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Wis. Lawmakers Hold Line on Budget Cuts

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Wisconsin lawmakers were putting finishing touches on their legislative session last week without retreating from the massive cuts they made last year in the state education department's budget.

The Republican-led legislature last year gutted the department's funding in the state's biennial budget, cutting more than $6 million from its two-year budget, which had previously hovered at about $14 million.

Department officials cut 35 positions last year, banned out-of-state travel, curtailed in-state trips, and have otherwise reined in spending.

But that was in response to the first year of cuts. With no relief from lawmakers, this year's action could be even more severe.

The department's top managers expect to cut about 50 jobs, starting this summer, said Greg M. Doyle, a spokesman. And last year's belt-tightening will continue.

"It's hard to know exactly how we're going to do it," Mr. Doyle said. "We've already taken an awful lot of steps toward austerity."

John T. Benson, the state schools superintendent, and other education officials had hoped for some respite. But some lawmakers feared that consideration of restoring even a portion of the cuts would lead to a bigger discussion and probably larger amounts of money for the department.

The funding cut was only a part of the legislature's attempt last year to remake the department. The state supreme court has since struck down a law backed by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson that would have gutted Mr. Benson's responsibilities and allowed the Republican governor to appoint a Cabinet-level education chief. (See Education Week, April 3, 1996.)

Diluted Expertise

Lawmakers last year set aside $600,000 to spend this year to pay for a three-person office for Mr. Benson, had the courts permitted the reorganization law. But the department was unable even to get its hands on that money, which will now apparently disappear back into the state's general fund.

Most school districts have found ways to work with the shrinking state agency, but some smaller districts that relied on the department for advice have found themselves in a pinch.

"For the superintendents who have to do everything in a small district, there are obviously fewer places to go to have questions answered," said Ken Cole, the executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. District officials say it has been tougher to find help calculating federal and state aid, as well as assistance on curriculum questions.

And the chain reaction of transfers that the job cuts set off within the department has led to a reduction in overall expertise, local officials said.

"In the short run, you figure out ways to get by," Mr. Cole said. "But as this goes on, people are going to start complaining more and more."

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