Leave tech college tax base alone

Foundationlogo2colorFollowing the general wisdom that says, “Leave well enough alone,” let’s not mess with the basic structure that supports the Wisconsin Technical College System (WCTS).

Gov. Walker and the Republican legislature have opened the subject by proposing a property tax cut of more than $400 million through the mechanism of reducing the property tax raised annually for the technical colleges.

Note, though, that this return of a projected windfall budget surplus through that channel is a one-time deal. It is not a permanent change to the tax structure that supports the 16 the colleges.

Nor should it be.

Funding two of our major educational institutions, K-12 and the University of Wisconsin, has been stressful to say the least over the last decade. It will be a major issue in the campaign for governor this year.

The funding crunch stems from the fall-off in state tax revenues during the Great Recession and the grudging recovery. Further, Medicaid has chewed up much of the meager growth in the state’s sales and income taxes. That under-managed program is crowding out many other priorities, even though the feds pay 60% of the tab.

The result has been slashes to the UW budget and K-12 funding by political leaders on both sides of the aisle. Better management of the public employee benefits has offset some of the cuts, and some belt tightening has been accomplished without hurting services, Nonetheless, there has been a squeeze on educational resources. And soaring tuition and student debt has been one unwelcome outcome.

In contrast, the funding for WTCS districts – a relatively low property tax across large tax base – has been more stable. It amounts to roughly 5% of most property tax bills. In four decades of slicing and dicing local and state politics, I have heard almost no complaints about that nearly invisible portion of property tax bills.

So, what’s the problem with that tax?

Further, there is and there should be widespread support for the work of the technical colleges. That consensus comes from labor and management, from Republicans and Democrats and from many policy gurus who look for ways to close what is called “the skills gap” between available jobs and people with enough skills to fill them.

That’s not to say that the technical colleges can’t do a better job. Their programs have to continually be updated and adjusted to the changing needs in the market place. To that end, they have locally appointed boards and industry advisory councils to keep them on track.

A recent example is Moraine Park Technical College’s rapid introduction of a welder program in Jackson to fill a perceived need in the metal manufacturing business.

Such skills gaps have been a major political issue at the state and national levels, with nearly every politico opining that not every young person has to attend a four-year college to lead a productive life. Indeed, the trades can offer better pay than many jobs held by baccalaureates.

OK, then, let’s walk the talk. Leave the funding platform for Wisconsin’s technical colleges alone. It’s working. No one is complaining. Please don’t fix it.

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On another educational matter, the legislature appears ready to lift the requirement for a 180-day school year in each of the state’s 426 districts. (The suspicion is that some districts will teach less days, such as not making up snow days.)

But the proposed relaxation, along with Act 10, opens the door for some creative thinking by local district leaders.

West Bend, for example, has set the goal of being a “destination district,” which means it wants to be a magnet for students from other districts. It wants to reverse what had become an out-flow pattern.

One serious way to do that would be to create a school year longer than 180 days. Most countries in Asia exceed 200 days, and their academic outcomes and economic progress show superior returns.

A longer school year would put the West bend district on the map. If extra school time were put toward science, technology and math, many parents in nearby districts might opt to West Bend as a destination. They know that a great education is the ticket to a good career. They might even move permanently for such a school system.

The West Bend district has led the way on intelligent management of employee benefits – lower costs and better health coverage. Additional management moves could yield the funds for the longer year.

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  • Jeff Kunz, MD, MA

    John,
    From previous local school board experience, I believe WI requires a minimum (180) not maximum number of days. The districts’ school year is determined by the school board and its administration with agreement by the local teacher’s union. Hence, West Bend can exceed 180 days without additional state-wide legislation.

    • JohnTorinus

      Good point that West Bend could do a longer year without the new legislation. I used the legislation as a pivot point to make a case I have made in the past. But could have been more clear.

  • Jeff Kunz, MD, MA

    If only more people and businesses in WI would listen to your wise advice. You, your employees, and other colleagues have led the way improving healthcare quality while reducing its costs.