Report: Cuts to teachers offset aid reduction

  • Article by: SCOTT BAUER
  • Associated Press
  • January 6, 2014 - 4:30 PM

MADISON, Wis. — Cuts to teachers' benefits pushed by Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature in 2011 offset a $450 million state aid reduction that year, according to a study released Monday by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

The report's findings help bolster Walker's argument that essentially eliminating collective bargaining gave schools the flexibility necessary to deal with the loss in aid and reduction in how much could be collected through property taxes. Walker said he proposed the changes to help balance the state budget that year.

Walker has long made that argument, citing anecdotes and savings cited by specific school districts. His opponents counter that the cuts to schools and collective bargaining changes have led to reduced staff and increased pressure to do more with less.

Walker's 2011 budget essentially eliminated collective bargaining for teachers and other public workers while also requiring them to pay more for health insurance and retirement benefits. The firestorm over that proposal, known as Act 10 when it became law, resulted in the attempt to recall Walker from office in 2012 which he defeated.

The Taxpayers Alliance report updated earlier findings from the group released in 2012 that showed the reduction in health and pension benefits, and savings through staff reductions, only covered about two-thirds of the revenue cut in Walker's budget.

That report was based on budget estimates, while the new findings released Monday use actual expenditures.

"Governor Walker's reforms continue to work for the hardworking taxpayers and this report provides more evidence of that fact," said Walker's spokesman, Tom Evenson.

Walker faces re-election this year. Democrat Mary Burke, a former Trek Bicycle Corp. executive and state Commerce secretary, is challenging him. Her campaign spokesman did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson said the report is "really straining to find a silver lining in what's happening to our state." Parents with children in public schools are concerned about overcrowded classrooms and the loss of experienced teachers, he said.

"You never hear Walker or the Republicans talk about the quality of life in Wisconsin or a long-term vision," Larson said.

Cuts in funding to schools have hurt the quality of education, leading to reduced or eliminated programs, said Betsy Kippers, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the statewide teachers union. Class sizes are also larger due to the retirements and lay-offs of thousands of teachers, she said.

"Fewer young people are entering the teaching profession as a result of his actions, and yet the governor continues to pour tens of millions of taxpayer dollars into unaccountable private schools while turning his back on the majority of the state's children who attend our neighborhood public schools," Kippers said.

State aid to schools, combined with their reduced ability to raise money from property taxes, was cut by about $450 million in 2011. The report said reduced retirement costs saved districts about $251 million, while another $200 million was saved primarily through less expensive health insurance.

Those savings take into account higher-than-usual layoffs and retirements, but it does not quantify how much of the reductions were due to smaller staff size. Districts statewide cut 2,312 positions in 2011, or 2.3 percent.

Only 13 districts out of the 423 studied spent more on benefits in 2012 than in 2011, the study said. Those are likely districts that still had union contracts in force that limited action that could be taken affecting benefits, the report said.

Heading into the 2012-2013 school year, districts budgeted a 0.7 percent increase in benefit costs. In the four years prior to Act 10, benefit costs increased between 3.2 percent and 5 percent annually.

The Taxpayers Alliance report looks only at schools. No comparable figures are available for cities, villages and counties.

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