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Gov. Evers vetoes required merger of UW campus and technical college in Washington County

County executive says they'll continue talks about consolidation in light of 66 percent enrollment decline over past decade

Gov. Tony Evers leans over a piece of paper as he signs it. Children attending the event watch over his shoulder.
Gov. Tony Evers signs the 2023-2025 biennial budget Wednesday, July 5, 2023, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Supporters of a plan to merge a two-year University of Wisconsin System campus and nearby technical college in Washington County say they’ll go it alone after Gov. Tony Evers struck the proposal from the state budget this week.

A Republican budget motion would have required UW-Milwaukee Washington County to transition from the UW System to a joint operation overseen by Moraine Park Technical College and the Washington County Board of Supervisors. Around $3.4 million in state funds to assist that transition was also included in the budget.

The merger idea was born from a Washington County task force looking for answers to a 66.7 percent decline in enrollment at the UW’s campus in west bend. Last fall, there were 332 students attending the school, down from an enrollment of nearly 1,000 in 2012. The campus, like all two-year UW schools, represents a unique partnership where educational operations are run by universities while buildings and property are owned and maintained by counties.

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On Wednesday, Gov. Evers vetoed the GOP transition plan and its funding. In his veto message, the governor said he objected “to the Legislature singling out only one of our state’s branch campuses when many campuses are facing challenges, in part due to the Legislature’s repeated failure to provide an adequate level of funding for the University of Wisconsin System.”

“I further object to the Legislature determining a matter that is within the purview of the discretion and responsibility of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as well as the Wisconsin Technical College System Board and Moraine Park Technical College,” Evers said.

The schools and county may still collaborate if they’d like, said Evers, “but they will not be treated differently than other counties or campuses.”

Washington County Executive Josh Schoemann said the veto news is frustrating.

“The justification that the governor gave in his veto, that we don’t want to do it for one when there’s 12 others who need solutions too, really makes no sense because there aren’t any others coming up with ideas for how to collaborate and work together with the key stakeholders, the tech colleges and the UW,” Schoemann told Wisconsin Public Radio.

Those stakeholders, though, welcomed Evers’ veto of the merger plan. A statement from UW-Milwaukee Vice Chancellor for Marketing and Communications Olivia Hwang said the university is grateful the governor “recognized the need for UW System and UWM to lead any plans for the future of our campus.”

“In issuing his line-item veto, Gov. Evers raised the possibility of future collaboration among the parties involved,” Hwang said. “UWM has always sought meaningful conversations about securing the future of higher education in Washington County. These conversations must include the viewpoints of employees and students of UWM at Washington County, who have been excluded from the county’s deliberations and decisions.”

Officials with Moraine Park Technical College didn’t immediately respond to WPR’s request for comment on the veto. In past statements, President Bonnie Baerwald said the college welcomes the opportunity to work closer with UW-Milwaukee but didn’t see a need to “formally merge anything.”

Schoemann said UW-Milwaukee may be happy to have control over its campus, but it cannot control demographic projections anticipating declines in the number of high school graduates in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states through 2037. Schoemann said that, and the Legislature’s decision to essentially cut $32 million from the UW System’s budget, doesn’t bode well for branch campuses operating as they have for decades.

“This is not it’s not fiscally sustainable, let alone demographically sustainable,” Schoemann said. “Let’s get to the table and come up with a solution and stop all the posturing, the protecting of our own institutions. And let’s make it about the kids and the businesses and the community and not our own little fiefdoms.”

Washington County will forge ahead with merger discussions, Schoemann said. In the meantime, he said as long as he’s county executive, there won’t be any large investments in capital projects at UW-Milwaukee Washington County until there’s reassurance the UW System is serious about revitalizing campus operations.

State Sen. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, said Washington County campus is “illustration A” in terms of the challenges of declining enrollment and “less output in terms of preparing students for the career they’re looking to go into.”

He said if Wisconsin started with a blank canvas today, the map of higher education institutions would look very different. Hutton said leaders at colleges and universities have to have a “sober discussion” about realities.

“Consolidations and closings are painful and they’re also political,” Hutton said. “And it’s difficult for those communities to be left with the realities of an eventually unsustainable path for those, in this case, branch campuses. The inevitable is there. It’s just a matter of time.”

On July 1, UW-Platteville’s campus in Richland Center essentially closed with the end of in-person classes and no immediate plan for buildings at the school, which was founded in 1967.