouraging students to stay in Wisconsin.

Barb Callahan, a Democrat and director of pupil services for the Deerfield School District, said she also appreciates Walker’s increase in funding for schools, but sees Evers as being attentive to all issues facing K-12 schools, not just the budget. She hasn’t decided whom to support in the Democratic primary.

Speaking with reporters after the speech, Walker said part of the reason a Democrat won a surprise victory in the 10th Senate District race in northwestern Wisconsin on Tuesday was because he and his supporters need to do a better job conveying a message to voters about positive things happening in the state, such as the increased funding for K-12 education and record-low unemployment, which reached 3 percent last month.

That message will likely be central to his annual state of the state speech scheduled for 3 p.m. Wednesday. He will also lay out plans for the $137.5 million surplus.

On Friday he said the surplus funds will be used to cover a proposed $100 per pupil increase in aid to rural districts, which is expected to cost $6.4 million next year. Walker has also backed a proposal he previously vetoed from the budget that would raise the amount of funding certain districts can raise in combined state aid and property taxes from $9,100 per student to $9,400 next year and eventually to $9,800.

An average district can raise about $10,500 per pupil, a disparity that was created when the state imposed revenue limits on districts 25 years ago, penalizing districts that spent less than the national average.

The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said the unanticipated surplus resulted from $78 million more in estimated tax collections and departmental revenues and a decrease of $97.7 million in spending, mostly from refinanced bonds. The surplus triggers an automatic transfer of $38.2 million to the state’s rainy day fund.

The surplus is significantly less than the nearly $1 billion surplus Walker and Republicans were able to convert into tax cuts in 2014 just before his last re-election campaign.

Walker said the surplus funds won’t be used to cover the $80 million price tag for replacing the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls juvenile prison with regional facilities — a solution Walker has recently embraced after years of dysfunction and abuse at the Irma facilities. Instead, Walker plans to discuss with lawmakers using state borrowing already authorized in the budget to cover those costs.

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.