MMSD’s Enrollment & Capacity Picture: A Perspective

The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) is facing a significant challenge – growth. As a result of that growth – which is not evenly distributed across the district’s region – some schools are facing, or will soon be facing, overcrowding. Other schools still continue to see languishing enrollment which calls into question the appropriate future use of their facilities. Two task forces were created to examine these issues, and to recommend up to three options to address them. The task forces were also asked to develop options so as to reduce concentrations of low-income students. This report endeavors to examine how the enrollment picture plays out over the next five years, particularly under the various options proposed by the task forces. Special attention is given here to the West Side task force options due to this author’s greater familiarity with them, and his continued maintenance of a model tracking their proposals.
This report [121K PDF] first looks at the proposed options for the West & Memorial areas, and examines how projected enrollment and capacity compare over each of the next five school years. The report will then consider population projections over the next 25 years to try to get some sense of what one may expect as regards future demand for school facilities.
Disclosure, or why am I doing this?

  • I recently moved to Madison and saw this issue as a way to get involved in the community and to understand “how things work” here.
  • This particular issue is a complex problem, and therefore a rather interesting one to look at.
  • I have two children attending MMSD schools, and therefore am especially interested in the well-being of this district, and community.
  • Once I got started, it’s been hard to stop (though my work and family demands have certainly constrained my efforts).


The following preliminary conclusions can be drawn from this analysis:
Elementary Schools Some slight “tweaking” of the options may be warranted, particularly to address the near-term situation for Chavez.
Middle Schools Jefferson & Toki are facing overcrowding risks in the next 5-10 years. In that light, particular attention will need to be given to the precise alignment of students attending a new school. If they are all aligned to attend only one of the middle schools, overcrowding will become an even greater risk.
Cherokee’s longer-term situation appears all right, but that will definitely depend largely on the level of growth in the Fitchburg area.
Long-Term Outlook The demographics and growth picture for Madison, and the country, suggest there will be continued increase in elementary school enrollment for some time. The projected increase in enrollment over the next five years does not appear to be a temporary phenomenon that will soon reverse itself

PDF Version for printing [121K PDF] Please contact me at if you have questions, or post comments here.

14 thoughts on “MMSD’s Enrollment & Capacity Picture: A Perspective”

  1. Great Job, Peter!
    Three thoughts that can also be brought into consideration:
    1. Growth to the new space will likely be greater than predicted. There is a “if you build it they will come” non-linearity. MMSD enrollment and demand for elementary space will grow as we add attractive, new space. Chavez is a case in point.
    2. New residents to Dane County, the fastest growing county in Wisconsin, are increasingly looking to Madison since most of the growth in new homes is farther out (towards Stoughton, Sun Prairie, beyond Verona, beyond Middleton) – and Madison housing stock is relatively affordable and close to other attractions. So, in the next few years, a greater portion of the Dane County growth will be in Madison itself. Although Madison has never been a donut hole in Dane County, density in Madison is going to increase (even if more people find work in the suburbs).
    3. The kind of “big-picture” thinking and solid data analysis you provide shows that we might not need a 5-yr plan that collects dust. We need solid support for staying on top of the data and long-term growth trends in a dynamic manner, with community awareness and engagement. Like your great work, that work often starts with the solid administration and organized datasets that are managed so effectively by MMSD’s Research and Evaluation staff.
    Those who are waiting for more exact data analysis will find that there is a very ugly tradeoff. The longer we wait, there will be more certainty in the data but there will also be more overcrowding ( a daily detriment to learning ), contentious boundary changes, and the actual enrollment growth will be less ( a hit to the bottom line ).

  2. Peter,
    Your my statistical hero!
    I want my kids to attend school where you went!
    But I have a question. In your data on the growth of the city of Madison does that include families that attend MMSD who reside in communities other than Madison, for example Verona….I saw the Fitchburg breakout but was wondering if the annexed communities were in your projections. Thanks for your thorough analysis.

