- Associated Press - Monday, January 8, 2018

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Gov. Scott Walker got behind a proposal Monday to boost aid for rural schools and allow low-spending districts to raise their property taxes without a vote, similar to a change he vetoed from the state budget.

Walker announced his support in an interview with The Associated Press, saying that he worked on the latest proposal with budget committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren, a vocal critic of the September veto. Walker said he will ask the Legislature in his State of the State speech later this month to pass the bill.

The measure will give Walker another pro-education talking point as he campaigns for re-election this fall. The budget he signed in September increased overall funding for schools, but the new bill would target both rural and cash-strapped districts.

“I want to make sure children in the state get a great education no matter where they live,” Walker told the AP before joining Nygren to tout the proposal at Coleman High School in northeastern Wisconsin, about 20 miles west of Marinette.

The proposal would increase the maximum that qualifying low-spending districts can spend on a combination of local property taxes and state aid per student from $9,100 to $9,400 for the 2018-2019 school year. It would increase by $100 each year to a maximum of $9,800 in the 2022-2023 school year.

The state Department of Public Instruction said 123 districts would qualify next year and Nygren’s office said that 200 would qualify over the next six years.

Walker struck the idea from the latest budget, citing concerns about circumventing the will of residents in districts where school referendums were rejected and raising property taxes without a vote. So under the new approach, schools where voters have rejected a referendum to increase property taxes to pay for school operations could not qualify within three years of such a vote.

Seven low-spending districts would not qualify for the money because they have had failed referendums the past two years, said Dan Rossmiller, lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

It would also increase by $6.5 million the amount of sparsity aid available to 144 qualifying schools that have 745 or fewer students and membership density of less than 10 students per square mile. The sparsity aid amount would increase from $300 to $400 per student.

“It’s positive,” Rossmiller said of the bill. “In either case, whether it’s sparsity aid or low revenue ceiling money, it’s no-strings-attached money that districts can spend whatever their needs may be.”

Both Rossmiller and Nygren, a Republican from Marinette, said giving low-revenue districts more money will help them to be more competitive with richer districts that can recruit away teachers by paying them more.

“Hopefully this will level the playing field a bit more,” Rossmiller said.

Nygren said he expects the GOP-controlled Legislature to pass the measure. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

“To me, it’s really about fairness and kids having opportunities no matter where they live,” Nygren said.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling called the measure a “hollow campaign gimmick,” saying if Walker were serious about it he wouldn’t have vetoed the idea four months ago.


Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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