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.
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.