With an audience of two state legislators and a congressional aide, members of the Baraboo School Board advocated Monday for more special education and mental health funding for schools, as well as increased transparency with private school voucher programs.

“All of these things are important,” said board Vice President Doug Mering.

The district invited all of the state and federal legislators who represent the area to meet with the board, according to District Administrator Lori Mueller. Legislators include U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth; U.S. Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, and Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison; state Reps. Dave Considine, D-Baraboo, and Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc; and state Sens. Jon Erpenbach, D-West Point, and Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green.

Of those seven, Considine and Erpenbach attended Monday’s board meeting, along with a field representative for Pocan, Calvin Boldebuck. When board member Tim Heilman asked if any Republican representatives would talk to school boards, Mering said he would try again and possibly invite Marklein and Kurtz to North Freedom Elementary School, as that’s the part of the district they represent.

Yvette Updike, the school district’s business manager, kicked off the discussion with a short presentation about how Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed biennial budget would impact district finances.

“I think as a district it’s really important to know the long-term goal is to have sustainability, so that we can maintain staffing, curriculum, programming and just to meet the budget needs,” Updike said. “It can’t be just two years out and then it goes back, so it’s very important to maintain the sustainability of these proposals.”

Special education

Funding for special education has been flat for years from both the state and federal governments, forcing districts including Baraboo to pay for special education with money from the general fund, Mering said.

In his proposed budget, Evers calls for raising special education aid by $75 million next year and $531 million the following year. That would allow the state to reimburse 30% of districts’ special education costs in 2019-20 and 60% in 2020-21. Currently, reimbursement is around 25%, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

“This is not an unreasonable thing that the governor is asking for,” Mering said. “I think it’s a critical one that we need to address now and in the future.”

While a bipartisan legislative panel on school funding has recommended increasing special education funding, Mering said he’s heard that some state legislators might not be committed to following through on it.

Erpenbach agreed that Republicans have shown reluctance during the budget process to increase special ed funding.

“We have enough money to do this because the governor has made it the top priority, when in previous administrations, priorities might have been a little bit different,” Erpenbach said, noting that Evers built his budget around public school funding. “We, on our end, need to do everything we can to get it through the legislative process.”

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Considine said other representatives have expressed concern that if they put money into special education, it will be used for regular ed — not realizing that the opposite is already happening.

“I think that case needs to be heard and made really loudly,” he said.

Private vouchers

Mueller highlighted Evers’ proposal to freeze enrollment in the parental choice programs, which provide public funds for students to attend private schools. She said families that always have attended a local private school are qualifying for voucher funds by having their students attend the Baraboo School District for one day before returning to the private school.

“I understand the value of the choice program in the state and that that’s the philosophy, but this is not a true choice,” Mueller said. “They’ve already made that choice and they’re paying for that education. They’re now taking advantage of the system.”

Erpenbach said he supports the governor’s proposals, adding that it’s important to know how much tax money is going to private schools.

Considine said there’s no data to suggest private schools are educating voucher students better than public schools. While the state DPI releases accountability report cards for both public and voucher schools, private schools are rated solely by their voucher students. Often, those numbers are too limited to give the school a grade. Mering suggested voucher schools should be graded based on their total enrollment instead.

Mental health

Social work and mental health needs of students are increasing across the state, said board member Nancy Thome. She said schools lack the funds to meet those needs.

Evers asked for school mental health services to get about $63 million more in funding over the next two years.

“I’m sure we’ll get some of that, I’m just not sure it’s going to be enough,” Considine said.

Erpenbach tied the issues Thome addressed to Medicaid expansion, saying it would help schools if children in poverty had access to health care.

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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