Commentary on Madison’s April 7, 2015 Maintenance Referendum; District spending data remains MIA

Molly Beck:

If approved, the referendum would raise property taxes about $62 on the average $237,678 Madison home for 10 years. The district is still paying off $30 million in referendum debt for the construction of Olson and Chavez elementary schools in the late 2000s, according to the district. The final payment, for the Olson project, is due in 2026.

The aggressive school district campaign to get the word out to voters about the proposal and a community group that has been knocking on doors advocating for its passage have largely been met with very little opposition.

“It’s really quiet,” said board vice president James Howard. “I guess we’ll just have to wait until April 7 to find out” whether it has community support.

Board member T.J. Mertz, who has worked closely with the pro-referendum nonprofit Community And Schools Together, said the board has received about a half-dozen emails questioning the increase in property taxes.

“But there is no organized opposition,” Mertz said. “Whether that’s a function of apathy, the political culture of Madison or the lack of a strong Republican Party (in the city), or whether this is a popular measure, it’s impossible to read in the absence of no organized opposition,” adding that there also has not been a conservative school board candidate in about six years.

The proposal comes at a time when the school district faces at least a $12 million gap in its $435 million operating budget for the 2015-16 school year. The maintenance work and $2 million in technology costs also included in the proposal would ease pressure on the district’s budget, Mertz said.

I emailed Michael Barry to confirm Ms. Beck’s $435,000,000 Madison Schools’ budget number, which is 8% or $32,000,000 higher than the previously discussed $402,000,000 2014-2015 budget. I’ve not heard from Mr. Barry.

That said, pity the poor citizen who wishes to determine total spending or changes over time using the District’s published information.

Pat Schneider:

At a forum this week on the referendum projects, many in the crowd on the city’s near west side focused on property taxes and “what we’re doing to save money,” Silveira said Tuesday in a meeting with the Capital Times editorial board.

“People get confused. They think if we pass the referendum, we won’t have the gap on the operating side,” said Silveira, the current president of the school board who is retiring at the end of her term next month.

In fact, cuts in state funding will contribute to a shortfall that, if voters approve the referendum bond sale, would demand a property tax increase next year of up to nearly 5.2 percent to balance the budget, about 1 percent of which would be due to spending approved by the referendum.

Those projects to expand crowded schools, add accessibility and update mechanical systems, as listed in this article about referendum advocacy and detailed on a school district web page.

Wisconsin State Journal:

The State Journal editorial board endorses this reasonable request.

Madison’s per-pupil spending on schools is more than $1,000 above the state average of about $12,000. That’s mostly due to operational costs, including higher pay and benefits for employees.

Madison property taxes are high, too. That’s partly because the state sends less aid to Madison, based on a formula that penalizes communities with higher property value.

But when it comes to construction, the Madison School District has been conservative. The district with nearly 50 schools and 28,000 students has built only three new schools in the last 45 years.

Moreover, Madison’s debt per student is the lowest among all of the school districts in Dane County, and half the state average, according to district figures. At the same time, interest rates are incredibly low.

The proposed maintenance tax & spending referendum includes plans to expand two of the District’s least diverse schools: Van Hise & Hamilton.

Only 20 Percent Turnout Expected Statewide for Tuesday’s Election.