Lawmakers consider bills that seek to help some schools with funding and staffing concerns

As school districts across Wisconsin continue to face funding and staffing concerns, Wisconsin lawmakers considered bills on Thursday that would allow several school districts to benefit from recent revenue ceiling increases and allow districts to hire unlicensed school administrators.

The first bill that the Assembly Education committee considered on Thursday, AB-403, would eliminate a provision that is keeping several school districts from benefiting from recent funding authority increases.

Included in a recent law that increased state funding for private choice schools and independent charter schools was a provision that increased public schools’ low revenue ceiling — the amount schools can raise per pupil before having to go to referendum — from $10,000 to $11,000 per pupil. The law was negotiated by Republican lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers during the state budget process.

However, school districts that have a failed referendum are not allowed to get an increase in revenue for three years following the referendum, in accordance with a 2017 state law.

“Assembly Bill 403 would benefit multiple school districts in Wisconsin as it eliminates the provision under which a school district’s revenue ceiling is the revenue ceiling from a previous school year because an operating referendum failed in the district,” bill co-author Rep. Chanz Green told the committee.

Nineteen Wisconsin school districts that have a base per-pupil revenue of less than $10,675 will be unable to increase their revenue to the new low revenue ceiling because they had a failed referendum. Those districts include Arcadia, Auburndale, Beloit, Berlin Area, Bristol #1, Horicorn, Lake Mills Area, Merrill Area, Milton, North Lake, Northern Ozaukee, Parkview, Silver Lake J1, Southwestern Wisconsin, Sparta Area, Spring Valley, Valders Area, Walworth J1 and Westby Area.

Rep. Robert Wittke (R-Racine) expressed concerns about whether schools that go to referendum think about the possibility of being barred from increased revenue ahead of time.

“My issue is that we have state laws in place and too often I see that proper consideration isn’t given until something goes the opposite way,” Wittke said. “Doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t support this but I think that that needs to be discussed.”

Thomas Owens, director of business services for the Stevens Point Area Public School District, explained that going to referendum is the last thing that schools want to do.

“It’s tough, takes a lot of work, and we better have a darn good reason for doing it. We better be able to prove our case because if we can’t that’s just not fair to the public, it’s not fair to the taxpayers,” Owens said. “We, maybe, take a year, two years, of consideration of this. We do a lot of research. We do a lot of looking into how we can trim our budget and do things to avoid that, but sometimes we just have nowhere else to turn and our district is an example of that.”

Owens said the district is facing the potential of a $5 million deficit this year, and there is nothing that can be done to  avoid it.

Auburndale District Administrator Kevin Yeske told the committee that the school district is not wasteful when it comes to spending. However, he said  the school district predicted in November of last year that its budget would be about $600,000 short — a substantial amount for a small school district  — due to rising costs of salaries, supplies and transportation.

Yeske said that since there was uncertainty about what actions the Republican-led Legislature and Evers would take related to school funding in the budget, the school district decided to go to referendum, so there would be an “insurance policy” in place.

The district’s $600,000 referendum failed by 22 votes in April.

That failed referendum is now keeping the district from benefiting from the increased revenue limits. While the district hasn’t cut any teaching positions, Yeske said the district has had to freeze its budget and cut a bus route, two custodial positions and a business manager position.

“If I would have known that that revenue ceiling was going to go from 10 to 11, there is no way I would have proposed a revenue referendum,” Yeske said. “When everybody around us is going 11,000 and above, we’re stuck and we can’t get out of it.”

The Senate Education committee voted unanimously to recommend passage of the bill’s Senate companion, SB-395, during an executive session on Thursday.

Bill would allow unlicensed school administrators 

Lawmakers also heard testimony on AB-342, which would allow Wisconsin school districts in Wisconsin to a school district administrator who is unlicensed by the state Department of Public Instruction, on Thursday. The Senate Education committee held a public hearing on the Senate companion bill, SB-335, on Tuesday.

The bill authors — Wittke and Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) — said that it would help address recent turnover challenges and level the playing field by giving all school districts additional flexibility in the hiring process. However, the Department of Public Instruction said the bill could be harmful to students, teachers and school districts.

“Turnover in school administrators since 2020 is greater than it has been in decades and schools seeing the vast majority of turnover are those that are serving our most vulnerable students,” Wittke told the Assembly committee on Thursday.

According to a Wisconsin Policy Forum report, 17.7% of Wisconsin superintendents moved districts or departed the superintendent role during the 2020-21 school year. That was slightly higher than the 15.7% average found for the years — 2009 through 2021 — studied in the report.

Applicants for a district administrator license are currently required to hold or be eligible to hold a teaching license or pupil services license and hold a principal license. They also must complete at least six semesters of teaching experience or six semesters of people services experience — including 540 hours of classroom teaching experience — and complete an approved educator preparation program culminating in an education specialist degree, an equivalent degree or a doctoral degree.

Wittke said that a chief executive officer, chief financial officer or an academic professional could potentially apply for school administrator positions. He emphasized that school district administrators are not classroom instructors, but rather focus on overseeing departments and schools within the district, making hiring decisions, supervising teachers and managing budgets.

He said the bill would be of particular help to rural schools that have greater challenges attracting administrators to their communities.

Jennifer Kammerud, DPI’s director of licensing, educator advancement and development, said the bill would mean that the state is saying that “no specific training, knowledge, skills or abilities are important enough to be required in law to lead a school district.” She said the bill would be harmful to students, teachers and public schools across the state.

“This bill breaks the state’s promise to the public that individuals in these positions possess a certain set of experiences, knowledge, skills, dispositions and abilities to serve the public and oversee the schools students are entrusted to every day,” Kammerud said.

Kammerud also explained that there is already some flexibility afforded to school districts. She said that under an administrative code revised in 2018, school districts can employ a district administrator with a lower tier license that meets the majority of the requirements, but plans to complete a preparation program.

Another option, Kammerud said, is that school districts can hire a licensed business manager to lead the district, who can perform certain responsibilities, and allow someone else in the district to take over other responsibilities like some of those related to special education and curriculum.

Wittke also argued that since the state’s largest school district is exempt from the requirement that other school districts should be afforded the same opportunity.

Milwaukee Public Schools, under state law, has the ability to hire unlicensed school administrators, and in the 1990s, the school district hired Howard Fuller, who is now a distinguished professor emeritus of education at Marquette University, to lead the district while unlicensed.

“This is not a mandate. This is just extending a current option to other school districts in the state,” Wittke said.

Kammerud said, however, the policy overall is “bad policy.”

“It doesn’t matter to whom it applies,” Kammerud said. “If you would like to close that loophole for Milwaukee Public Schools… that would be something we would like to talk to you about.”

Rep. Kristina Shelton (D-Green Bay) compared the issue to shortages in other licensed professions.

“I don’t want to go to a dentist that’s not licensed just because there’s a shortage,” Shelton said. “I’m not interested in removing the licensure and the requirements for dentistry because I want to make sure when I go that someone knows what they’re doing and I would imagine we would all agree the same thing within education.”



originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F09%2F29%2Flawmakers-consider-bills-that-seek-to-help-some-schools-with-funding-and-staffing-concerns%2F by Baylor Spears

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