Wis. public school advocates optimistic about aid

Wisconsin public school officials optimistic after Gov. Walker says he may propose more money

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Public school advocates were hopeful Friday they may get more money from the state after Gov. Scott Walker floated the possibility of diverting funding originally proposed for the University of Wisconsin System.

Walker said Thursday he may take some of the $181 million he earmarked for UW in his budget and instead use it for K-12 school aids. The switch comes after UW said it has $650 million in reserves, something Walker didn't know when he submitted his budget in February.

Public school supporters, and even some Republican legislative leaders, want to raise the revenue limit to allow schools to spend more. Walker is proposing freezing spending, so any additional money put toward school aids would help lower property taxes but not be available for use in classrooms.

Walker didn't mention raising the revenue limit Thursday, but he didn't rule it out. He said the UW money could be used for "public school aids and other things out there that are also high priorities."

Walker plans to release his plans sometime next week. It will be up to the Republican-controlled Legislature to approve, revise or reject them.

Using the UW money for public schools won endorsement Friday from Republican Sen. Luther Olsen, chairman of the Senate's Education Committee and a member of the budget committee.

"We need to look at where the money is most desperately needed," Olsen said. "If the university has reserves they can use, then they need to use it. I know schools don't."

Allowing revenue limits to increase $150 per student in each of the next two years, as Olsen and Republican Senate President Mike Ellis have proposed, would cost about $289 million.

Ellis said Walker's support for using some of the UW money on K-12 education would make raising the revenue limits easier.

"Definitely that shows huge momentum to give the public schools at least $150 per kid," Ellis said.

It's too early to talk specifically about where the UW money could go, because it could be spent on a number of priorities, including a higher income tax cut, said Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. Knowing UW has such large reserves gives lawmakers the opportunity to "reconfigure" the budget, he said.

"Whenever money is newly discovered there's never a shortage of people who want to spend it," Vos said.

Despite Vos' cautions, public school advocates were encouraged by Walker's statements.

"More school aids would be welcome," said Wisconsin Association of School Boards lobbyist Dan Rossmiller. "The question in terms of school budgets is what happens to the revenue limits."

Both Rossmiller and John Forester, lobbyist for the School Administrators Alliance, expressed some reservations about K-12 schools benefiting from money originally earmarked for higher education.

"We certainly don't want to be seen as preying off the misfortunate of others, but we've always said zero percent on the revenue cap is unjustifiable," Forester said. Anywhere money can be found to pay for raising the revenue limits is being investigated, he said.

UW System spokesman David Giroux didn't comment specifically about Walker's plans.

"We'll have to wait and see the details of whatever change might be proposed," Giroux said in an email.

It's clear K-12 schools need more money, but where it comes from, and how it's distributed, remains very much in flux, said Assembly Education Committee chairman Rep. Steve Kestell, R-Elkhart Lake.

"It wasn't a serious starting point," Kestell said of Walker's original education funding proposal that called for no public school spending increases. "At this point, it's a very unpredictable end result. No one should be putting on their party hats."

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