Community Service Fund 80 — Can We Talk?

For full copies of this paper, including charts and citations, go to (html version):

A few weeks ago, Madison school board member Johnny Winston Jr. circulated a message that urged readers to support community organizations that had submitted grant proposals for funding under the district’s Community Service Fund (Fund 80). His message began:

“We have a great opportunity! On Monday March 6th, the Madison School Board will be considering four proposals for funding that have an opportunity to have a positive impact on the student achievement in our school district. These programs are community based after school and summer programming that can supplement students’ academic achievement in the Madison Metropolitan School District. These programs are not subject to the state imposed revenue limits.” (emphasis added)

After describing the programs that he proposes to fund, Mr. Winston portrays the issue as whether one is for or against community programs that enhance student achievement. At a minimum, he frames the issue to suggest that one cannot support school-community partnerships and question the district’s Community Service Fund (Fund 80), when he writes:

Please be aware that the school board and district are under attack from people who believe that programs such as these are “driving up their taxes.” This is simply not true! Community services funding is included in this year’s community services budget, but hasn’t been allocated.” (emphasis added)

Contrary to Mr. Winston’s assertions, it is very possible to support the intent of the proposed grants and still have serious reservations about Fund 80 and its uses. Indeed, the grants and services that he describes make up only a small portion of the annual expenditures from this source. Whether or not the proposals are approved is less important than the much-needed public discussion of how the Madison school district is using its Fund 80 resources and whether taxpayers agree that those uses are worth the increase in their property taxes. With projected growth from $5.4 million 2001-2002 to over $16 million in 2011, most of it from property taxes, it is our elected representatives’ responsibility to engage the community in discussion to approve or reject the board’s uses of this fund.
(For the full document, please go to one of the links listed at the beginning of this post.)

10 thoughts on “Community Service Fund 80 — Can We Talk?”

  1. Yes, we can and should talk about this and other budget matters.
    It appears that much work went into this presentation, however at no point does it address a number of crucial questions.
    The first set of these are why has there been this growth and why is the growth projected. I can see big jumps from 2001 to 2003, and steady growth since. What was the source and context of those jumps? That isn’t a rhetorical question, I’d like to know.
    The second set of crucial questions are what do you — as a candidate for office — think the size and role of Fund 80 should be. The entire document implies that the uses of Fund 80 do not justify the tax dollars spent, but you never clearly state your position. The voters deserve better.
    It is easy to say taxes are too high, harder to identify why this is so and even harder to delineate what should and shouldn’t be done about it. I find it frustrating that a campaign document headlined as a call for discussion doesn’t even explicitly do the first, much less attempt the other two.
    In closing, I want to note that I am undecided in both school board races. Though somewhat critical, this post isn’t a stealth attack. It is a plea for a discussion of the issues you’ve raised.

