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Area school districts present united front against Gov. Walker’s budget

Six area school superintendent spoke out against the proposed cuts to education in Gov. Scott Walker’s new budget. At the meeting were, from left are Superintendent Jamie Benson (River Falls), Chad Smurawa (River Falls Director of Finance), Mary Bowen-Eggebraaten (Hudson), Randy Rosburg Somerset, and Eric Russell (Baldwin-Woodville). Superintendents also at the meeting were Donald Haack (Spring Valley) and Tim Widiker (St. Croix Central)

Superintendents from six area districts held a rare joint news conference Tuesday afternoon (Feb. 24) to raise the alarm about what Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget will do to education in the communities they serve.

At the meeting were superintendents from Hudson, River Falls, Somerset, Baldwin-Woodville, Spring Valley and St. Croix Central. Superintendents from Ellsworth, Prescott and New Richmond were not in attendance but joined their colleagues in opposition to the proposed changes.

Superintendent Mary Bowen-Eggebraaten of Hudson opened the meeting by saying that the reduction in categorical aids to the districts of $150 per student will reduce the ability of all area school to provide a high quality education.

The total estimated state aid lost will be highest in Hudson at $840,000 followed by:

--New Richmond, $478,000

--River Falls, $460,000

--Ellsworth, $253,000

--Baldwin-Woodville, $242,000

--St. Croix Central and Somerset, $230,000

--Prescott, $204,000

--Spring Valley, $108,000

Bowen-Eggebraaten said the districts will have to consider both programming and staff cuts if Walker’s budget is adopted.

Chad Smurawa, River Falls Director of Finance, who also attended the meeting, said the proposed cuts come on the heels of dramatic cuts four years ago that districts are still feeling. And he said the proposed budget cuts “came out of the blue,” after districts were assured that the budget would remain flat in 2015. The state aid cut amounts to $127 million for districts statewide.

The superintendents also took issue with the $108 million general aid increase mentioned in the budget. In reality, none of that money will go to school districts. Rather the money will be directed back to municipalities and then passed onto taxpayers in the form of a property tax credit.

The group pointed out that they have been fiscally responsible  and as a result collectively spend around 8 percent less than the state average to educate their students. That means they have less room to cut expenses.   The potential impact the proposed new statewide school voucher program was also addressed.  River Falls Superintendent Jamie Benson said the program will siphon money away from public schools. He added that there is no empirical evidence that vouchers are a way to provide meaningful education improvements.  

Spring Valley Superintendent Donald Haack pointed to Wisconsin students’ ACT scores are the third highest in the nation and St. Croix Central Superintendent Tim Widiker noted that the state also has some of the highest graduation rates in the country.  

When asked what the next step it, Benson’s immediate response was  “Pray.” The superintendents urged residents in their districts to reach out to their legislators to voice their concerns about the cuts to education in the budget, write letters to the editor and support their school board resolutions against the proposed cuts.

Benson said “Kids don’t have lobbyists in Madison. That’s our job. We have to go to bat for our students and bring a level of common sense back to this process.”

Most in the group said they have already been in contact with their legislators to raise their objections to the Walker budget and will continue to do so individually and collectively.

The bottom line is that the group wants to see the $150 cut in aid per student restored as well as an increase for inflation based on the Consumer Price Index built into the state aid formula.

There will be a series of Joint Finance Committee hearings on the  budget scheduled across the state in the coming months that the superintendents urged residents to attend.

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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