By: Maria Lockwood, Superior Telegram
Recent budget cuts have been brutal, according to Janna Stevens, district administrator of the Superior School District. People have broken down in tears in her office — teachers retiring earlier than planned or staff members who made the choice to drop their health care plan to meet family bills. The 2011-13 Wisconsin state budget cut $1.6 billion out of education revenue. That left the district with nearly $3 million less than expected this school year and led to some tough choices.
“We had an incredible amount of retirements,” Stevens said. “We looked at every one of those positions to see ‘Can we absorb that and not fill that position?’
“Well the truth is we needed every one of those teachers but we knew we had to trim back.”
At Superior High School, an art position, at-risk educator and a part-time technology education position were cut. Two assistant principals retired, one at SHS the other at Superior Middle School, to be replaced with 40 percent support. Custodial and secretarial staff was trimmed and an elementary school position cut. Meanwhile, class sizes have swelled to nearly 30 in many grade four through 12 classrooms.
The point of a Wednesday morning press conference by Stevens and Rep. Nick Milroy, D-South Range, was to make the public aware of the impact the budget has had.
“I just want to … have a level of honesty across the state about what’s really happening,” Stevens said. “Let’s not pretend that districts aren’t suffering.”
Superior isn’t alone. Milroy said that most of the schools in Northern Wisconsin are absorbing budget cuts of more than 10 percent. According to a survey by the Wisconsin Association of District Administrators, there are 1,655 fewer teachers, 1,551 fewer support staff and aides and 173 fewer administrators serving students in kindergarten through grade 12 across the state this school year.
“Now that’s going to have a direct impact on every child’s education in Wisconsin,” Milroy said. “And our educational system is really the foundation of our economic future.”
He blasted Gov. Scott Walker’s decision to cut education funding while providing tax breaks to big corporations.
“It’s essential for people to understand these are choices that politicians make,” Milroy said.
In Superior, the $3 million drop in funding was cushioned in part by what could be termed as Gov. Walker’s budget “tools” – having employees paying half their retirement costs and more for health care. The district saw approximately $1.5 million in savings from those two moves. But they had an unintended consequence, driving many people from individual to family health plans and forcing some people off the plan entirely.
“They simply cannot afford to have health care along with paying their bills,” Stevens said. “It’s been brutal but sadly that was a savings for us but I wish it wasn’t …” Two of her close friends are among those who now have no health care.
Walker’s tools, she said, just didn’t close the funding gap.
“My understanding is that very few districts across the state were able to really come out of this and say ‘This is going to work out better for us,’” Stevens said. “We’re with the majority. It didn’t work out for us.”
The district also trimmed back budgets, made the staffing cuts and tapped into an old building fund to cover the $3 million loss.
More cuts are expected next year, Milroy said, leading to even more drastic consequences.
“Our objective is ‘We have to protect the kids,’” Stevens said. She expects the district will face a shortage of up to $500,000 next year, and options are in short supply.
The district writes “an incredible number of grants” to foster support, she said.
They could try to pass an operating referendum, asking taxpayers to choose whether to provide the funds it will take to make payroll and meet bills.
“We’ve never done an operating referendum,” Stevens said.
Another option is to cover the deficit with a loan.
“We’ve never been a district that’s ever done short-term borrowing,” Stevens said. “We do not want to go down that path.”
That leaves them sitting at the table, looking at more cuts.
“I’ll be honest with the entire public, we can’t see where we can cut any more staff,” Stevens said. That puts programs on the chopping block. Anything not mandated by the state could be trimmed – technical education courses, foreign language offerings, additional art, music and physical education courses.
Math, science and social studies are important, Stevens said, but so are the non-mandated courses.
“All of these other offerings that help to create a well-rounded human being are essential,” she said. “It can’t be just about reading, writing and math.”
Milroy said parents will have to step up to take an active part in their children’s education.
“With this budget I’m very concerned for students in the Superior School District and all across Wisconsin,” he said. “It is unacceptable and irresponsible to put our children’s future in jeopardy by crippling our public school system.”
Stevens urged people to learn what’s really happening with education in the state.
“Get educated so when you go to the voting booth, you know what’s really happening,” she said.