Questions are still lingering over Beloit's eligibility for more education funding

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BELOIT - The School District of Beloit is seeking clarification on whether it is within compliance for a key funding requirement in Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal that could mean millions in per-student aid for the district.

School officials are speaking out as the Legislature approaches its June 30 deadline to approve a budget. Key issues like K-12 education spending, the state's massive transportation funding plan and self-insurance reforms are yet to be settled by the powerful budget-writing Joint Finance Committee (JFC).

Walker's $649 million proposal for per-pupil education funding includes a requirement stating all Wisconsin school districts must pay 12 percent of health care costs. Walker proposed shifting state employees to a self-insurance model as the mechanism to save a significant portion of the money he would direct to the near-$649 million in per-student funds.

The Beloit district is not part of the state insurance plan and already is self-insured. Finance Director Jamie Merath said all school district employees pay a premium plus deductible costs on health coverage, a sum greater than the 12 percent threshold. Still, the district is asking local legislative representatives for clarification on the specific wording in the budget proposal.

The Act 10 provision in Walker's proposal states: "In the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, school district employees will be required to pay at least 12 percent of health care coverage costs."

There is still some uncertainty over whether "health care coverage costs" includes not just premium payments but also such costs as deductibles and co-pays.

The Beloit Daily News contacted the governor's office seeking a direct answer to the question of whether deductibles and co-pays count along with premiums in reaching the 12 percent threshold.

The answer was neither yes nor no from a Walker spokesman, only that the governor is "willing to work to modify the current language" to ensure districts that have met the Act 10 requirement would receive per-pupil aid.

"The goal was to ensure that the new funding would be directed into the classroom," said Walker's Deputy Director of Communications Tom Evenson.

Merath said she's been in contact with Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton and a member of Joint Finance, about clearing up the matter "a couple of different times," saying there "is still no clarification."

Merath added the district believes because it is self-insured and not participating in the state's health plan, it would not be required to meet the provisional requirement. Previously, the state's aid program exempted self-insured districts from Act 10 payment requirements.

A previous analysis of the governor's proposal by a Wisconsin-based conservative think tank, the Maclver Institute, along with a news release from Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said Beloit and various other Wisconsin school districts were not in compliance with Act 10.

There are two dueling education aid plans in budget talks, the one proposed by Walker and another supported by Assembly Republicans. Only the governor's plan raises uncertainty over whether Beloit would be considered in compliance and eligible for more money.

• Walker's plan: The governor's plan calls for boosting per-pupil funding for public school students in the state by $200 in 2017-18 and by $204 in 2018-19. The proposal also creates a $5.6 million pool in performance-based funding, and $3 million toward reducing per-credit costs for high schoolers earning college credit.

.The Assembly plan: The proposal removes the Act 10 compliance requirement and expands the tax levy authority for districts and cuts Walker's K-12 funding plan $91 million. The plan also includes somewhat less in per-pupil funding, an increase by $150 in 2017-18 and by $200 in 2018-19, moving money to districts that spend less than others, according to Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette and JFC co-chair. Critics say it creates winner and loser school districts, while JFC leaders said it addresses inequalities in the current education funding formula for state schools. Under the plan, Beloit would see an increase of $40,663 in new tax authority, from $1,406,784 under Walker's plan to $1,447,447. Comparatively, Janesville schools would see an increase of $2.3 million, from $6,031,544 in Walker's plan to $8,337,541. The differences in district funding stems from open enrollment funding requirements.

In a statement, School District of Beloit Superintendent Dr. Tom Johnson said he would support a budget with compromises that includes Walker's $200-$204 per-pupil funding and the JFC's low revenue ceiling increases.

"I am fully behind a budget proposal that supports public schools throughout our state," Johnson said. "... It is my hope that what comes out of the legislative process reflects the ability to support our schools."

The self-insurance issue is set to be debated by the JFC this afternoon.

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