Spring is definitely coming. On February 17, the Madison School Board performed Act 1 of the four-act play that is our annual school budget process.
Act 1 is the unveiling of the Budget Forecast. In this Act, the administration solemnly announces that the district faces-once again-“The Budget Gap”. The Budget Gap is the difference between what the Board wants to spend and what we can spend without a successful referendum to increase operating funds. It is not a gap caused by a drop in state funding.
To nobody’s surprise, the Budget Gap is big and ugly. Under current state law, revenues from property taxes will increase about 2.35% for next year. However, the administration’s “same service” budget requires a revenue increase of more than 4%. The Gap for next year is $8.6M.
Next will come a chorus of threats to slash programs and staff to “close the gap”. District staff will come on stage bearing long lists of positions and programs cut in previous years to close the gap. The mood will be ominous when the curtain comes down on Act 1.
On March 7, Act 2 opens with the administration revealing— with great reluctance— the annual “Cut List”. On the Cut List will be programs that motivate our kids to excel at school, such as fine arts, extracurricular sports, environmental field trips, and classes for students with special talent. Also on the list will be staff positions that assist kids with special problems, such as choosing classes and colleges, overcoming difficult home circumstances, learning job skills, or having special educational needs. School custodians may again appear on the Cut List, but not central administrators. “We have no choice” is the theme of Act 2.
Act 2 also involves hundreds of “extras”-parents, teachers and concerned citizens-who will line up to tell the Board why it must reject the proposed cuts. Sometimes the Madison teachers union joins the chorus to demand a referendum.
In Act 3, known as the “Board Amendments”, the Board strives mightily to close the gap. Board members propose higher and higher fees to prevent the cuts, not telling the public that the fees don’t actually go to help the threatened programs. They just help balance the budget until next year. Act 3 ends after Board members have faced off to “save” some programs or staff by hiking fees, increasing costs for textbooks or gutting the emergency reserve for the coming year. Act 3 is our version of “The Survivor”.
Act 4 act requires audience participation. Having again watched the Board discover the Budget Gap, react to the Cut List and fight over the Budget Amendments, the public is finally drawn onto the stage for the grand finale, the Referendum. In Act 4 the community divides into camps in preparation for voting, an unfortunate ending to the play, but one predestined by the Board’s willingness to stick with last year’s script rather than write a new one.
Call me an optimist, but I believe that the Board of Education could write a new play. It would begin by changing its role. For starters, the Board could stop granting employee wage and benefit increases that exceed the increases going to district tax-payers. It could direct administration to cease budgeting on a “same service” basis. It could require that expensive programs be evaluated for effectiveness. It could tell administration not to reject millions of federal dollars without Board consultation. It could cut back on outside contracting and “buy outs” of staff contracts. It could direct administration to aggressively pursue partnerships with the community to shore up the fine arts and extracurricular sports programs.
We’d still be struggling to fund high quality, comprehensive programs in the face of inadequate state and federal funding and over-reliance on the residential property tax. However, we might have a better chance of getting the community to come on stage in Act 1 to help us decide which programs make the most sense for our children and how to combine private and tax dollars to fund those programs.
Madison School Board Member