Wisconsin School Officials Question Gov’s Promises of Savings

By Sean Cavanagh — February 25, 2011 2 min read
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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker says his plans to raise public workers’ pension and health care costs and curb collective bargaining rights will save school districts money—enough to offset potential cuts he could make in their state funding.

But school officials are questioning that math.

In a story I wrote this week, organizations representing district leaders and school boards told me they’re skeptical about whether Walker’s controversial proposal, when weighed against his expected budget cuts, would actually save them money over time. This week, the governor has put forward estimates claiming that his plan would reduce school district costs by at least $976 million over a two-year period.

Yet district officials who study and work with school budgets say the savings aren’t likely to offset the cuts to state aid to districts that they expect Walker to make. The governor hasn’t released his budget, but a number of leaders of school association say they’re expecting at least $900 million in cuts in state aid over two years.

School officials say they’re confident they will save on pension costs through the governor’s proposal. But they’re aren’t sure how much the governor’s plan will save them on health care costs. Walker wants school employees in the state health plan to pay more, and his proposal wouldn’t allow local school district employees to bargain over health care. But those savings will probably vary by district, and they’re likely to depend on whether school districts are willing and able to drive down health care cost for their employees, as well as the length of existing contracts. Savings from other changes in collective bargaining are also hard to predict, and the officials I talked to were not confident they could make up for losses in state aid.

Not all of the district officials’ worries are financial. They’re also fear the governor’s plan, if enacted, would create a deep and enduring rift between labor and management in their school systems and communities.

To round up other recent news in the Badger State Showdown:

• Republicans in Wisconsin’s state Assembly were able to approve the governor’s plan, in a middle-of-the-night vote, over the objections of groggy Democrats. But state Senate Democratic lawmakers are still in hiding, blocking a vote on Walker’s plan.

• Walker was the victim of improbably successful prank, in which a blogger, posing as billionaire political conservative David Koch, managed to get through to the governor for an extended conversation. Walker expounds with the man he believed was Koch (one of the governor’s big campaign contributors) on his strategy going forward, including ramping up pressure on unions by threatening layoffs. Read the full transcript here.

• One of the governor’s main arguments during the furor is that he campaigned on the promise of making major overhauls to collective bargaining. But the truth-checking organization Politifact says it’s not so.

Expect more drama (whether you want it or not) in the week to come.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.