  3. Thanks for doing the work, Peter! Looking at a bigger picture helps.
    I’m fuzzy on this – mmsd’s total enrollment has declined since about 1995. The enrollment surrounding MMSD since 2000 (and earlier) has grown relative to MMSD – I can see the fluctuations over the years. If birthrates are a key component of the district’s forecast, what has happened to the percentage of the number of children born in madison who then attend madison schools with the growth in the communities surrounding madison.
    How does your model change if an increasing number of children’s parents live outside MMSD? This appears not to be the case with Fitchburg, where there is growth in subdivisions in MMSD’s area. Or, put another way, the growth in the outskirts of Madison is not yet leading to an increase in total district enrollment.
    How would your results change if 5, 10, 20 percent of children born live outside MMSD than has been the case in the past – or the converse. I feel it helps to have some form of boundaries, high and low around a model. Good datasets, as Jerry points out MMSD has, should allow for this to be done.
    Those districts with growing populations are not hit as severely by the revenue caps, because the calculation depends upon a rolling average student number.
    There’s growing evidence for new construction, but there is also a great need for better utilization of existing space, especially under revenue caps. I’m not sure when MMSD will “bottom out” overall, but the surrounding suburbs will be putting increasing pressure on the district that has not been there before.
    The assurance of schools and/new new schools is an important consideration for parents who move into the area, but so too are other factors: safety, curriculum, enough teachers, community willing to pass needed referendums if school financing still stays the same. The latter is key, because if we don’t pass referenda, we will lose to the surrounding areas. However, if the community doesn’t think we’re managing all space resources effectively, among other things, I’m doubtful we will pass referendums.
    A new building does not “cost” much on our property taxes. However, without a raise in the revenue caps, we will have to use the same operating dollars over more facilities. Someone in an earlier blog comment said $400,000 isn’t much in a $365 million budget, but that is 8 teachers (or about 20% of the classroom teachers currently at Leopold). If the total district enrollment increases, the negative effect of this is lessened. But, if the total number of students in the district does not increase, or declines, and all facilities continue to be used as they now are plus we build new buildings – that will not be good for all our kids.
    The growth areas are real, the shifts are real, the revenue caps aren’t going anywhere, so I feel our school board needs to look at the entire district and seriously at Hoyt and Doyle utilization, among other things; but the school board needs to do this work across the district using this information, the task forces work, financial constraints, etc. I feel they need to look at different forecasts (some form of high/low). If the school board does not do this work, which I believe is their next step and responsibility, I think we run the risk of not building and not getting all the positives from doing this that Jerry points out.

  4. I will try to address the points and questions raised thus far.
    There most certainly will be a “build it and they will come” phenomenon. I’ve never worked with developers, but I would imagine there are many who look at the empty or semi-empty reaches of the district and see opportunity for new construction. But they must postpone that construction until the necessary school facilities are there, or are at least voter-approved, so that the young families such homes tend to attract will have a certain and hopefully nearby school to attend – they will always be able to get into a district school, the issue is how far away it is, and how crowded.
    How many more kids enter the district because of a new school seems absolutely fundamental to the entire discussion. Looking at Chavez, indeed, approximately how many more students are in the MMSD today because of that school, and what is the NET financial impact to the district of having those additional students? Answers to those questions should help clarify the merits of building additional facilities. The financial impact of a new school is much more than a simple $x increase in the property tax rate to fund the school bonds.
    I share Jerry’s regard for MMSD’s Research and Evaluation department. They have an impressive knowledge of the area and of the implications of virtually any action. I have particularly appreciated their openness and desire to assist throughout this process.
    The Madison city population data is strictly for the city of Madison. It is only at the city-level that you can easily obtain historic population data over time. This means that those students and families living outside of Madison are not included, just as there are parts of Madison where students attend other area school districts. The Madison data is used as a “proxy” for the MMSD – the idea being to get some sense of expected trends. Of course, other outlying towns, like Fitchburg, generally have even faster growth anticipated.
    I have not looked at middle and high school enrollment, so it’s difficult to comment on total enrollment trends for the district (and nationally) – all MMSD enrollment data used in the report are for elementary schools only. Because of the interweaving of boundaries, it can be difficult to determine the answer to any specific question about Madison and the MMSD alone. The data would be so much easier to work with, and draw conclusions from, if the MMSD boundaries and the city boundaries were the same. But they are not – and thank goodness, for the district’s financial situation would undoubtedly be more perilous today if that were the case.
    The birth/enrollment ratio implied by your question is an interesting one. What percentage of children born today in Madison will later show up as MMSD elementary school students? Recognizing that families move in and out of the area, and the boundary question exists, a look at that ratio is of interest. It has fluctuated over the past 50 years, between roughly 67% and 85%. It was around 70% in the mid-70’s, and is at about 67% today. It had been in the 75-80%+ range during much of the 1960’s and 80’s. It dropped during the 70’s, and again during the 90’s. It has been holding steady at around 67% for the past six years. In effect, the district projections imply that ratio will continue the next five years.
    I do not have a model to test what would be the impact on enrollment of various percentages of families, newborns, etc., coming from within or outside the city limits. Indeed, the demographic analysis here really only consists of showing some demographic data in order to generate just the kind of questions you raise, and to consider where analysis might go next. Running geographic-focused analysis is an excellent way to go, but would require a lot of work to put together. I suspect such work would likely be more useful, however, if the projections developed by the district were geographically based.
    I’m new to the area here, and am still mystified on quite how funding works here, so I can’t really speak to the point about the revenue cap influence on the operations budget of a new school. Certainly there is more cost incurred with a new school than just the capital expenditure itself. That additional cost is effectively “the price you must pay” for having those additional students. Presumably it is worth paying as you will have more students than you would otherwise, if no new school was built. Which brings me back to where I started, wondering what is the net impact on enrollment of building a new school.

