School Board Balances Final Budget on the Backs of Some Kids

On Monday, May 17th, the MMSD School Board made less than $1 million in changes to Mr. Rainwater’s proposed $308 million budget for the 2004-2005 school year. These changes were made right after the Board approved more than $500,000 in salary and benefits increases to Administrators. The primary changes later made to the 2004-2005 budget were made by increasing existing fees (sport fees to $115/sport) and creating a new elementary strings fee of $50 per participant. The increase in fees for 2004-2005 totaled more than $300,000.
Robarts, Vang and Winston were right to vote against the proposed 2004-2005 school budget. Ruth Robarts’ call for an alternative budgeting approach is needed now. Reasons for her approach are outlined further in the following commentary that is also being submitted as a Letter to the Editor.

People may read Ruth Robarts� alternative budgeting approach and focus solely on the numbers presented in her one example. That would be a mistake. The emphasis of her commentary was on a budgetary approach that begins the process by establishing goals and objectives and initially protecting instruction. Her approach also asks the Administration to come back to the Board with several budget scenarios not just the Same Service budget.
The primary focus of Ruth�s commentary was ��we should set specific, measurable student achievement goals as our guide to evaluate future curriculum, program and staffing needs. Second, we should conduct a wide-open [public] debate about how best to meet our goals.� To me that means looking at where we are and what we�re spending, engaging the public (in a meaningful way) and deciding where we need to go for our community.
As was demonstrated once again on Monday night, the Superintendent�s proposed MMSD budget is not discussed but rather rubber stamped by the School Board. Board members made less than $1 million in changes in a $308 million budget, and most of their changes were made around the fringes by increasing fees. Madison cannot afford to have a School Board that does not engage the community in any meaningful way during the budget process and does not ensure that every dollar added to or cut from the budget supports the Board�s priorities and strategies.
For example, if the Board examined the 04-05 MMSD Balanced Budget compared to the 2002-2003 expenditures, one would see that salary and benefits for Instruction increased 1%, for Business Services increased 6% and for MSCR increased 18% over two years.
Holding Business Services and MSCR salary and benefits expenditures to 1% increases may have saved the District nearly $1 million and $900,000, respectively. Holding these two departments to a 0% increase for the past two years may have saved approximately $2.3 million from the total budget � approximately $1.3 million under revenue caps and $1 million in Community Fund 80.
Why does this matter? If you say you don�t have the money and one puts kids� education first, then the Board would want the budget for salary and benefits increases in non-instruction to be in line with these same budget increases in instruction. Or they would direct that non-instruction expenses be cut at the beginning of the Board�s budget planning. It�s a starting point for a student-focused budget, not an end point.
By not starting this way, the Board ends up boxed into a corner with limited information and even fewer options to pursue such as throwing fees in without having had a policy discussion about the role of fees in the District�s finances or which items in the District�s budget can be charged a fee. Rather, Board members recommended increases to the increased sports fees and spent 15 minutes or less in discussion before approving a $50 fee for the academic elementary strings program � the first ever fee for an academic program. This was after the Board had had two years to work with the professionals and the community (but did not) to consider strategies for funding a portion of elementary strings and extracurricular sports and other activities.
While Robarts� approach is too late for this spring, I hope the School Board seriously discusses the issues raised in her commentary. The continued revenue caps make this dialogue an even more important one to have – soon. The State has to pick up its share of the responsibility for public education, but Madison needs to put a budget process in place that works for the kids no matter what the District�s financial situation, and the budget approved Monday night falls short of that for next school year. Please, call, write, or e-mail Board members to take action to implement a better budgeting process – now.
Note: The MMSD budget document notes that due to a new accounting system put into place that enters actual salaries vs. average salaries the 02-03 expenditures and 03-04 budget have crosswalk variances to the 04-05 budget. Contact the Business Services office with any specific questions.