Hard choices for Madison Voters

On May 24th, citizens in the Madison school district will vote on three referenda questions affecting whether to build an addition to Leopold School, exceed revenue caps, and renew the maintenance referendum.
For many people the answers are an easy yes or no vote. Others, like me, have wrestled with their choice for each question.
Why is the choice so difficult? It should be easy, right? Strong public education is a good thing. We want to support teachers and students in the district. We know that overcrowded schools all too often undermine education.
I can’t speak for others, but I know that I have several barriers to an automatic yes vote. The issues are different for Leopold than for the operating and maintenance questions. For me, the issues come down to what I do – and do not – know about what the questions mean. I feel that my duty as a representative of the community is to make informed decisions on behalf of our children and not to commit to proposals that lack sound justifications.

In the case of Leopold School, my sticking points come down to:

1) We don’t know how the Ridgewood Apartment complex redevelopment will affect enrollments at Leopold, although we know that the numbers of low income apartments near the school will drop soon.

2) We are fairly certain that significant future growth is more likely to happen farther west, making a new school at a site that would accommodate some Leopold students and students from the new growth areas, a more practical choice.

3) A 1,100 student K-5 school is unprecedented in the district and something that we haven’t prepared for in terms of educational and safety challenges.

4) We know that we can accommodate the current enrollment for next year in the current building.

5) We know that we can borrow enough money, without going to referendum, to expand the building to serve the students in the attendance area if overcrowding remains a problem.

I struggle with the operating budget vote for other reasons:

1) The district has threatened cuts to teachers, staff, and programs that affect the daily school experience of our students; business services, discretionary spending, and administration are essentially held harmless if the question fails.

2) The budget was developed by using a formula based on last year’s spending rather than on discussion and decisions about priorities, program effectiveness, or how funding choices affect district priorities.

3) Although the figures were set earlier this year, the board and the public did not receive anything close to a comprehensive 2005-2006 budget document until days before the referendum vote.

4) The Finance & Operations Committee met only three times this year and the board did not discuss the details of the operating budget question even though we knew that there was certain to be an operating budget referendum question.

5) We continue to spend huge amounts on health insurance choices for our employees at the expense of maintaining jobs and keeping programs for our children. For example, this year we will spend a total of $24 M on health insurance for Madison teachers, including $21 M for the WPS option, but eliminate $7.4 M in programs and staff if the budget referendum fails.

6) Because of the state’s equalization formula, we must tax more than $11 M to gain $7.4M each year for the operating budget. Paying such a high premium to fund operating expenses projects means that the budget priorities must be more carefully chosen than they have been.

Finally, I am unable to endorse the maintenance referendum without reservation because:

1) The only document outlining the maintenance referendum is an Excel spreadsheet (spreadsheet accuracy study link). There is no narrative that explains how the district will make choices if projects go over cost.

2) There has been no accounting for the district’s exhausting the maintenance budget this year with three months to go and zeroing out the reserve for contingencies to fix leaky plumbing and like projects.

3) The state’s equalization formula has the same impact on the maintenance budget as it does on the operating budget. To gain $5 M for maintenance projects, we must tax more than $7 M. Paying this premium should force us to choose the projects more carefully.

I wish I did have easy, automatic, answers to these questions that surely affect day to day operations for our schools. Unfortunately, no matter how much I value the general objectives of the three questions, I also am painfully aware that, as a board, we simply have not done the work that would assure voters that they will get the results that they expect by passing these questions on May 24.