Janesville schools have changed since revenue caps were imposed 25 years ago, and Superintendent Steve Pophal wants Wisconsin school funding to change, too.
At a meeting Tuesday, Pophal told the Janesville School Board the state’s funding formula along with cultural and demographic factors have made it impossible for most schools to financially keep up.
Revenue caps were first imposed on school districts in the 1993-94 school year. The caps mean school districts can increase local taxes only when the property tax base expands through new construction. If a district wants to exceed the amount it gets in local taxes, it has to go to referendum. For some school districts, that means going to referendum every two years just to cover the costs of operations.
By now, most people know the school funding system is broken; they just didn’t know how to fix it, Pophal told the board.
In January, a blue ribbon commission on school funding released recommendations. The commission, which was chaired by state Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, and state Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, took a year to look at how tax dollars were divided among schools and recommendations for any changes.
The report had 18 recommendations. Of those, six are particularly important to the Janesville School District, Pophal said.
- Weighting low-income students as 1.2 full-time students for funding purposes. The state’s funding formula is complicated, but every full-time student is currently worth about $7,000. Low income students come with additional needs, including help with academics and the services of social workers.
In 2001, about 21 percent of the district’s 10,758 students lived in poverty. In 2019, 51 percent of the district’s 10,007 students live in poverty.
The income level for poverty is set by the federal government. This year, the poverty level for a family of four is $32,600. That’s before taxes.
- Weighting students who are English language learners as 1.2 students. Again, students who speak English as a second language require more resources. In the 1993-94 school year, when revenue limits were first put into place, the district had 84 students who were learning English. In the 2017-18 school year, about 7 percent or 713 students had limited English proficiency, according to documents from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
- Allowing certain costs to be outside the revenue limits. Previously, Act 32 allowed school districts to borrow for energy efficiency projects without impacting their revenue limits. During the last budget cycle, then Gov. Scott Walker eliminated the provision, citing concerns about the cost to taxpayers. In 2016, for example, districts spent $327 million above the revenue caps for energy efficiency projects.
The blue ribbon commission recommended providing revenue limit adjustments for energy efficiency measures, lead testing and abatement projects, mental health service, school resource officers, school safety expenditures, school nurse costs and above average transportation costs.
Pophal pointed out that the revenue caps were put into place before the 1999 Columbine shooting.
“Before that time, our doors were wide open,” Pophal said. “We didn’t have security cameras, we didn’t have school resource officers. We all know those days are over.”
Security is crucial and worthwhile, but its costs take away from resources originally designated for educating students, he said.
- Use a five-year rolling average for enrollment numbers. Enrollment numbers determine how much aid districts get. In districts where enrollment is declining, the drop of a handful of students can make a significant difference in funding. Currently, enrollment is calculated on a three-year rolling average.
The revenue caps also punished school districts that had below-average spending before the caps were put into place. Pophal estimates that the Janesville School District has lost at least $118 million in funding between 2000 and 2017 because of revenue caps.
“We desperately need to communicate this with our community,” Pophal said.
In a interview before the meeting, Olsen, the state senator, said the recommendations have been written up as a bill, and they are now circulating in Madison. Some commission members are sponsoring bills and other legislators with an interest in education also have taken them up, Olsen said.