Busler: Walker’s budget proposal ‘disaster’ for schools

Seth Jovaag

Before Gov. Scott Walker unveiled his two-year state budget proposal last Wednesday, Oregon school officials were already bracing for a rough ride in 2013-14.

Now their outlook is even more grim.

“This is worse than the worst-case scenario,” superintendent Brian Busler said Monday. “This was a total disappointment. It’s a total disaster for public schools.”

In particular, Busler said he was stunned by Walker’s plan to prevent school districts from spending more over the next two years by freezing “revenue caps” at current levels.

The Republican governor’s proposed biennium budget still requires passage by state lawmakers, which could take weeks or even months. Many public school advocates are calling for a compromise that will allow districts to raise revenue caps by at least $100 per student, which would mean an additional $380,000 or so for the Oregon School District’s 2013-14 budget.

But even that increase could leave Oregon schools scrambling, officials said Monday.

The district is expecting a double-digit percent increase in health insurance rates next year that could cost it a half-million dollars could cost it a half-million dollars or more, business manager Andy Weiland told the Oregon School Board Monday.

Between that, rising utility costs and the loss of a one-time federal grant of $157,000 used to plug a budget hole last year, the district could already be facing a $800,000 or more shortfall going into next year. And that doesn’t account for even modest salary increases for staff that could tack on hundreds of thousands of dollars more.

Walker’s proposal calls for increasing state funding for K-12 schools by $129.2 million over the next two years. That boost in state aid could provide property tax relief.

But districts can’t exceed current spending limits without going to a voters first. Busler said that option hasn’t been discussed by local officials.

But he stopped short of predicting that Walker’s proposal, if adopted, will force cuts to staffing or programming or larger class sizes.

“At this point, we’re not going to push the panic button,” he said. “My personal hope is that the Walker administration and the legislature can find compromise.”

A cutting trend
Until several years ago, districts typically could increase annual spending by roughly $270 per student. That fell to $200 per student in 2010 under former Gov. Jim Doyle.

Then Walker’s 2011-13 biennium budget cut spending limits. Oregon schools had to cut spending by $550 per student, or roughly $2 million, in 2011. That cut was mostly offset by greater pension contributions required of public employees under Act 10, the controversial law that sparked widespread protests in spring 2011.

Last year, spending was allowed to increase by about $100 per student to roughly $10,000, bringing the OSD budget to roughly $50 million.

Busler said he had anticipated spending limits next year would increase by $200 per student, based on comments made last fall by state Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), chair of the senate’s education committee, at a superintendents conference.

Since Walker’s budget address last week, many public school proponents have joined leading Democrats in chastising the proposal, which includes a $73 million boost in taxpayer-funded aid to expand voucher schools to several new cities, including Madison. State Superintendent Tony Evers, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and the School Administrators Alliance all released statements against his proposal. The SAA called it “the worst state budget for public school students in Wisconsin history.”

Walker’s proposal also calls for a new performance incentive grant program that, beginning in 2014-15, sets aside $64 million to reward schools who score well or show improvement on the state’s new school report cards. But Weiland said that how, exactly, that program could affect Oregon are still unknown.

What’s next
While the drama plays out at the state Capitol, Oregon schools are hoping to have staffing plans for local schools in place by mid-April, when they typically issue contracts to teachers, Busler said. A tentative date for the school board to review staffing plans is April 8.

“Our parents and community have come to expect a certain level of staffing and a certain level of class sizes, and we are going to do our best to deliver that,” he said.
“We have a lot of work to do, but we’re still at the very beginning point of that process.”

In a memo to the board Monday that outlined budget projections for the next five years, Weiland also took a shot at Walker’s plan to increase funding for private voucher or independent charter schools.

“Increased competition from entities who are not required to play by the same rules or accountability measures as a public school district seems unfair at best,” he wrote.
Board member Jeff Ramin wondered if the board should issue a statement condemning the proposed budget, and board member Steve Zach said he and board president Courtney Odorico are already in talks with a consortium of Dane County school boards about doing just that.

Meanwhile, Busler acknowledged that the proposed state budget could complicate local plans for a multi-million dollar referendum to revamp several Oregon schools.
After months of meetings, plans for a referendum are still in limbo, though officials have pondered whether to hold one in late May. The board is set to meet next Thursday to discuss its next move.

Funding for “capital projects” like new construction are in most ways separate from year-to-year school budgets, but Busler acknowledged that if district finances are further tightened, a referendum could be a tougher sell.

“It’s going to be a big distraction this spring,” he said.

Other action
In other news Monday, the board:

• Approved a new scholarship program sponsored by the Oregon Youth Basketball program. The organization wants to award $500 scholarships each spring to one male and one female graduate of Oregon High School to use at a 2-year or 4-year college.

To be eligible for the scholarship, candidates must have participated in youth basketball for at least three years and demonstrate service to the program and the community. The student’s grade-point average and input from coaches on the students “character, leadership and work ethic” will also be considered.

• Accepted the resignation of Emma Bachand, first-grade teacher at Brooklyn Elementary, who is moving because her husband’s job relocated.

• Accepted the retirement of Philayne Chose at the end of the school year. Chose, who teaches keyboarding at several schools, has taught in the district since 1997, according to her district website.

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