Tuesday June 19, 2018

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The Way Wisconsin Funds Schools Must Change

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 13 June 2018
in Wisconsin

school-kidsWe heard expert testimony at a recent hearing of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding Reform that Wisconsin’s formula is an outlier in the US. and failure to change it leaves children vulnerable, taxpayers paying more in property tax and the state open to lawsuits.


MADISON - The way Wisconsin pays for schools is unfair, inequitable and antiquated.

Over the past few months, I heard parents, community members, business leaders, teachers, students, and school officials speak about the flawed school funding formula. I serve on the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding Reform.

We took public testimony across the state. Recently, these criticisms were validated by national experts who testified at the last scheduled public hearing of the Commission.

Our state is changing. These changes are reflected in student needs. Compared to years ago, we have more students in poverty, with special needs, English learners, students suffering from mental illness and experiencing trauma. These students facing challenging situations cost us more to educate.

The state has failed to keep up with changing student needs. As a consequence, the schools with those of greater need are forced to divert funds from all other students to pay for these needs.

For example, the state funds only 26 cents on the dollar for special education needs. But federal law requires all special education needs be met. As a result, general education money is used for students with special needs.

Peter Goff, Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin, Madison described the situation. “Huge chunks [of general education money] are getting torn off to pay for these special education mandates – that is the state’s responsibility but [the state] is not paying for it.”

kathleen-vinehout“Wisconsin’s school funding system is inflexible, unpredictable, and not well designed to respond to changes in educational conditions,” said Zahava Stadler, Policy and Research Director for EdBuild, a nonprofit dedicated to school funding reform.

Commission members heard testimony about how Wisconsin’s approach to paying for public schools is unique in the US – and not in a positive way. Experts said Wisconsin’s method of paying for schools makes students more vulnerable. Using “categories” of aid makes these programs more vulnerable to budget cuts because of political winds and economic downturns.

Emily Parker, a Policy Analyst for the Education Commission of the States, tracks school legislation. Ms. Parker described the evolution of school funding across America. At first, schools were funded in a flat dollar amount. Then schools were paid based on community wealth as measured by property value. This is how Wisconsin’s main formula works.

Over the years, states added student need (Wisconsin includes only in limited grant-like categories), then states made funding flexible and, recently, more states are basing resources for schools on student needs.

The effect of our obsolete formula is harmful to all students, as schools are forced to take money from general aid to pay for the increasing needs of some students.

Dr. Goff, testified about the effects of Act 10, revenue limits and budget cuts.

“Without a doubt, there has been a net loss to school districts over time,” said Dr. Goff. At the same time, the costs school districts face increased over time. “Every year there isn’t a revenue limit adjustment, it is essentially a cut to schools’ spending.”

“Local districts are taking on more, asking for more, going to referenda more often and passing more… this is not a sustainable model for school funding. At the end of the day, education is a state right. When you can’t give more of local effort, that is when the state opens up to potential lawsuits as well as ethical issues of underfunding schools. … At some point, local districts will exhaust [resources] and that puts the state at risk,” said Dr. Goff.

“There is a glaring omission that the state that has the largest achievement gap in the nation has a funding system … [that] does not mention student disadvantage at all. Or ethnicity at all.”

We must fundamentally change the way we pay for schools. We should throw out the antiquated formula based on property wealth. Instead, schools need a flexible, consistent commitment from the state to pay districts based on student needs and the costs of educating the students of today.

At risk, are our children. At stake, is our future. It’s time for the Blue Ribbon Commission to earn its blue ribbon.

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An Honest Discussion about Transportation Needs

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 06 June 2018
in Wisconsin

highwayAs roads and bridges continue to deteriorate, former DOT Sec. Gottlieb presented a comprehensive long-term transportation funding solution that was rejected by Governor Walker. Sen. Kathleen Vinehout takes it to build an alternative state budget that provides solutions, not continued borrowing.


MADISON - Farmers in western Wisconsin are worried new bridge weight limits will add time and cost to their already stressful lives.

“This is a very serious concern for us,” Farm Bureau spokesman Rob Richard told Chris Hubbuch of the La Crosse Tribune. “We want to make sure farmers can get to and from their fields. If they can’t make the quickest, most efficient route they’re just adding wear and tear to other roads.”

The Department of Transportation recently lowered the weight limit on 184 bridges, mostly in western Wisconsin. This action met a 2018 federal deadline requiring a state evaluation of bridges.

