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Funding Wisconsin's technical colleges: The whole story

 

The Wisconsin Technical College System is one of Wisconsin’s greatest assets.   It is also one of the top technical college systems in the nation.

 

The technical colleges touch all our lives every day. Graduates serve the state   in critical roles-from health care to public safety information to construction,   jobs that support our communities and keep our state strong.

 

Recently, however, the system has been the subject of much media coverage as   legislators and taxpayer groups closely scrutinize the post-secondary system   that serves nearly a half-million residents each year with a 97 percent satisfaction   rate. A new report by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance shows that over a 10-year   period, property taxes levied by Wisconsin technical colleges doubled. This   report is not necessarily inaccurate, just incomplete. It’s important to review   some major factors that influenced the technical college levies.

 

Perhaps we all need to be reminded that one of the major reasons for the increase   is dwindling support from the state. The state and local funding partnership   for the technical colleges has existed for decades.

 

However, that partnership was dramatically altered in the mid-1990s when the   Wisconsin Legislature made a conscious decision to finance K-12 education at   a significantly higher level (two-thirds funding), which meant limiting state   support for other entities, including Wisconsin’s technical colleges. That state   decision forced the local technical college district boards to rely more on   property taxes to maintain student access to our programs and services. Since   1992, the state’s share of the taxpayer-supported costs for the technical colleges   has dropped from 29 percent to 20 percent.

 

Necessary construction

 

Also, local voter-approved building referenda contributed to the property tax   levy increases. The majority of voters in eight technical college districts   said they wanted their technical colleges to expand building space and add technology   in order to strengthen the local economy. A total of $200 million in referenda   projects have been approved since 1990.

 

But perhaps the most important reason for the increased cost is increased student   demand. The technical college system is experiencing dramatic enrollment increases   (16 percent from 2000 to 2003). More pressure has been placed on the colleges   to expand health-care programs and address the needs of thousands of dislocated   workers in our state during this economic downturn.

 

The system is committed to affordable education with reasonably low tuition   for all persons in this state, especially those who can dramatically improve   their quality of life with access to our colleges. Taxpayers receive payback   in just 2.2 years, according to an independent study conducted last year. It’s   because better than 93 percent of our graduates stay and work in Wisconsin,   contributing to their local economies with better skills and stronger salaries.

 

Given these challenges of dwindling state funding and increased pressure on   the technical colleges, the system is making great strides in reducing the stress   on property taxpayers. In determining their budgets for 2003-04, the colleges   have implemented more than $29 million in budget reductions and reallocations   affecting 226 positions and 85 programs, despite the huge enrollment increases.   The statewide mill rate for operating our technical colleges has actually dropped   from 1.46 mills in 1993 to 1.31 mills in 2003. We anticipate further decline   in the mill rate for this coming year.

 

Local property tax levies for technical colleges are influenced by a number   of factors, including shrinking state support and more demands on the system.   These challenges will not go away. The colleges are ready to meet them head   on so the system continues to be one of the top technical college systems in   the nation while providing a great investment for taxpayers and their communities.

 

Dr. Richard Carpenter is president of the Wisconsin Technical College System.   This editorial first appeared on wisopinion.com.

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