  2. You state “The first set of these are why has there been this growth and why is the growth projected. I can see big jumps from 2001 to 2003, and steady growth since. What was the source and context of those jumps? That isn’t a rhetorical question, I’d like to know.”
    Good question. If you find verifiable information that provides an answer let me know. When I’ve asked in the past, I was assured that the funds came from adult user fees and that the programs are self-supporting. Both assertions do not appear to be true based on available information.
    That said, here are my responses on the use of Fund 80:
    Grants to Community Organizations
    I am not opposed to the use of modest amounts of tax funds to support partnerships with community organizations that provide demonstrated benefits to our students. To the extent that such funds help address community/family issues related to student achievement, I believe that such grants can be a worthwhile investment.
    At present, the district does not have an open process for soliciting, reviewing, or approving funding proposals for Fund 80. I would be more comfortable if it did. A diverse and neutral review committee would go a great way toward assuring that grants are awarded in the most effective ways. Similarly, grant-completion reports would provide information to the district and the community on what did and didn’t work during the grant and thereby inform ideas about strategies for tackling student achievement and/or working with the community. In short, some sort of assessment would be a great part of the grant cycle so that the larger community can learn from the recipients.
    I have been told that we need to fund MSCR because it pays for programs that are necessary to garner the support of taxpayers who do not have children. My small sample of contacts who fall into this category are a) stunned to learn that their property taxes are being used to fund adult rec leagues and pontoon boat rides, b) think that adults should probably pay more for their leagues and can’t begin to understand why we are offering pontoon rides.
    My own take is that whether one supports MSCR programs or not, there is strong public interest in talking about whether it makes sense to have this part of our property taxes climbing at a rate that outpaces the annual rate of inflation. Especially when we are wringing our hands about deficits and targetting schools for the first wave of cuts year after year.
    Why we cannot get farther without a dialogue
    My position is that I would like the district to explain in a clear, factual, and verifiable manner the way in which our Community Service Fund is used, with expenditures by year by standard accounting categories. I then would like to see that information made widely available to voters, followed by public discussions that are free of the complaints that have been made here and elsewhere about the $100 budget process. Or, perhaps, a valid survey to a random sample of MMSD taxpayers to get a read on what the values and priorities are, and whether there is support for the ongoing and unexplained growth of this fund.
    I apologize for not being more concrete. This is an election year, and I am indeed running for office. However, of any candidate including Mr. Lopez, I have provided the clearest baseline information for people who are still trying to understand the sources of Fund 80 and how it relates to their taxes.

  3. The answer to the question of why there was a big jump in Fund 80 from 2001 to 2003 has to do with the District trying to operate within the limits of annual budget cuts. The Board/Administration shifted programs such as Summer School to Fund 80 to try and protect staff, services, and programs from cuts. You could argue that they were trying to get around the limits imposed by the state, but my memory is the administration argued that the programs they moved to Fund 80 really were different in nature from the programs covered by budget caps and were outside what goes on during the regular school day.

  4. Thank you both Jeff and Lucy.
    Jeff you jogged my memory. In 2001 Fund 80 was exempted from revenue caps. Prior to that time programs which straddled education/community service could be put anywhere in the budget and still fall under the caps. Since then, there is an incentive to move or keep these programs in Fund 80, if you are looking for a way to raise revenues (taxes) and not require a referendum. That explains the jump.
    Lucy does make her position much clearer and I appreciate that. She also points toward a number of very difficult issues. I personally don’t like the classrooms vs. adult softball and pontoon boats way of looking at things. These are apples and oranges, but because the City of Madison does not have a recreation department the monies for both are controlled by the School Board.
    I too sometimes wonder about pontoon boats, but I also see it as proper that local governments financially support recreation programs. I think most people agree. In most locals this is done via municipal “Parks and Recreation” departments. Here we have MSCR and a Parks Department (and some County things too). This prompts the false “classrooms vs pontoon boats” thinking (Fund 80 money can not be spent on classrooms, or teachers, or…)and it also makes it very hard to make comparisons with other cities. I know, I’ve tried. In Madison (these are very rough figures from memory, please correct me if I am wrong), the combined spending of MSCR and the Parks Department is about $20 Million. In De Moines, IA (about the same population), the City Parks and Recreation Budget is about $20 Million. Ann Arbor, MI (about half the size) the municipal Parks and Recreation budget is about $12 Million. Here in Wisconsin, Green Bay (also about half the size) spends about $8 Million on Parks, Recreation and Forestry. My point is that in none of these locales is anyone complaining about excessive recreation spending, nor or they saying that soft ball leagues are taking away the money to pay teachers.
    The truth is that in all these places, like Madison, the vast majority of the funding for recreation comes from local property taxes. We can and should look at these budgets and user fees, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that spending property taxes on recreation at the level we do is anything different than what is happening in other places, nor is there likely to be a taxpayer revolt against soft ball leagues.
    Still looking at other locales, you can see that there are often a community education and even social service components to the work of Parks and Recreation Departments, but these are secondary. Unfortunately the mission and governance of MSCR (along with the revenue caps and whole school funding system) forces very worthwhile programs like Johnny Winston has lobbied for to compete with equally worthwhile but very different activities. So yes, we do need to examine Fund 80, but we need to do so in a manner that recognizes that MSCR provides services that are provided by municipal departments in most other places.
    This has been long, so just a few words about school funding to close. There are many great ideas being proposed to decrease the share of school funding paid by property taxes, some coupled with requirements that the state and federal governments increase their share, especially for programs they mandate. I support these ideas and proposals, but there is no free lunch. Federal and state money comes primarily from (income) taxes on the same people who directly or indirectly pay property taxes. The real advantages of these proposals is to distribute funds more equitably among districts with differing (property) tax bases and perhaps increase the totals spent on education. As much I’d like to see corporate taxation increased to pay for more schooling, that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Lastly, a couple of words about revenue caps (they always come up in these discussions: I find it strange that many (including some of our school board candidates) talk about both property taxes being too high and revenue caps starving our district. Unless I’m missing something, either you oppose revenue caps and favor higher taxes and flexibility, or you favor lower taxes and support revenue caps as one mechanism for limiting the growth of taxation. Take a stand. Let the voters know in clear terms.

