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Northland weighs in on state budget

SPOONER, Wis. — Northland residents took the opportunity to weigh in Tuesday on the Wisconsin state budget.

Members of the legislative Joint Committee on Finance traveled to Spooner High School to spend the day taking testimony from the public on the state's proposed two-year spending plan. Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Delta, and Rep. Nick Milroy, D-South Range, joined the committee to listen as people they representative weighed in on the budget.

"I'm very privileged to represent the fine citizen of the 73rd Assembly District from the city of Spooner all the way north to the shore of Lake Superior," Milroy said during committee introductions.

Several Douglas County residents and students took the opportunity to address state legislators, including students from Northwestern High School participating in Fact.

"Listening is hard work," said John Burnett, Spooner Area School District superintendent, who welcomed the committee of legislators to the north. "It is truly hard to listen, but when you truly listen to someone, you run the risk of changing your mind."

Burnett said the governor's proposal to increase funding for schools is welcome news, but there are still tough decisions to be made that are not going to please everyone before the budget is adopted.

Gov. Scott Walker proposed spending more than $648 million on K-12 education over the next two years, increasing per pupil spending by $250 in the first year of the biennium, and $450 in the second year of the budget.

"As you engage in that debate, I would ask you to remember — everything that this nation is and everything that it hopes to be depends on what happens in our classroom," Burnett said.

Spending for education, whether for K-12 schools or higher education drew many comments before the committee.

"UW-Superior students are some of the hardest working students in the UW System," said Chancellor Renee Wachter. "Last year, they performed 44,000 hours of community service throughout our region ... the university was recognized as a national leader."

She urged the committee to allow outcome-based funding models for the university system similar to those used for technical colleges and assess the true effectiveness of a university education. After all, Wachter said UWS graduates go on to be community leaders — business people, educators and entrepreneurs. While Walker proposed two more years of tuition freezes; however, Wachter asked legislators to consider a one-year tuition freeze the first year, but consider allowing an increase the second year based on the consumer price index.

"We are working hard to grow our enrollment and increase our graduation rates," Wachter said. However, with funding cuts in recent years and better compensation packages available to faculty, she said retaining talent is growing more difficult.

"Our students deserve no less," Wachter said. She said in the last two months, she's lost six members of the university staff, with about half simply going to Duluth.

"I've been a very active and passionate board member for a very long time," said Superior School Board vice president Christina Kintop, who first testified before the committee in 1998, at age 12.

Kintop urged the committee to remove strings from education funding that have hurt school districts' ability to retain qualified teachers.

"We in Superior are doing truly amazing things while being fiscally conservative," Kintop said, advising members of the committee about the successful $92 million bond referendum to remodel Superior High School, build a new elementary school and maintain and improve security at the district's other schools, approved by 70 percent of the voters.

"Obviously, our community believes we're doing a good job, so let us do our job," Kintop said. The buildings are just sticks and bricks, and it is essential to put the best quality teachers in them.

"We need to start funding schools at a better rate than we're doing," Kintop said. "Please remove these strings so we can do the work that we are elected to do."

In addition to education, residents weighed in on a variety of issues including funding forests, pay for assistant public defenders and prosecutors, dementia and health care, and transportation.

Bob Olesgard of North Country Independent Living in Superior said in the last year, drivers for the organization put on so many miles it was equal to going to the moon and back twice.

He said he was grateful for the 2 percent included in the governor's budget. Olesgard said he's hopeful at least that much — 3.75 percent would be better — remains for specialized transportation when the committee reconsiders that portion of the budget.

"Basically, we want to support ... things that support people with disabilities," said John Nousaine, director of North Country Independent Living. "We support the increase in MA rates for personal care. We could become the first state to not have any children on the long-term care wait list. Each of these items benefit not only people with disabilities, but the entire community because they save money."

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