- Associated Press - Monday, January 23, 2017

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Advocates for Wisconsin’s public schools, heartened by higher tax collection forecasts and promises by Gov. Scott Walker, are hoping the Legislature bolsters funding in a way that allows the money to be spent in the classrooms rather than used to lower property taxes.

Loosening revenue limits that restrict school spending is the highest priority for groups representing public schools this legislative session. Other education issues expected to be debated: allowing the statewide private school voucher program to grow more rapidly, addressing teacher shortages, improving mental health services, expanding summer school learning opportunities and permitting schools to open earlier than Sept. 1.

There’s also growing talk of the need to revamp the complex state aid formula, but that’s likely to wait as Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is putting together a task force to study it.

Meanwhile, the race is on for state superintendent. Incumbent Tony Evers, a voucher school critic whose core support comes from teachers, Democrats and their allies, is challenged by former Dodgeville administrator John Humphries and former Beloit and Whitnall superintendent Lowell Holtz. Racine high school teacher Rick Melcher is running as a write-in.

Humphries and Holtz both support school choice programs, including vouchers. Melcher argues he is the only true nonpartisan candidate representing the best interests of public schools.

The candidates are trying to generate debate on other issues. Humphries has aggressively called for policy changes, including creating a statewide school board and creating a new school report card.

There will be a flurry of activity in coming weeks. Walker is expected to release his budget plan on Feb. 8, outlining his proposals for school funding, vouchers, teacher shortages and rural schools. Two weeks later the Feb. 21 primary will narrow the field in the state superintendent race to two.

Walker has promised his budget will include significantly more money for the state’s 424 public schools, and said he would increase revenue limits that allow districts to spend more without voter approval.

State-imposed revenue limits were established in 1993. They cap the amount schools can collect from a combination of general state aid and property taxes. Without an increase in the revenue limits, extra state aid sent to schools goes toward keeping property taxes down.

Revenue limits have been frozen the past two years and still haven’t fully recovered from a 5.5 percent cut in 2011. That’s forced more schools to ask voters to approve referendums to raise property taxes to help pay for operational expenses.

The number of schools that have turned to voters to approve higher property taxes for school spending has doubled the past three years compared with between 2011 and 2013. In the past three years, 140 school referendums have been approved to exceed the revenue limit, based on data from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. That includes 58 in 2016.

Rural schools with declining enrollments are feeling particularly pinched, which is why they are seeking a revenue limit increase by $300 per student, said Kim Kaukl, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, which represents about 144 schools. Evers, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, the Southeastern Wisconsin Schools Alliance and the School Administrators Alliance are all asking for a $200 per-student increase.

A $200 per-student increase would cost about $500 million over two years - or roughly the entire amount of new revenue that the state is projected to bring in above an earlier forecast.

Walker has said the school funding increase he proposes will be significant, but less than the $200 per student Evers and the school groups are pushing for.

“I’m optimistic,” said Dan Rossmiller, lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. “This would be a welcome departure, a good change of the governor’s stance.”

John Forester, director of the School Administrators Alliance that represents about 3,000 principals, superintendents and other administrators, said he’s encouraged that the plea from schools - especially in rural areas - is being heard by Walker and lawmakers.

Republican Sen. Luther Olsen, chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee, said he expected Walker to follow through on his promise.

“I would believe he’s got the message he needs to put it in the classroom for the schools,” Olsen said. “I don’t think you gain votes by cutting any more.”

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP and find more of his work at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/scott-bauer

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