The debate on education in Wisconsin is caught between a figurative rock and a hard place, and that predicament was brought to the forefront during a listening session Thursday with state Assembly Rep. Don Pridemore.
Pridemore, who in April was soundly defeated by Tony Evers in a run for state superintendent of schools, visited the Menomonee Falls Public Library to gain feedback on Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal, and education took center stage with the group of 15 residents that attended.
Skills Gap, Funding Gap
Pridemore emphasized a growing gap between the skills students possess after graduating high school and college, and the skills demanded by high-tech employers. Pridemore said businesses are struggling to find workers with the level of skills to fill many of the jobs that are out there.
“We need to raise the bar in the high schools. We have a lot of jobs out there that are going unfulfilled and we have a skills gap,” Pridemore said.
But residents, who spoke, said closing the skills gap is difficult to do when Falls schools are unfairly penalized in the state funding formula. Residents were upset that the budget freezes revenue limits for suburban districts while voucher and charter school funding is expanded.
“We’ve done everything we can. The biggest thing you need to do is get rid of the revenue caps and tie them to the Consumer Price Index,” said Jeff Thompson, a math teacher at the high school. “It’s killing us. We’ve cut through the fat, and we’re down to the bone.”
Menomonee Falls has seen state funding drop by the maximum allowable amount for several years, and annually plugs a multi-million gap between revenues and expenditures. The district faces a $2.4 million deficit for next school year.
Thompson lambasted Pridemore’s support of increasing judicial spending by 34 percent in the budget. Pridemore said in order to keep the best district attorneys in public sector, the state needs to increase their salaries to make them more competitive with the private sector.
“We’ve been neglecting that area for a number of years. If you don’t pay (district attorneys) enough, you can’t keep them around. They’ll make more in the private sector,” Pridemore said. “You aren’t getting the best people if you are offering low pay.”
Thompson applied the same logic to education.
“You are increasing pay so we can retain quality attorneys, wouldn’t that be the same for our educators?” Thompson asked. “If students are deficient in their skills, and if we continue to attack teacher pay, you won’t retain the teachers who prepare students for those skills.”
The MPS Drag
Residents also sharply criticized the decades-old state education funding formula, which they said has long been broken. Menomonee Falls is considered a property-rich district, and property taxes are on an upward trend but local school budgets remain frozen. Essentially, Falls residents would send more tax dollars to fun private school vouchers rather than keeping the money local in the budget proposal.
“The cuts being made in our public school system based on the constraints are having a significantly negative effect,” said University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee educator and Falls resident Sharon Daly. “I’m sad that if MPS is failing I need to bail them out, and it’s coming off the back of my children.”
Pridemore said roughly $0.80 of every $1 the state spends on education is funneled to Milwaukee schools. He agreed that the funding formula is broken and said the state Assembly would take up a discussion on it this year.
Pridemore said that local School Boards have the option of going to a referendum if they wish to increase the taxpayer contribution to schools, and the community could decide if increasing education funding is a worthy investment. He also claimed Menomonee Falls erred when it signed a two-year contract with the teachers union and failed to fully utilize Act 10.
“If the community values education, I don’t see why a referendum wouldn’t pass.” Pridemore said. “Furthermore, the School Board should have taken full advantage of the tools in Act 10 rather than extend the contract. I don’t have the numbers for Menomonee Falls …”
Thompson interrupted Pridemore.
“Then don’t talk about what Menomonee Falls did if you don’t know,” he said.
Despite extending its contract with the teachers before Act 10 was law, the School Board implemented many changes the legislation allowed. The district switched health providers from WEA Trust, created a tax sheltered annuity to lower its retirement obligation, and shifted toward a self-funded insurance model.
Pridemore said he would like to create a reward incentive for the most frugal school districts by allowing them to save the funds they don’t spend. He would also like to eliminate redundancy in the technical school program, and encourage districts to partner with local businesses to train students.
Valley View PTO member Cecilia Lillegard left Pridemore with one last thought before the session ended late Thursday night.
“Keep in mind the investment in education,” she said.