  5. The issue that I have with Fund 80 is precisely the lack of discussion of how we are using it and why. Just because Fund 80 is outside of the revenue caps doesn’t mean that it should be exempt from public comment or scrutiny. Its role in our local tax structure should be visible, and discussed as something that we endorse or reject.
    Beyond that, it seems odd to me that we would keep growing tax supported non-educational programs at a time when we are asking people to vote to raise their property taxes to support schools.
    I believe that we should explore the possibility of getting permission to exceed the revenue caps by reducing Fund 80. Under this plan, we would reduce Fund 80 by X amount and ask permission to exceed the revenue caps by the same amount. That way, the amount of property tax dollars going to the schools would go up by X amount without raising property taxes for individual households.
    Beyond that, I really do think we need to find out why Fund 80 has grown so much even after 2001 and why it would grow at a rate that is almost double the rate of inflation for the next five years. At a minimum, I think that people who pay taxes should have an opportunity to weigh in on whether this piece of the budget makes sense. You know, taxation WITH representation.

  6. The school board has only three stated goals for academic achievement:
    1. All students complete 3rd grade able to read at grade level or beyond.
    2. All students complete Algebra by the end of 9th grade and Geometry by the end of 10th grade.
    3. All students, regardless of racial, ethnic, socioeconomic or linguistic subgroup, attend school at a 94 percent attendance rate at each grade level.
    It would be wise to use Fund 80 to support community groups that specifically help the MMSD achieve those three goals.
    In terms of process, it would have been equally wise to solicit proposals from all community groups for programs to support those goals.
    I respectfully urge the board to evaluate the pending proposals, solicited by Johnny Winston, Jr., against these three goals and fund those that align with them and reject those that do not.

