‘Schooling Governor’ kills funding to highschool for college students with autism – Empower Wisconsin

By MD Kittle

MADISON – There’s a small charter school in the Northwoods of Wisconsin that parents, students, and community members describe as miraculous.

Lakeland Star in Minocqua has changed the lives of the children on the autism spectrum it serves.

Governor Tony Evers doesn’t care. “The Education Governor,” as Evers likes to bill himself, recently vetoed $ 750,000 in government funding for a school he has never seen. The Democrat played politics, saying he will oppose government grants to certain schools when the Republican-controlled state legislature has “provided limited spending on the Wisconsin public school system as a whole.”

Regardless, the K-12 schools in Wisconsin are getting record funding driven by massive amounts of federal COVID cash. The governor insists he doesn’t play favorites.

“Every child in Wisconsin should be able to get a great education in a public school regardless of what district they live in, and government funding decisions should not select winners and losers among our children,” he wrote

But Evers is king in choosing winners and losers – as his choice of education budget in particular shows. He has favored his liberal base in Milwaukee, Madison, and other urban school districts, and sought to reward his generous teachers’ union donors at every turn.

Gregg Walker, president of the Lakeland STAR Governance Board, said he would not get into politics. He agrees that every student deserves a quality education. But why deny a school that does so much for students with autism and other sensory needs the opportunity to expand space and services?

“The governor did what he did and he did it twice,” Walker said, noting that Evers vetoed funding for Lakeland Star in both biennial budgets he signed. “I would just ask the governor to come over here and take a look at the school … If he looked at what we are doing, he would have a very different opinion, he would have more knowledge before using his veto pen.”

The search for a father

Walker isn’t just the chairman of the board. His son Sam, who has been diagnosed with autism, is entering his senior year at Lakeland Star Academy, which serves students in grades 9-12. The sister institution Star School trains 7th and 8th grade students.

Lakeland Star was founded in the search of a father to provide his son and other children with autism with educational opportunities not found in the rural Northwoods of Wisconsin. Several years ago, Walker attended Lionsgate Academy, a Minnesota public charter school that caters to the unique learning needs of students with the Autism Spectrum and other learning disparities. He was blown away.

Walker, owner of the Lakeland Times newspaper, wanted to bring Lionsgate to Minocqua. So he and some committed parents and community members started a fundraiser. He also asked his lawmakers for help.

Then Senator Tom Tiffany, a Republican from Minocqua, and Senator Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) saw what Walker saw at Lionsgate and pushed for $ 750,000 in government funding for Lakeland in the 2019-21 budget. The joint finance committee cut the motion to $ 250,000.

Evers killed it.

Walker, his board of directors, and the Minocqua residents carried on. With the help of a successful community golf event and other fundraising campaigns, the Lakeland Star Academy opened as a charter school in the Lakeland Union High School District in the fall of 2018.

Enrollment was originally limited to 15 students in the freshman year, but the school ended up accepting 20 students, Walker said. It was an instant indicator of need. Registration has doubled. The two schools currently look after 38 students. Lakeland officials say they could serve a lot more as the waiting list keeps growing.

Special school

“This is a special school for special children with special needs,” said Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), who campaigned for the $ 750,000 budget measure for Lakeland Star in recent budget battles.

Swearingen says he’s seen firsthand the difference schools have made in the lives of children and families. Students who were previously completely communicative are now speaking, committed and on their way to independence.

“Four students got their driver’s license last year. That would never have happened before, ”said Walker. Three more are expecting their licenses this year.

Lakeland Star’s success is based on the caring and talented professionals who run the programs and schools, say board members. The schools are directly linked to the region’s health system and their Practical Assessment Exploration System (PAES) laboratory is held responsible for providing students with careers and an independent future. PAES laboratories transform students into employees and teachers into employers. The laboratory evaluates the competitive work potential and interest of students as they explore different jobs. You will use real tools and develop appropriate work behavior in fields as diverse as construction / industry and computer technology and business.

A student became a star in Truck Country in Minocqua, Walker said. The parents say their son is “in heaven” and works in the business, in a program specially designed for him.

Jessa Zimmerman wasn’t communicative when she started at Lakeland Star Academy. In the third year, the student testified at a meeting of the Joint Finance Committee in the Rhineland.

“If I had been asked to talk to you about STAR last year, I couldn’t have,” she testified. “I’m a more confident person now because I go to a school where people meet my needs. I have a lot of sensory needs that are now being addressed because the people at STAR realized that I have more than just a learning disability. Coming to STAR was the best thing that has ever happened to me. “

“Punch in the stomach”

Liberals have blown Swearingen’s omens for the charter school and insisted it came from a privileged place.

“Deep pockets, good connections, you get things. It’s the sad but unfortunate truth, “Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, a civil rights attorney and attorney chairman for the Autism Society of South Central Wisconsin, told PBS Wisconsin. “I don’t judge this particular school, but these types of schools are not the right answer to what parents want from children with autism,” he said. “But they became necessary because of chronic underfunding.”

Swearingen stands by the funding and says he wants to do more for schools like Lakeland Star, who do so much for their students. He said Evers’ veto was a “punch in the stomach” for him and Senator Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma), who was also a champion for Lakeland Star.

Swearingen told Evers’ rhetoric about playing favorite rings.

“To a man who claims to be ‘the education governor,’ he is more like the governor of the teachers’ union,” he said. Republican lawmakers noted that this is another example of the governor’s decoupling from the rest of the state. Evers rarely makes it out of Madison and is mostly a stranger to the Northwoods, Swearingen said.

“I would tell the governor to get out of his residence and come to the Northwoods and see the Lakeland Star Academy and see what he did to them,” the representative said. “I don’t know if it was vengeful or malicious or what it is, but that $ 750,000 could have made a lot of people very happy.”

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