Lawmakers, leaders and educators come to the table in Suamico
By Ben Rodgers
SUAMICO – The message on Friday, May 10, to state lawmakers was simple – $7 million.
That’s how short the Howard-Suamico School District falls when compared to other districts in Wisconsin related to district funding, said Matt Spets, assistant superintendent of operations.
“Year over year, the high school and our board has been very aware that we’ve been about $7 million underfunded compared to the state average,” Spets said.
Administration and school board members welcomed five state lawmakers and municipal leaders from Howard and Suamico to a legislative linkage session at the district office, where school finance was the main concern.
“If we had average funding, we will be the best in the state. We know that,” Spets said. “We have vision and we have a path.”
Spets said the $7 million needed to make the district financially average could be used for computer science, trades, Spanish/cultures, learning coaches, learning environments, mental and physical wellness and educational systems and tools – each costing $1 million.
Howard-Suamico is a nice place to live, Spets said, but due to the state funding formula, the district is viewed as a red flag.
Rep. John Nygren, co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, said the state picks up roughly two-thirds of the cost per student, while local taxpayers invest the remaining third.
Spets said that’s because property values in Howard-Suamico are not as high as other districts.
There are numerous districts in Wisconsin dotted with vacation homes along lakes, where the property is valued higher and no funding for schools comes from the state, instead it comes from property taxes, he said.
To try and bridge the gap and provide districts like HSSD with more funds, lawmakers in Madison have passed a series of bills that add funds for schools in what’s called categorical aid.
However, categorical aid may only be used for the purpose for which it is paid, in contrast to general aid, that is not restricted in use.
The original formula developed in the 1990s, is still essentially the same now as it was then, based on enrollment and property value.
The successful referendum Howard-Suamico voters passed helps the district, said Damian LaCroix, superintendent, but it still leaves lots to be desired when looking elsewhere in Wisconsin.
“It’s a slow march into the future and then when you consider other districts, passing $100 million referendums,” he said. “Incrementally we close the gap as others accelerate away from us.”
Nygren agreed the formula needs work to improve equality, and that categorical aid isn’t helping.
“This per-pupil-categorical aid is great and looks great politically and every one of our colleagues can say they’re winning because it comes to their district, but when you do that, the gap continues to go forward because you don’t address that disparity,” he said.
LaCroix said this has put him in a position he never thought he would be in when he started in school administration 14 years ago.
“A few districts have launched capital campaigns,” he said. “Frankly I’ve been criticized by my superintendent colleagues by going out and trying to raise revenue through a capital campaign.”
Village of Suamico Trustee Dan Roddan said he wants to see something simple that works for all schools.
“I wanted to know the nuts and bolts of the finance system. It’s messed up,” he said. “Our legislators, if they want to do one thing, fix the funding. Simplify it; take the complexity out of it.”
This was the one thing all five lawmakers agreed on: easier said than done.
“Whatever we come up with it’s going to be complex, because there are 422 districts across the state all with different needs and different issues,” said Rep. Jim Steineke, Assembly majority leader. “So it’s going to be complex.”
Jayme Sellen, government affairs director with the Greater Green Bay Chamber, said something needs to change to improve school funding because businesses are having issues with workforce development.
“Our businesses are noticing that some of the individuals don’t have those life skills, or the quality of education that they need to be employed right away, that they could use some help,” Sellen said.
HSSD, considered by lawmakers in attendance Friday to be one of the more progressive districts in the state, has had to turn away open enrollment students from kindergarten to eighth grade.
“We had to say ‘no’ for more open enrollment kids because to their point, we don’t get as much funding per those students,” Spets said.
Sen. Dave Hanson tried twice to bring up ways in which he said the state could do more.
One was working to make teaching a more attractive profession to increase teacher quality.
The other was how the state could expand Medicaid coverage and receive federal funding, which could theoretically open up more funds for education.
In regards to his Medicaid point, he was countered from across the political aisle by Rep. David Steffen.
“Same thing as always, I open my mouth and you’re critical,” Hanson said to Steffen.
Burt McIntyre, Howard village president, said the discussion was a place to share ideas, not criticize them.
“You guys should be able to make any statement you want without being criticized on it,” he said. “Keep your politics in Madison.”
Nygren said Wisconsin’s current educational funding model is viewed in high regard across the country.
“Typically when I travel, they look at our funding formula as one of the best ones in the nation, believe it or not,” he said.
He went on to say he is hopeful there will be a counter to Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposal on the governor’s desk by July 1, but that any change to the funding formula would be hard to accomplish.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter,” Nygren said. “I can want a lot of things, but if my colleagues aren’t supportive of it, it’s not going to happen.”