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Scott Walker's Proposed Budget Cuts To Schools Raise Doubts Among Some GOP Voters

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SCOTT WALKER BUDGET CUTS

BROOKFIELD, Wis. — Barb Feest wishes she could take back her vote for Wisconsin governor.

The suburban Milwaukee woman cast her ballot for Republican Scott Walker in November. But she could only shake her head recently as she listened at a public forum to how Walker's proposed budget cuts could affect schools.

"He's trying to balance the budget on the backs of teachers," Feest said. "It took so long to get our schools where they are, and they're going to cut it down in, what, two years? It's not right."

Almost five months after the election, Feest and some other Republican voters are having doubts about their choices at the ballot box. Although they consider themselves fiscal conservatives, many of the same people who put Walker and other GOP leaders into office are now having second thoughts, largely because the cuts they are seeking could put the quality of their cherished local schools at risk.

To ease a projected $3.6 billion budget deficit, Walker has sought to eliminate collective-bargaining rights for most public employees, including teachers – a move that has stirred an intense national debate about union rights and drawn tens of thousands of protesters to the Capitol.

But that's not Walker's only school-related proposal. His two-year spending plan includes an 8 percent cut in aid to schools – about $835 million. And he wants to require districts to reduce their property-tax authority by an average of $550 per pupil – a move that makes it more difficult for schools to compensate for the lost money.

The forum drew about 100 people, and about half, including Feest, came to find out how bad the cuts would be and express their support for teachers. The others who spoke supported Walker's proposals, and some even suggested the governor seek more teacher concessions such as raising the minimum retirement age above 55.

High school math teacher Ronn Blaha, 41, said he felt like a "punch-drunk boxer," taking one hit after another from the community because Walker had completely vilified the entire teaching profession.

"I voted for him because I wanted some restraint on frivolous spending," Blaha told The Associated Press, adding that he now regrets his vote. "I did not anticipate that he considered education a frivolity."

Walker isn't the only governor proposing education cuts.

Under the budget offered by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, state aid to K-12 schools would actually increase, but overall funding would drop because of allocation changes and loss of stimulus dollars. Individual districts will learn more in days to come.

Even longtime Republican voters are worried about the consequences of education cuts. And some are asking whether the quest for a balanced budget justifies gutting top schools that took decades to create.

"It all concerns me," said Donna Leslie, a West Chester, Ohio, mother whose youngest child is a senior in high school. "There are cuts that need to be made, but I don't think we're going about it in the right way."

She declined to say whether she voted for Kasich but said she supported a proposal on the same ballot to levy a tax for the Lakota school district in the southwestern corner of the state. She says the tax was voted down because "the tea party was just raging."

Some acknowledge that classroom cuts are inevitable, and many of them are looking for alternatives to expose their children to music and art. Others are confident that school officials will find ways to absorb the cuts without letting education suffer.

Leslie expects school funding to continue declining and anti-tax attitudes to make it more difficult to pass school-related tax increases.

To be sure, some Republicans say their governors are doing exactly what they were elected to do.

Jane Peavler, co-chairwoman of the Brookfield district's Parent Leadership Council, voted for Walker in November and continues to support him. In an email to the AP, she said the governor showed "great courage" in proposing his budget, and said she was confident that schools would find ways to adapt without letting education suffer.

In Mason, Ohio, John Meyer has been an active critic of school administrators. He thinks schools can cut costs without hurting the quality of education.

"There's that great concern and fear, that if we don't pay these exorbitant salaries, somewhere it's going to affect our children's education. I don't believe that's necessarily true," said Meyer, whose two children attended local schools and are now in college.

He said school employee benefits and the regular pay raises that administrators and teachers with extra education receive are beyond what can be afforded in the district of nearly 11,000 students.

Wisconsin's cuts affect every district, including wealthy Waukesha County's Elmbrook schools, which face a $4.2 million budget shortfall in part because of declining enrollments and a hampered ability to raise money through property taxes.

To compensate, the district may have to lay off some teachers and ask the remaining ones to teach an additional class period, Superintendent Matt Gibson said.

It may also have to cut art and music classes, and average class sizes might creep upward, he added.

Those outcomes are acceptable to Andrea Boll, who has three kids in the Elmbrook district. The 51-year-old said as long as the core curriculum in subjects such as math and science remained strong, parents could help pay extra for extra-curricular sports and music programs.

However, some parents said severe budget cuts could have long-term effects that are impossible to predict.

Andy Vrakas, 47, who has children in the fourth and sixth grades, said good schools do more than help students – they also raise property values and attract employers who know employees will be willing to relocate to those areas.

Vrakas, an independent who has voted for Republican governors in the past but not for Walker, said he might even home-school his kids if certain programs get cut or scaled back.

"Long-term, if test scores decline and the reputation declines, people might be sorry," he said.

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Sewell reported from West Chester, Ohio.

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Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.