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July 21, 2019

Dean Hall/lakeland times

Kim Walker shows parents and their children floor plans of the new Lakeland STAR School/Academy during an open house for the new school on Wednesday, March 28, 2018 at the Nicolet College Building on the Lakeland Union High School campus in Minocqua.
Dean Hall/lakeland times

Kim Walker shows parents and their children floor plans of the new Lakeland STAR School/Academy during an open house for the new school on Wednesday, March 28, 2018 at the Nicolet College Building on the Lakeland Union High School campus in Minocqua.
7/9/2019 7:30:00 AM
Evers vetoes grant for Lakeland STAR School/Academy
Walker: Grant required matching private funds; hypocritical veto hurts special needs students, costs taxpayers

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

Gov. Tony Evers used his powerful veto authority last week to take direct aim at the Northwoods in a number of significant budget areas, including his veto of $250,000 in grants to Lakeland STAR School/Academy, a public charter school, in the next biennium.

Evers also erased funding for FAB lab programs and for a proposed Northwoods regional mental health crisis facility, as well as workforce development training dollars for Northcentral Technical College, among other moves in a budget heavily tilted toward the southern half of the state.

In all, Evers used his veto pen 78 times, earning pushback from state Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua), who said Evers's actions showed a definite geographical bias.

"Today, the governor signed a carefully crafted state budget into law with very few vetoes," Tiffany said. "However, the vetoes he included seem to target northern Wisconsin particularly hard and makes it crystal clear this governor only cares about Madison and Milwaukee."

One of the most significant vetoes for the Lakeland area was the veto of the $250,000 grant to Lakeland STAR School/Academy. Under the provision included in the state budget sent to the governor by the GOP-controlled Legislature, the state would have provided $250,000 in fiscal year 2019-20 in a newly created biennial appropriation.

Specifically, according to the budget, the Department of Public Instruction would have provided a grant of $83,000 during the biennium to the MHLT school district for the Lakeland STAR School and a grant of $167,000 during the biennium to the LUHS school district for the Lakeland STAR Academy.

Evers said grants to individual school districts amounted to picking winners and losers.

"I object to providing state grants to specific schools when the Legislature has continued to drastically underfund Wisconsin's public school system as a whole," Evers wrote in his veto message. "I believe that every kid in Wisconsin should be able to get a great education in a public school regardless of what district they live in, and that state funding decisions should not pick winners and losers among our children."

But Gregg Walker, the president of the Lakeland STAR School/Academy governance board (Walker is also the publisher of The Lakeland Times and the Northwoods River News), pushed back on Evers's explanations, saying the governor wasn't being honest in his veto message.

For one thing, Walker said, Lakeland STAR is a public charter school and none of the grant would have been received until the school had raised $250,000 in matching private funds.

"That private money flowing into a public charter school is unprecedented, and actually augments state spending on special needs," Walker said. "Thus, the very structure of the grant provision does not divert money from special-needs education but instead generates more dollars for those programs than the state provides. It was a net zero cost to taxpayers, if not an outright win."

Walker also blasted Evers's veto as hypocritical.

"Evers eliminated a budget provision that would have allowed the state to implement and operate youth summer job programs in areas other than in first class cities - meaning Milwaukee, the only first-class city in the state," Walker said. "His veto essentially ensures that only Milwaukee gets that money for youth summer job programs. How's that for picking winners and losers among our children? Evers thinks it's fine to earmark money for youth in Milwaukee, but not for young people in the Northwoods. What a hypocrite."

The truth is, Walker said, Evers turned his back not only on students who attend Lakeland STAR schools but on every child with autism and other special needs in the state of Wisconsin.

That's because, Walker said, he and other governance board members had proposed that Evers include in the governor's own budget proposal a much higher funding level that would have allowed every community in the state to open their own schools for special-needs students, provided they met certain reasonable criteria such as providing local matching funds, as Lakeland STAR does.

But Evers ignored the proposal, Walker said.

"What the governor isn't telling people when he says he doesn't like funding specific schools and picking winners and losers is that he rejected outright our idea that a program be created that would enable every community to build their own, locally controlled versions of schools like ours - for kids with special needs," he said.

Walker said the proposal would have dramatically increased special-needs funding statewide, which the governor said he wanted, allowed for other schools like STAR to also receive state funding, and expanded parental choice in education.

"It's the governor who is picking winners and losers," Walker said. "The winner this week was the education establishment, and the losers were every family in Wisconsin with a child with special needs. To make it all worse, he decided to punish our own functioning program, which is winning accolades for helping real students and can serve as a model for other communities."

Tiffany also said the governor had missed an opportunity to help an important program.

"I am disappointed the so-called education governor vetoed modest but meaningful funding for the Lakeland STAR School and Academy in Minocqua," he said. "This unique school is open to all students but is focused on helping students on the autism spectrum. I can't understand why the governor would cut their funding."

A not-so-fab week for FAB labs

The governor also used his veto pen to wipe out funds for the Fabrication Laboratories Grant Program. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation defines FAB labs as high-technology workshops equipped with computer-controlled additive and subtractive manufacturing components, such as 3-dimensional printers, laser engravers, computer numerical control routers and/or plasma cutters, that are designed to support hands-on science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) education.

The grant program, administered by the WEDC, assists public school districts with equipment purchases. The Legislature's budget proposal would have required the WEDC to allocate at least $500,000 in each year of the 2019-21 biennium for awarding FAB lab grants.

But Evers said that unacceptably tied the hands of the agency.

"I am vetoing this section because I object to the Legislature limiting the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation's authority," he wrote. "The fabrication laboratories program has been an innovative effort to expand the educational experiences of public school children across the state, but this is a policy more appropriately administered with other educational grant programs. If the corporation wishes to make such an allocation it can choose to do so on its own volition."

Evers also nixed a provision that would require the Department of Workforce Development to award grants in the amounts of $75,000 in fiscal years 2019-20 and 2020-21 to the Northcentral Technical College board for workforce training in county jail facilities, using the same reasoning that he did in the Lakeland STAR veto.

"I am partially vetoing this section because I object to earmarks for specific technical college districts and believe this earmark is overly restrictive and burdensome," Evers said. "This partial veto will give the department greater flexibility in allocating dollars for workforce training in county jail facilities across the entire state."

Tiffany blasted both decisions.

"The governor's veto to cut funding for FAB labs is surprising," he said. "FAB labs have been a great asset for students - especially in rural Wisconsin - to gain access to STEM fields. Also, the governor cut funding for Northcentral Technical College to provide worker training opportunities in county jails. The governor says he wants to help offenders, but apparently not if they are from northern Wisconsin."

The governor also used the budget to axe a plan for a northern Wisconsin regional crisis center, shifting the dollars to Madison. That drew the ire of state Rep. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma).

"Our budget included $15 million in bonding for a crisis center in northern Wisconsin that would create deeply needed regional access for those struggling with mental health," Felzkowski said. "Gov. Evers's partial veto directs that funding to Mendota Treatment Center in Madison."

Felzkowski also said Evers chose to remove $2.7 million in funding that would have expanded the state's ability to utilize telehealth, a health care delivery mechanism that can really benefit Wisconsinites that do not have immediate access to providers.

Felzkowski said she had implored the governor not to forget about rural Wisconsin.

"Overall, the budget that we sent to Gov. Evers's desk makes great strides for the Northwoods," she said. "Unfortunately, it seems these vetoes demonstrate where our communities fall on his list of priorities in comparison to Madison and Milwaukee."

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