Updated: Friday, 21 May 2010, 8:57 AM CDT
Published : Thursday, 20 May 2010, 6:45 PM CDT
When you add up all of the money spent by school districts in Wisconsin, it totaled more than $10 billion last year. Almost all of the money spent by Wisconsin public schools comes from taxpayers. The percentages vary by district but statewide, half of the money comes from the state, 38% from local property taxes, six percent comes from the federal government. The other six percent comes from things like fees and interest.
The state's portion last year, was $5,021,446,400. That's more than five times as much as any other program.
But Green Bay school superintendent Greg Maass says the spending controls by the legislature are forcing cuts.
"I think we're being strangled," Maass said. "There's no way out of this without some kind of change in where the revenue comes from."
Interim Oshkosh school superintendent Bette Lange agrees.
"There has to be a better way of doing business," Lang said.
The situation is only getting worse, according to Green Bay teachers' union president David Harswick.
"What needs to happen is that we need to take care of this right now," Harswick said.
Exactly what needs to be taken care of is the question.
Todd Berry is the president of Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance . He says if districts want to get serious about fixing their budgets, they have to look at salaries and benefits, which make up about 80% of the typical school budget.
"The thing that 99% of people in this state don't know is that when you look at fringe benefits in public school districts, our fringes are about 45-55% higher than public school benefits nationally," Berry said.
Berry says salaries for school employees in Wisconsin are actually 3% below the national average. But benefits, like health insurance and retirement, are 52% above the national average. When it comes to other instructional costs, like textbooks and supplies, Wisconsin schools on average spend 39.7% below the national average.
"There's no way to argue that the benefits are in line with either the private sector in Wisconsin or in school districts elsewhere in the country because they're not," Berry said.
Harswick, the teacher's union president in Green Bay, defends the salaries and benefits.
"If you want the best and the brightest, in both teachers and administrators we have to compensate them all fairly," Harswick said.
He says districts do need to control spending, but he says the solution to school funding is more state aid.
"We need to be careful that we watch the bottom line on local property taxes for example," Harswick said. "I think we need more state aid. You get more state aid and that lowers the property tax piece for folks here."
Maass says the salaries and benefits should be looked at but it can't be done in isolation.
"You have to look at the comparables and say does it fit with other college educated, highly licensed and highly experienced professionals or does it not?" Maass said. His solution is giving more money to districts with higher percentages of low-income and special education students like Green Bay.
"There isn't equity across the state," Maass said.
"There's no one problem you can't just say it's on any one individual's or one group's back," said Julie Underwood, Dean of Education at UW-Madison. She is part of the School Finance Network , a group which is advocating for changes in school funding.
"We need to put everything on the table," Underwood said. "We need to think about what's our public commitment to K-12 education. What do we really want for our children in the state of Wisconsin? And then figure out how we're going to fund that in a sustainable way."
Interim Oshkosh school superintendent Bette Lang says the solution may not be more state funding but more state control.
"Maybe we need to look at having health insurance come through the state for all of us. Maybe the state hires all teachers," Lang said.
Lang says too many administrators spend too much time working on budgets.
"Maybe that financial part needs to be handled differently so school boards can actually focus on student learning and what's happening in classrooms," Lang said.
"You better be careful what you wish for," Berry said. He believes more money and more state control will not necessarily lead to better results.
While the debate continues, so will the budget problems. It may even get worse. In the current state budget, the legislature used $800 million in federal stimulus funds to help pay for public schools. That money may or may not be available in the next state budget.