Madison - State Sen. Alberta Darling said Tuesday that Wisconsin school districts that rushed to enter into new teacher contracts before the state budget repair bill was passed "have put themselves into a box" because now they're now facing a huge cut in state aid.
Because Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill calls for having teachers and other public employees pay more toward their pension and health insurance, and eliminates most bargaining rights, some districts quickly approved contracts before that bill passes.
However, the state budget unveiled by Walker Tuesday includes more than $800 million cuts in state aid to schools over the next two years. Walker has argued that the provisions in his budget repair bill would lower school district costs and offset the loss in revenue.
But districts that have already approved teachers contracts will have to deal with the loss of state aid without getting the concessions from teachers.
Speaking after Walker's budget address, Darling, a River Hills Republican, said provisions of the budget repair bill are supposed to go hand in hand with the reduction in state aid.
"The school districts that rushed to get new contracts without considering what the options would be at the state level have put themselves into a box,” she said. “These tools are going to help offset the cuts, and if school districts are going to rush, (they) are going to be a big mess.”
Darling says budget provides choices
Many of the proposals outlined in Walker's budget hinge on passage of the budget repair bill, which has been passed by the Assembly. A Senate vote is being held up because 14 Democratic senators are refusing to return to Madison to vote on the measure.
Not only would the budget repair bill free up money tied to pensions and health care, it also would allow districts flexibility to chose where that money is spent, said Darling, whose district includes Shorewood, Whitefish Bay and Fox Point.
“The school boards will have the opportunity with the savings to say how they want to use this money,” she said. “I’d say it’s better to put that money into the classroom and into teachers so that we can have a good education system.”
“These are going to be tough choices that will have to be made at the local level,” Darling added. “But I give the governor a lot of credit for having the cuts, which he has to do.”
Walker's budget also calls for the expansion of school choice and charter programs. The plan is to lift the cap on the number of students eligible to participate in Milwaukee, and phase out income eligibility limits.
“It shows that we want to offer choices to our families, and we need to use unused buildings for those opportunities,” Darling said.
Democrats need to get back to work
Darling also said Senate Democrats need to return to Madison soon - before Walker starts issuing layoff notices to public employees. Darling also said the deadline is approaching for the state to refinance its debt.
“We’re going to lose $165 million for refinancing of our debt,” she said. “If we can’t get the savings, we can’t give the local governments the tools they need to balance their budgets. There’s a lot at stake here.”
Darling, who is co-chairman of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, said lawmakers would like to get the budget finished by the end of June.
“We’re going to have public hearings , we’re going to go around the state and hear what people have to say,” Darling said. “Not everyone is going to be happy with it. But we have a $3.6 billion hole, so anyone who wants to say they don’t like it they have to come up with some ideas on how to meet the budget.”