Despite being the fastest growing large community in Wisconsin the Madison public school system is losing students. Last year the district lost almost 900 students. Why?
In a story in Isthmus last week long-time school board member Nicki Vander Meulen mused on the causes for the loss of market share to private schools and neighboring districts. She offered three theories: Madison has older facilities, larger schools are off-putting to parents, especially after COVID, and some schools in other districts are just closer to students’ homes.
Those are all plausible answers, but none of them are slam dunks and both Vander Meulen and the Isthmus reporter avoided the elephant in the classroom.
Let’s start with Vander Meulen’s theories.
It’s true that some Madison school buildings are going on a century old. But a couple of years ago voters approved a massive building referendum. All the high schools are getting big makeovers, most of the other schools are getting some upgrades and a brand spanking new elementary school has just opened. Those projects are either done or well underway and the results are visible and positive. If the building age argument ever had much juice it’s being squeezed out as we speak.
The size of the student population issue also could be real. But the decline started before COVID. Madison’s numbers are 7% lower since 2013 in a city that has grown at a steady clip of about 1.1% a year.
The board also discussed on Monday potential changes to the way budget amendments are suggested and reviewed. The board is preparing to vote on the final version of the district’s 2023-24 budget next month, after approving a preliminary version in June.
The changes would make it so board members need to submit a request to the district’s deputy superintendent in order to make an amendment to the budget. These requests would need to be received five business days before the board meets.
Soldner said the request would also need to acknowledge the financial effect of a proposed change. He cited the recent pay increases for teaching staff and custodians as an example, which he said collectively cost the district an additional $30 million in ongoing expenses.