Engineers looked at what is known as short-haul vehicles. These are vehicles defined by the feds as “closely spaced, multi-axle, single unit” trucks like dump trucks, milk trucks and manure hauling tankers. The vehicles have closely spaced axles that “concentrate weight in a much smaller footprint”, which can put more stress on, and possible damage to, the bridges.

leo-frigo-bridge-gbLocal bridges were low on the Governor’s spending priority list. In his first budget, the Governor cut money to local bridges by over 8% compared to the prior (Recession) budget, then provided no increase in the next four years. This year, his election year budget did provide new bridge funds.

Perhaps budget cuts are partly to blame for the results of a recent study by the American Society of Civil Engineers that reported Wisconsin has over 1,200 structurally deficit bridges.

The same study reported 27% of roads in Wisconsin are in poor condition. Motorists pay an average of $637 per year on vehicle repairs due to roads in need of repair.

“Our roads are all junk,” farmer Clint Sampson was quoted in the La Crosse Tribune story. “These county roads are worn out. The roads haven’t been touched for 30 years. Some of them are beyond patching up.”

Perhaps this is why county officials tell me they have turned asphalt roads into gravel for years.

The underfunding of roads comes in spite of several studies showing a decline in road conditions and a shortfall in state resources, just to maintain current conditions. For example, the 2014 Commission on Transportation Finance and Policy found, without additional highway funding, 42% of Wisconsin roads will be in poor or worse condition by 2023. The 2016, the study No Easy Answers found rural roads are twice as deadly as other roads in Wisconsin and more than twice as deadly as the national average.

I learned a great deal by reading the budgets of former Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Mark Gottlieb. Many of the ideas I used in my Alternative Budgets came from these documents, especially his 2015-17 budget request submitted in November of 2014. In this document, Mr. Gottlieb included 24 issue papers discussing solutions to the crisis facing DOT.

Reporter Katelyn Ferral of the Capitol Times recently interviewed the former Secretary. In the interview, former Secretary Gottlieb talked about how the Governor signaled that in 2016, Gottlieb should not submit another budget that “contained a comprehensive solution.”

kathleen-vinehout“I think it was done because they didn’t want a repeat of what was done in 2014. They didn’t want the department to submit a budget that seriously dealt with this issue.” Instead, the administration wanted a budget that “pretended if we just went along like we were going along, everything would be fine. … That is not the budget I would have submitted based on my judgement of what was needed.”

“We got to the place where the facts were being ignored in favor of political spin”, former Secretary Gottlieb continued. “It is easy enough to evaluate statements about how much the state is investing or not investing by looking at historical budget data. We are not investing.”

Looking at state transportation budgets, one can see that Walker chose borrowing more money over developing a long-term transportation funding solution.

Potholes are real. Deteriorating bridges are real. Wrecked axles and other unexpected repairs are real. I agree with former Secretary Gottlieb, it’s time we have an honest conversation about how to fix transportation.

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Conservation Voter's Ads Spotlight Drinking Water Pollution In Kewaunee County

Posted by League of Conservation Voters, Ryan Billingham
League of Conservation Voters, Ryan Billingham
League of Conservation Voters, Ryan Billingham has not set their biography yet
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 30 May 2018
in Wisconsin

clean-drinking-waterNonpartisan League of Conservation Voters launches Ad campaign in Northeastern WI Senate District 1 race with Manure is ‘In Our Shower and Our Faucets’.


MADISON – A new ad campaign focused on the special election in Senate District 1 features a Kewaunee County resident whose faucets ran brown with liquid manure and spotlights the anti-conservation record of Rep. Andre Jacque.

The television ads tell the story of a Kewaunee County resident who lives the reality of the drinking water crisis and the risk it poses to her family and thousands of others in the district – and beyond.

kewaunee-countyIt provides graphic footage of pure liquid manure running from a shower and a sink faucet – explicit proof of the horrifying pollution pouring from Kewaunee County faucets – and points to Andre Jacque’s numerous votes against clean water protections.

Over the course of his legislative career, Andre Jacque has voted against clean water protections in the most high profile environmental legislation. Even more telling, Andre Jacque provided no leadership on the biggest threats to drinking water in his district. He was one of the only local legislators to not co-sponsor legislation to help families’ whose wells have been contaminated by manure (2017 Act 69).

