As I travel around Wisconsin, it’s evident that a lot of people still believe Gov. Scott Walker when he says public schools and children are better off—or at least no worse off—since he brought us Act 10 and his 2011-13 state budget.
As a quick reminder, Act 10 gives school boards the ability to ask staff to pay more toward their health insurance and pensions, supposedly to offset state budget cuts and reductions in local taxing authority.
However, as we’ve said before, public schools and students are much worse off now than they have been in decades. Due in large part to recent policy decisions, many schools don’t have the resources to deliver the programs and services children need to learn in school and succeed in life. End of story.
But perhaps you shouldn’t believe me—I’m just an advocate. You should, however, believe Bob Borch, a former school district business manager and now senior adviser with PMA Financial. The firm does consulting work with, among other clients, 140 school districts in Wisconsin. Borch is apolitical, knows school spending inside and out and believes that the numbers don’t lie.
As Alan Borsuk, a senior fellow at Marquette University Law School, writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Things are developing pretty much as [Borch] envisioned, except a little less cheery on the bottom line.” The average school district, which Borch nicknamed “Fairly Normal,” will face huge financial problems very soon.
Borch looked at Wisconsin Act 10 with an open mind and admitted that things were going to be okay in the Fairly Normal School District during the first year. While state aid went down, budget gaps were covered by employees paying a larger share of health and retirement costs.
“The bottom line” Borsuk said, “actually improved from what it would have been under the old system of increasing state aid and generous employee benefits.”
But then reality begins to set in. What the governor didn’t tell us was that Act 10 was just a prelude to devastating cuts in state aid and the ratcheting down of local districts’ ability to make up the difference. In the second year, things begin to turn south for Fairly Normal. After working so hard to build up a fund balance for emergencies, the district has to dip into its reserves just to keep schools open.
And then the floodgates pop open. According to Borsuk, “years three and four get worse. By year five, which would be 2015-16, Fairly Normal is running a big deficit, has used up all its savings and can’t pay all its bills. I’m not exactly sure what we would call that when it happens to a unit of government in Wisconsin, but in other circumstances, I believe it’s called bankruptcy.”
That’s right, the Fairly Normal School District—Wisconsin’s example of a typical public school system—is looking at bankruptcy thanks to Act 10 and the 2011-13 state budget.
That’s not even the worst part. So far, all we’ve talked about is the fiscal insolvency state government is forcing on its 424 public school districts. As Fairly Normal and other districts approach the ledge, the state continues to threaten students’ ability to learn.
After listening to Borsch, Borsuk called them the “unlesses.” Unless the Fairly Normal School District does something to stave off fiscal collapse, it will go bankrupt. The list of “unlesses” includes no raises based on seniority, no raises based on a teacher getting more advanced education (which is already happening), more staff cuts, continued reductions in employee benefits and other cost-cutting measures, more privatizing of services, more of cutting programs and, in some cases, major cuts in teaching staff. How does this make sense for our schools?
All of this comes at a time when Wisconsin is looking at higher educational expectations and more rigorous standards for students and teachers. To Governor Walker, we need to say “no thanks.” I just don’t see how this could possibly be good for our children.