WUSD officials hold meeting with legislators

By Dave Fidlin


Broadband access, Wisconsin’s forthcoming biennium budget, COVID-19 and even marijuana legalization were among the disparate topics school officials in the Whitewater Unified district hashed over with state legislators at a recent meeting.

The WUSD School Board and administrators annually meet with local representatives in both chambers of the legislature in February. This year’s conversation, held Feb. 15, looked back at an unprecedented year.

Officials waded into the controversial topic of legalizing marijuana – a maneuver that has occurred in recent years in more than a quarter of the states within the country, including Illinois.

This has led to a big boost in the local economy in these states as it has opened up an entirely new industry. It’s not just marijuana products being sold and taxed to add to the economy, there is also the sale of equipment like Pure Pressure rosin presses, the marketing from dispensaries, and other money-making aspects of the marijuana industry. As time goes on this will mean that more products will pop up to support this sector and any other related industry that connects with it. States are already seeing the various ways in which marijuana can be consumed and how well dispensaries are doing for their customers, with some even offering up products like smell proof bags, coupons, etc. that can bring buyers back again.

If Gov. Tony Evers and the legislature were to move forward with marijuana legalization, WUSD Superintendent Caroline Pate-Hefty said she believed the process should be thoughtful and examine a number of scenarios.

Prior to assuming her leadership role in WUSD this past fall, Pate-Hefty served as an administrator in a public school district in Illinois and cautioned that a number of unintended consequences could occur within the educational arena without proactive steps in place.

“It definitely impacted schools in Illinois,” Pate-Hefty said of marijuana legalization in January 2020. “Kids had regular access to marijuana in their homes.”

From his vantage point, state Sen. Steve Nass, R-La Grange, said he did not envision a smooth passage to marijuana legalization in the immediate future.

“I do not see a legalization of marijuana, carte blanche,” Nass said. “To legalize something simply to get revenue is a terrible idea. This certainly is going to be scrutinized.”

Deliberations on the state’s new 2021-23 biennium budget, which technically begins July 1, will be taking place in the months ahead.

During this week’s discussion, Whitewater school officials said they are eagerly awaiting details on the amount of funding for schools. State aid, baked into the biennium budget, is a primarily income source for districts, alongside property taxes.

As state government grapples with a loss of revenue from declines in sales taxes and other key sources, state Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, cautioned the adoption of the new two-year budget could be challenging.

“We all support education,” Ringhand said. “We’re in unusual times. It’s going to take some time.”

Because there are still so many unknowns on the horizon amid the ongoing pandemic, state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, said an adopted version of the state budget should not be viewed as a final draft.

“It’s going to be very fluid,” Loudenbeck said.

While broadband Internet access was a talking point before the onset of COVID-19, talks of its need have sped up in the past year as more day-to-day functions have occurred virtually.

WUSD serves a diverse range of students, geographically and demographically, said Andy Rowland, the district’s technology coordinator.

Factoring in all of the adjacent rural townships and families in poverty, Rowland said nearly one-third of WUSD’s students have little to no broadband access within their homes.

“Internet service has become so much more than just a luxury service,” Rowland said.

Nass said he is acutely aware of the challenges, living on the outskirts of Whitewater proper. He hinted at improvements coming in the next several years.

“There certainly is an awareness (in the legislature),” Nass said. “It is a costly venture … but I do think there will be more attention to that as we move forward.”

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