  5. Thank you for your thoughts, Peter. Given the changes in the areas around Madison, the overall increase in enrollment in the area while a decrease in Madison, a geographical model would make more sense. I know this is difficult, and I certainly wasn’t asking you to do such a task, especially not as a volunteer. In addition to birth rate information, which is useful, I wonder how many families are moving into the Madison/Dane county area – growth likely coming from this.
    The revenue calculation that sets the revenue limit for the district has several parts. The first part is student enrollment, and the only number included is the total enrollment for the district. A new school with more children does not mean more children in Madison.
    Whether you teach X number of children in one building or 100 buildings makes no difference, the total revenue for the district that falls under the cap, which is basically all operating expenses. On Monday, I’m not sure if the Board is considering a referenda question that would raise the revenue cap to fund the operating expenses of a new school – I don’t think so at this point.
    Since 2000, MMSD has seen a net change in total student enrollment of 377 fewer students. I know the revenue limit calculation is based upon the average of the number of students for the current and previous year plus summer school enrollment. However, at about $10,000 per child, the loss is would be about $3.77 million annually in revenue from state dollars and property tax dollars.
    Also, if you look at the change in demographics five years ago compared to today, there is an increase in low-income enrollment and a decrease in non-low-income enrollment, which makes the financial picture worse in terms of dollars available for instruction. If the number of low income children were additional so that total district enrollment went up, financially that would have been better. However, the number of low income children has increased but total enrollment has declined. So not only does the revenue limit penalize a district with declining enrollment, MMSD has more low income children so the existing dollars not have to be spent on more non-direct instructional support services.
    Yes, state financing system for public education needs an overhaul, but that won’t be happening in the next few months, so how MMSD spends every dollar matters immensely for the children and for the community’s perception of how the board is managing the district.
    One of the reasons you would want to make the best financial and educational use of existing space throughout the district is to manage scarce resources as best you can.
    So, if there is no change in total district enrollment, but there is the additional cost of operating a new school, library, administrators, and other personnel which would need to be increased (not necessarily teachers because that number is figured on a districtwide basis, something will need to be cut. that’s why I think a range around a forecast is important. Also, I can’t remember what the forecast for MMSD total enrollment is in 5 years, 10 years? Is the increase on the westside an increase for the district, or will we see declines in other areas?
    If we are currently expected to cut at a minimum $6 million, every additional dollar cut takes dollars from instruction.
    The admin has in the past proposed closing eastside schools with “excess” capacity, but this was rejected by the eastside task force for a number of reasons. That task force did make recommendations for alternative uses for the schools, which deserve further investigation – closing Hoyt, leasing/selling Doyle, relocating alternative schools. I think the board needs to ask admin to come back with proposals to make Doyle work.
    Districtwide there are pieces the board needs to bring together as they decide next steps,and I hope they do this soon. Without these next steps, I don’t think a referendum to build a new school will pass, and I think one is needed.

  6. This is a great discussion. Thanks, Peter for spending the time.
    It seems one could make similar arguments (in terms of attracting new students) with respect to significant improvements to existing schools. Further, I understand the District has launched an equity task force. I assume this task force will consider facilities as part of their review. My nearby elementary school – Thoreau, for example, does not have a cafeteria. I assume that there are significant facility differences around the District, nothwithstanding what a completely new school would include.
    Finally, I would like to see the District aggressively pursue more students based on a world class curriculum.
    Bobbi J notes above that the District has lost 377 students since 2000 (at 10K per student, that’s 3.7M in annual lost operating dollars according to the post above). If the District continues to slowly lose students, while increasing overhead, the financial squeeze will only get worse.
    I’m aware of a number of people who’ve left the mmsd over curriculum (math, for example) issues. I believe this is a fundamental issue for the mmsd.