The radio campaign further details the family’s story and introduces candidate Caleb Frostman, a conservation champion dedicated to protecting clean drinking water and the state’s water resources.

Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters PAC paid for the campaign.

Watch the television ad here.

Listen to the manure pollution ad here.

Listen to the ad introducing Caleb Frostman here.

Click here for the ad campaign’s justifications.

# # #

Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to electing conservation leaders, holding decision makers accountable, and encouraging lawmakers to champion conservation policies that effectively protect Wisconsin's public health and natural resources.

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Sand Mine Spill Exposes the Consequences of Poor Regulation

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 30 May 2018
in Wisconsin

sand-mining-wiThe recent Hi-Crush Mine spill highlights how the poorly regulated sand mining industry has consequences on local communities. Wisconsin can do better to protect the public and the environment.


WHITEHALL, WI - “A really unfortunate series of circumstances,” was how Kevin Lien described a recent spill of ten million gallons of orange sludge from a sand mine processing facility.

A bulldozer and its operator slid into a deep settling basin at the Hi-Crush mine and sand processing plant in Whitehall, Wisconsin. Mine workers, working with emergency responders, dug through an earthen berm and intentionally released the thick, orange sludge.

frac-sand-spill-wiscThe sludge ran into Poker Coulee, making its way downstream into the Trempealeau River. Eventually the material made its way to the Mississippi River.

Mr. Lien is the Director of Land Management for Trempealeau County. He spent nearly the past decade at the epicenter of sand mining in Wisconsin. Using the regulatory powers of the county, he worked with county board members to develop protections for the environment, communities and public health. The county continues to monitor many mines.

But the mine that discharged the orange sludge is out of his jurisdiction.

“The county has no jurisdiction,” Mr. Lien told me. “And, the city is unregulated.” The county has no jurisdiction because the mine is in both the cities of Independence and Whitehall. Several years ago, the mine sought and received approval to annex into the two cities – some five miles apart – to avoid county regulation.

Annexation was approved in late 2013 by the Whitehall and Independence City Councils.

A lack of regulation allowed the mine to avoid expensive but necessary protections.

“We would have required safety measures,” said Mr. Lien. “There should be fail-safe protections downstream.” For example, a check dam downstream would contain any spills. The settling basin contains a large amount of sludge—water, mixed with sand and chemicals.

“But the discharge is in the county, and that’s my jurisdiction.” After the spill, the county sent the sludge out for testing but won’t receive the results for several days. “Now, its Memorial Day weekend. Families are headed to the beaches along the Mississippi River. We have no idea how hazardous [the sludge is].”

Sand companies use the chemicals – a proprietary mix including polyacrylamides – to treat sand destined for use in hydraulic fracturing. The sand acts as a proppant to allow oil and natural gas to flow from the well.

For years, I’ve worked with Mr. Lien and many other constituents on “balloon on a string” shaped annexations that allow cities to avoid county regulations.

kathleen-vinehoutThe bills I wrote relating to mine operations and annexations never received a hearing. Since 2010, the state made it easier for companies to avoid penalties through the “Green Tier” program.

In the summer of 2017, Hi-Crush applied for exemptions from some state regulations through the “Green Tier” Program. In November, the state approved the application promising “protection from any civil penalties that the DNR might otherwise impose.”

Hi-Crush has a history of violations that resulted in penalties. For example, in 2014 the company was fined $52,500 for operating two high capacity wells without required permits according to WKOW. In 2017, the Whitehall site reported 8 worker injuries. According to Chris Hubbach, of the La Crosse Tribune this rate is more than 10 times the national average. The company received 18 fines related to worker safety since 2014.

Hi-Crush Proppants operated facilities in Trempealeau, Jackson, Eau Claire and Monroe Counties. The “Green Tier” regulatory exemptions apply to all of its Wisconsin mines.

“I don’t have faith in the system,” Kevin Lien concluded. Neither do citizens. And, they are concerned about the consequences. As one woman wrote to me from Eau Claire:

I watched in horror as the events of the recent Hi-Crush breach. It is prime nesting season for waterfowl. …Once the sediment settles and covers the vegetation on the bottom of the River and backwaters, that vegetation will die. The mallards and other bottom-feeding ducks and Canada geese will lose their food supply… fish… will cease as a food source for diving ducks such as mergansers, loons, canvasback, ring-necks, and scaup. Frogs and other crustaceans will suffocate and no longer be a food source for the already declining herons and egrets.

