State Superintendent Tony Evers called on Gov. Scott Walker to send more than $50 million to school districts to improve security — including hiring security guards and school counselors, and providing training to prevent school violence.
That amount roughly corresponds with the cost of a sales tax holiday Walker and Assembly Republicans have championed.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee said in an interview the tax holiday proposal should be scrapped and possibly replaced with sending more money to schools.
The developments come as Walker continued working with lawmakers and others on legislation aimed at improving school safety after the school shooting last month in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people. Walker’s staff met Tuesday with education advocates and he is scheduled to meet legislative leaders Wednesday.
But Evers and representatives of his agency, the Department of Public Instruction, which oversees the state’s 422 school districts, have not been included in the drafting of Walker’s plan, according to DPI spokesman Tom McCarthy.
In a letter to Walker and legislative leaders Tuesday, Evers — one of nine leading Democrats seeking to unseat Walker in November — asked the governor to devote $25 million more in new ongoing funding for schools to help pay for mental health staff and training to help address students’ mental health issues. Evers also asked Walker to add another $25 million in funding for districts to pay for programs intended to address school climate and violence.
Evers also asked Walker to restore districts’ abilities to raise property taxes outside of their state-imposed revenue limits to pay for school security costs, including the hiring of armed guards, security cameras, new door locks and distress buttons.
“The education community developed these items in response to the troubling trend of gun violence that has come to school doors across Wisconsin and the nation,” Evers said in the letter. “Our children deserve to feel safe and supported at school. While our kids can lead the conversation, policymakers must be the ones to enact change.”
A Walker spokeswoman said Tuesday his school safety plan will be released before March 20.
“Governor Walker has placed a focus on mental health services as he invested more money into mental health services than any governor in the last 25 years,” said spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg. “School officials who attended his listening sessions across the state repeatedly raised concerns about mental health services in schools, so he made a significant investment in school social workers, collaboration for mental health services and screening and trauma informed care training for school staff.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Lawmakers are near the end of their work for the year before turning their attention to fall elections. The Assembly has adjourned and the Senate is scheduled for only a single day of passing legislation. Walker could call them into session again, however.
Walker plans meets
Walker said Tuesday he plans to meet with Senate Republicans on Wednesday about his legislative package.
Dan Rossmiller, lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said he and other education officials met with the governor’s staff on Tuesday.
“We’re pleased that the governor is seeking input from a wide variety of sources and looking carefully at what other states are doing. I was impressed by the amount of thought that is going into the deliberations of what to do,” Rossmiller said.
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He said he believes DPI proposals related to making school buildings more secure will likely be supported. He said he did not sense Walker’s plan would include the proposed revenue limit exemption.
“The proposal being offered by the DPI is an ambitious one from the standpoint of providing resources for school safety. Whether or not lawmakers choose to enact it this year, it will likely provide a backdrop that will inform ongoing discussions over school safety that I anticipate will continue as the (2019-21) state budget is developed,” Rossmiller said.
Senate eyes surplus
Meanwhile, the Senate is finalizing its plans for how the state should use a $385 million surplus. The Assembly, which doesn’t plan to reconvene, has already passed its proposals, including a one-time sales tax holiday in August and $100 per child tax tax rebate that would cost $174 million.
The sales tax holiday alone would cost $51.5 million in the second year of the biennium, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
To address school safety the Assembly passed a bill that would provide grants to school districts for armed school officers. The money would come from an existing $22.6 million annual fund designated for other law enforcement services, rather than the surplus.
Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said in an interview he’s not sure the grants approach is the right answer, and that a smarter approach could be providing categorical school aid to districts specifically for school safety improvements, which could include money for armed security or facility improvements. That money would likely have to come from the surplus.
“Every school is in a different place,” Olsen said, adding he is still consulting with school officials so that the Legislature can “come up with something they need rather than something we think they need.”
Olsen, who spoke with Walker last week about potential school safety legislation, was cool on Walker’s tax cut proposals. He noted the Senate had previously rejected the sales tax holiday when Walker proposed it in the 2017-19 budget.
Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, who sponsored the school grant proposal, said he’s not married to a funding source.
“Budget decisions are about compromise,” Kleefisch said. “What I’m not going to compromise is school safety.”
Fitzgerald has already spoken with Walker about wanting to do something on school safety before the end of the session, but they did not discuss specific proposals, Fitzgerald spokesman Dan Romportl said. He added there is support within the Senate Republican caucus for the child tax rebate, but not the sales tax holiday.
Walker’s spokeswoman said last week the governor supports Kleefisch’s grants proposal.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, spoke with Walker briefly in general terms about the school safety legislation, but he said Vos has handled discussions more recently. Steineke said there is a possibility the Assembly could reconvene to take up school safety legislation, but “not necessarily to give the Senate an opportunity to make wholesale changes to other stuff.”
“If we’re going to do something like this we’ve got to get agreement with the governor, the Assembly and the Senate on what it’s going to look like and make sure we’re all on the same page before we agree to come back in,” Steineke said.
Walker told reporters last week he expects the $100 per child tax credit will still pass even if the Senate rejects the sales tax holiday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.