MADISON (WKOW) -- Budget season in Wisconsin began in earnest Tuesday with the first agency hearings.
The Department of Public Instruction and outgoing State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor faced a series of questions from lawmakers about the incoming federal relief money and the disparities between school districts with regard to when they returned to in-person learning.
A report from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau calculated about $2.2 billion coming to Wisconsin schools through the three federal COVID-19 stimulus packages.
Republican lawmakers raised concerns about what they felt was a disproportionate amount going to the state's largest districts. Milwaukee Public Schools was set to receive about $797 million of the funding, amounting to more than $11,000 per student.
While Beloit was set to get nearly half that amount at about $5,200 per student, other districts in southern Wisconsin were in line to get considerably less per pupil; Janesville schools were to receive $2,915 per student, Madison Metropolitan would get $2,720.
Other districts, including those in the Madison suburbs, were in line to get less than $1,000 per pupil; that included $886 for Verona and $345 for Middleton-Cross Plains.
GOP members of the Joint Finance Committee said the federal money, 90 percent of which is pre-determined by Washington, exacerbated an already-existing trend of the DPI requesting more per pupil funding for large urban districts at the expense of rural schools and school choice participants.
"When I look through the budget requests here, I see Milwaukee, I see larger districts specifically named," said Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma). "And yet, I watch our rural schools burning up their funds on transportation."
Stanford Taylor noted the federal allocations were based on factors like percentage of students in poverty, learning English, and in special education. She told lawmakers those issues would remain after the pandemic.
"Needs of our students will continue beyond this and the impact of COVID on those students will continue beyond the next few years," she said. "That's my plea to you."
Stanford Taylor told lawmakers she supported the state using 10 percent of the money it controls to help fund districts that received relatively little money.
Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), noted large districts receive disproportionate funding because their communities raise relatively less property tax revenue.
Johnson said the notoriously underserved 53206 zip code, which is in her district, has an average home resale value of $4,300, necessitating outsized state funding.
Lawmakers also questioned Stanford Taylor about the disparities between districts with regard to when students returned to the classroom.
Republicans have maintained federal dollars should be prioritized for districts that have spent more on transportation and cleaning because they've been in school longer.
Noting that DPI cannot force a district to open its classrooms, Stanford Taylor acknowledged a number of students have suffered from a lack of in-person learning.
"Yes, there are some students who've fallen behind during this time," she said. "There are some students who do well in virtual instruction and there are others who don't do as well."
Stanford Taylor pushed back on a question from Felzkowski about whether teachers should have returned to schools sooner; the Northwoods senator asked if DPI considers teachers essential workers, how it could justify teachers in Milwaukee and Madison staying virtual while grocery store employers showed up for work.
"I think it's desirable to have in-person but we have to look at all the factors," Stanford Taylor responded. "Different than a Walmart worker, a teacher would be in a classroom of 20-25 students."
Lawmakers also heard from the Department of Workforce Development Tuesday. On Wednesday, they will question leaders from the Department of Natural Resources and Public Service Commission.05-Born-CP-PUBLIC