Who truly pays for a poorly regulated industry? The simple answer is: we all do.

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Attorney General Causes Scare for Local Hemp Farmer

Posted by Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout, State Senator 31st District
Kathleen Vinehout of Alma is an educator, business woman, and farmer who is now
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 23 May 2018
in Wisconsin

hemp-farmer-wiscWhen a AG memo muddies the waters on the possession and distribution of CBD oil, local Ag officials, hemp growers and farm groups move to clarify the issue. Wisconsin used to be a leader in hemp production and many farmers are hoping to make us a leader again.


RIVER FALLS, WI - Abbie Testaberg is a soon-to-be Wisconsin hemp farmer. She and her husband will be planting, growing, harvesting and processing hemp this year at the Kinni Hemp Company near River Falls. They are among the many farmers who received a license to grow hemp this year.

Two children with chronic conditions led Abbie to learn more about hemp and the oil extracted from the hemp plant called cannabidiol or CBD oil.

CBD oil is used for many purposes. There is evidence the oil helps those with autism, Parkinson’s Disease and Multiple Sclerosis. A few years ago, parents of children suffering from severe seizures lobbied lawmakers to eliminate the legal gray area so they could use CBD oil to help control seizures.

Farmers recognize the value of hemp and are eager to expand their farming practices.

Last fall, in a bill that unanimously passed through the Legislature, Wisconsin created the Industrial Hemp Pilot Research Program. According to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), the state received 368 applications for hemp growing or processing licenses. This is the first growing season for hemp. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, 38 states allow farmers to grow hemp.

Just as farmers were gearing up for planting, the Wisconsin Attorney General (AG) issued a memo saying the possession and distribution of CBD oil was illegal.

“Scared us beyond belief,” Abbie confided. The family already invested in a 4-acre outdoor field and created a separate building for an indoor hydroponic system.

“[We are using the farm] as a showcase facility for our system,” she told me. Abbie’s husband Jody created a proprietary technology to grow plants indoors. The couple intended the indoor/outdoor plots as a research project to highlight the differences between the two growing systems. The family is working with a local farmer and collaborating with two University of Wisconsin-River Falls professors on hemp research.

Abbie’s long-term goal is to manufacture the trays used for indoor growing out of hemp. She told me only four or five companies in the world produce the type of plastic from hemp she needs for the growing trays.

Short term, Abbie and her husband plan to grow and harvest hemp plants for CBD oil. Processing the oil from the plant is a time-consuming, detailed process but provides a high-value product much in demand. Not being able to process the plant and extract CBD oil would have thrown a huge monkey wrench in their plans.

Abbie’s reaction to the AG’s opinion? “That’s a bunch of bananas. I spent a long week after the DOJ announcement, reading and re-reading the bill, the CBD bill, the farm bill, the hemp bill. There was a clear mechanism [for processing CBD oil].”

Abbie’s research along with the efforts of the lead Republican authors, Agriculture officials and members of the Farm Bureau, caused AG Brad Schimel to change his original position. He announced that farmers who process CBD oil would not be prosecuted.

The Wisconsin hemp law, Act 100, clearly states processing hemp is legal. But those who buy CBD oil seem to still be in a legal gray area.

“I’m confident this is legal but the [administrative] rules don’t fully articulate the bill language,” Abbie said. “The local co-ops will be worried.”

kathleen-vinehoutWisconsinites can buy CBD oil without going to a doctor for a certificate, as it should be. CBD oil is a supplement, like ginseng.

Wisconsin farmers are hurting. Dairy prices are well below the cost of production and other commodity prices seem locked in the basement. A late planting season as a result of late April snow and May rains has farmers worried.

The USDA forecasts this year’s net farm income in real dollars will drop over 8% from 2017. If realized, this forecast would be the lowest real-dollar level since 2002.

Hemp is a bright spot in a gloomy agriculture economy. For many years, Wisconsin was a leader in hemp production. With our climate, farm support system and ingenious farmers we can again rise to become a leader.

It’s time for the state to get out of the way and let farmers grow and process hemp. If you want to help make Wisconsin hemp history, you can volunteer to help Abbie plant the first hemp crop May 31 through June 2. Learn more at the Kinni Hemp Company Facebook page.

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