  7. Ms. Mathiak:
    The school board has discussed the issue that you’re mentioning. Below is the link to Partnership Committee minutes in October. Unfortunately, this meeting took place before the Board started televising a majority of its committee meetings and general meetings. I would suggest that you contact Lucy Chaffin, Executive Director of MSCR related to your concerns over the MSCR budget. I think you would be impressed with the data she can provide, budget analysis and historical references. Here is a recent link to the MSCR budget discussion in the partnership committee.
    If you do a search of the MMSD website, you will see that this has been a discussion topic many times for the board.
    At this particular meeting we discussed the reason the MSCR budget rose in 2001 to 2003. At that time, two large federal grants, Safe Haven (from Weed and Seed monies) and the 21st Century Community Learning Center programs ended. These programs were extremely successful in assisting the City of Madison particularly the Community Services Department and the United Way in achieving goals for the City/School District in providing adult supervised afterschool child care to increase achievement, teach conflict resolution skills in low income communities such as Vera Court (Mendota), Lake Point Drive (Glendale), Darbo-Worthington (Atwood Ctr./Lowell) and more. I would suggest you contact Dorothy Conniff from the City of Madison Community Services, Mary Charnitz from CDBG or Kathy Martinson from United Way.
    The school district used private money from Kraft/Oscar Mayer, emergency money from the United Way funds, and the Madison Community Foundation gave funds to keep these programs going.
    I’d also like to address your statement:
    “At present, the district does not have an open process for soliciting, reviewing, or approving funding proposals for Fund 80. I would be more comfortable if it did. A diverse and neutral review committee would go a great way toward assuring that grants are awarded in the most effective ways.”
    I would respectfully disagree. The current elected school board is the diverse and neutral governing body to soliciting, review and approve funding proposals. That’s our job. Those that cannot vote on a particular item will have to recuse themselves. This is no different than the Dane County Board of Supervisors or City Common Council members who have particular conflicts because of their work or business affiliations.
    The elected board has had most of these proposals since December and January. Board members could make phone calls or meet with the community program staff, district staff, the Superintendent, and others. The leaders of the programs came before the Finance and Operations Committee on February 20th each program gave a presentation. All of the elected board members were there. The vote on these proposals will happen on March 6th. At any time, board members could come to the board with ideas on how to address particular issues within the school district. This is just one idea.
    Lastly, because of the state imposed revenue limits taxpayers school district portion of their property tax bill in the MMSD is going down and will continue to go down because cuts will need to be made forever if nothing changes in the school funding formula. The school board does not control the taxing authority of the City of Madison, Dane County, UW or MATC. Even though the school district is half the tax bill it’s easy to point fingers at it.
    Our students need educational, recreational and social programs to compete in today’s world. I am committed to providing those services and resources within the confines of the rules, policies, and regulations. I continue to assert that the role of board members is to explore various strategies for supporting the overall educational missions of the MMSD, including identifying and supporting community collaborations that will facilitate these missions.

  8. Johnny,
    The appropriate course for you would have been to solicit proposals from all community groups — in a publicly issued request for proposals for programs — instead of just inviting selected groups to submit proposals.
    I’ll presume that your solicitations were legal and well-intended, but that doesn’t mean that you were appropriate in inviting some groups to apply and not contacting all groups publicly.
    I believe Bill Shakespeare has a line in a play that applies to this situation. “You must not only be pure. You must appear to be pure.” In politics, life, and soliciting proposals, appearances are usually more important than reality.
    Live and learn.

  9. Dear Johnny,
    I have seen a great number of MSCR documents and have heard Ms. Chaffin make presentations to the board. There are a number of policy questions associated with Fund 80 and the use of Fund 80 to underwrite MSCR.
    You seem to be very knowledgeable about the budget, so I’m sure you can shed light on the following question: IF the growth is largely attributable to large federal grants from 01 to 03, why do property taxes show up as the revenue source with the largest growth during that period?
    As for the proposal process, it is not an open proposal process unless there is an open call for proposals, with clear criteria, deadlines, information on the information required to submit a complete proposal, and the entity that receives the proposals. Others have asked you for more information on these aspects of the proposal process, and you have not responded so we are left to assume that these components were not in place.
    I believe that you meant well, and that the organizations are engaged in worthy activities. And, as I have already stated – the amount of money going to such grants is not a huge amount when contrasted to the unrestrained growth in other uses of Fund 80.
    It may be that as a school community we wish to use our tax funds in this way. I just believe that there should be common understanding of what these resources are and their role in supporting district priorities.

  10. I understand that Fund 80 is exempt from the state revenue caps and it appears to me that, in addition to recreation and community programs, it is being used fund programs which fall into the category of “enrichment”. I recall that summer school was on the chopping block a few years ago and was saved by moving it into MSCR. My question is, what are the restrictions on this Fund and can it be used to fund any program that isn’t strictly academic? I am thinking of elementary strings and high school athletics for starters. And any other programs which don’t fall under the category of an “essential academic core”. Then, could the savings be put into a push for academic achievement – whether it be smaller classes, summer and after-school programs, new curricula, books, and supplies, support for underachieving as well as gifted students, etc.? I think a focus on supporting academic achievement in the schools, where help is so urgently needed, is a more appropriate use of this money than doling it out into a potpourri of grants. It is a flouting of the revenue cap – what would be the consequences?

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