BY EILEEN PERSIKE
The School District of Rhinelander Board of Education voted to take a stand in favor of greater transparency when it comes to Wisconsin’s school voucher system and its impact on public schools. By an 8-to-1 vote, the board approved a resolution that asks the governor and state legislators to support the Wisconsin Voucher Taxpayer Transparency Bill “in an effort to be open, honest and transparent with the taxpayers of the School District of Rhinelander and the state of Wisconsin.”
The 2017-19 state budget includes expansion of the school voucher program, called Parental Choice, statewide. The school board’s Employee Relations Committee (ERC), which met prior to the full board Monday, heard a presentation by Wisconsin Education Association Council senior researcher Jeff Leverich, who said the school board resolution is one strategy to build public awareness of voucher programs’ long-term effects on public education.
“It’s the public’s right to know what’s going on with their tax dollars in their community,” Leverich said. “What do vouchers do? (They take) your community tax dollars and turn it into a mechanism that can go to the private sector.”
To illustrate his point, Leverich distributed a graph which depicts the amount of state aid Rhinelander received in 2016-17. It shows $1,553 per public school pupil (not including local property tax support), versus $7,969 in state aid per private high school voucher elsewhere in the state. Committee member and board vice president Judy Conlin said she favors a Wisconsin Association of School Board proposal that would require property tax bills to include how much of their local dollars are going to voucher schools.
“We may not currently have any voucher schools in our district, yet — but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t having an impact on our revenues that are available to us,” Conlin said, adding, “I really feel it’s important that our taxpayers understand that we are impacted … our state aid is reduced because of the voucher program.”
Before the full board took up the resolution, Superintendent Kelli Jacobi told board members she prefers to be proactive in matters such as this.
“We’ve been working very hard in this district with the state funding formula, trying to be proactive, trying to help legislators understand the importance of this for our school district,” Jacobi said. “Due to all the work we have been doing with the funding formula, I thought (it) would be remiss for me to not at least have this conversation.”
Although ERC chair Duane Frey stated that the resolution doesn’t take a stand, but instead asks the state to be more transparent, board member David Holperin disagreed, saying it’s a political issue that should be avoided.
“I’m out,” Holperin said. “I don’t want to support this from the standpoint that I don’t want to risk alienating any of our taxpayer base, our referendum-voting community members. I think it’s the wrong pathway to go and I think we are better off staying out of this.”
Board member Dennis O’Brien told the board he agrees with Holperin that the voucher program is a political issue, but one the board should not shy away from.
“The idea that this resolution offers, in some fashion, information to the electorate, so that they will understand what’s happening, the idea that you would be opposed to that is strange to me,” responded O’Brien. “Because the reality of it is, lots of bad things are happening to public schools in this state and we shouldn’t walk away from it.”
Hoplerin’s was the lone dissenting vote. Jacobi said she would share the resolution with the district’s local legislators.