  7. Thank you so much Peter for your work and effort.
    Just a few additional facts for the discussion. The overall enrollment for the district is projected to begin growing in 2007-08. Actually projections 10 years ago had the district losing 3,500+ children by now; there has been a decline, but much more slowly and only about 1500 total.
    In the discussion of new school vs. existing schools one also has to figure in the out-of-pocket costs of not building – in this case the cost of busing. A bus run costs $45,000 (just under the cost of a new teacher). We can double up bus runs if they are no more than 45 minutes in length – longer ones have to be single.
    Net operating costs for a new building run about $450,000. We should include a question authorizing this expenditure in the referendum as we did in 1999 when we had the buiding of Chavez on the ballot. In fact, the Board does have such a question before it for Monday – as well as the questions for funding a new school and an addition to Leopold.

  8. It certainly gets complicated. I would still argue new schools, built around the perimeter of the district, will result in a net increase in the number of students. By how many though is the question.
    It’s difficult to project, but to the extent that new developments await new schools before they will be built, those represent potential kids we do not have enter the district until a new facility is built. I am not suggesting for a moment that a 500-capacity new school will bring 500 more kids into the district. Hardly. Some of those kids would have otherwise gone to adjacent schools, even if they were overcrowded. Some of those kids might have moved from other parts of the district to the new area where now-affordable homes could be bought.
    But some of those kids do attend the new school because they live in a new development that was built because a new school was constructed and the associated developer chose to build that new development because with the presence of the new school he knew he could now sell those new homes; (try saying that fast five times). Also, some of those kids would attend the new school because their parents bought into the neighborhood because of the new school, and they would not have moved into the MMSD without that new school.
    The net effect of those actions result in net increase in elementary school enrollment. Of course, to the extent that more families move into the MMSD because of the new school, they also bring with them middle schoolers and high schoolers, for today, and/or tomorrow. All of which helps the MMSD total enrollment. It may well be true that the district now has 377 fewer students than in 2000. But I believe that figure would be even higher had Chavez not been built. Is the district better off today because of Chavez, or worse (from a strictly financial point of view)? Does anyone today regret Chavez was built?

  9. It can get complicated, but I think there are some questions that our School Board needs to be asking and if they don’t, our community will be confused and that risks yes votes.
    I would like our School Board members to ask the questions/points we’ve been tossing around, to consider different scenarios, to calculate the financials districtwide as well as some of the other factors. What I don’t want to hear is “That’s too hard to do.” “We don’t need to do that.” “We’ve done enough. We don’t need to do more.” “Enough already.”
    I can’t help but think these are questions that many people in Madison will be asking prior to the April vote.
    I’m already hearing from parents and neighbors, “It seems like the board is going to referendum so fast.” These folks do not have the years of involvement/frustration with these issues as many parents do, but we want them to vote and we want them to vote yes to a new building and operating dollars to run a new school, because these voters understand the issues and support the needed investment.
    I’m not convinced that net enrollment in the areas surrounding Madison is increasing while Madison’s net enrollment is declining, because we do/do not build a school. Another blog post saw a difference of about 1400 more students when looking at 2000-2001 vs. 2003-2004. MMSD saw a reduction from one year to the next. This was only two years, not a rolling average or trend, but the number is sizable. The “economic value” of 377 children at $10,000 per child is $3.77 million annually. That same amount for 1,400 children is $14 million annually. These are big numbers, especially with a district facing $6 million in cuts annually, according to the Superintendent.
    I feel our board needs to be learning more about what is going on and having ongoing discussions with many people from our community. Why there is no community advisory task force to the board that is considering these questions puzzles me.
    Again, thank you for the amount of excellent work you did. Your analysis provides a great basis for discussion.

  10. Jim, your comment about the lack of a cafeteria is interesting. Three years ago our school, Lapham, had all of the windows replaced with beautiful new well functioning windows, and much, if not all of the wiring, replaced and upgraded — all well-needed improvements. At the same time the cafeteria was replaced with tiny windowless rooms, students now eat lunch all at the same time in a huge noisy gym. The tiny windowless rooms are now figured into our classroom space putting us under capacity and the East Side Task Force was given the charge of trying to fill the space. Don’t count on your nearby elementary school gaining a cafeteria. I think the trend is just the opposite.

  11. If I am not mistaken, Lakeview Elementary uses the gym for a cafeteria as well, which forces the Phy Ed folks to set up and break down their equipment twice a day….great use of teacher pay;)

  12. Crestwood eats in a gym as well, but we have two gyms so one is used as cafeteria, washed and then used for PE.
    Peter’s logic about “they will come if it is built” is interesting. I obnoxiously ask again if this logic really is true for Madison/Dane County. To my knowledge where developers build homes has little to do with where the schools are but where available land exist.
    Realtors I have spoken to are always mad Madison has so much open/rec space that could have homes in them. (Which is why many of us love the city) I am not sure the builders are seeing the 3 R’s when they plot homes but only dollar signs.
    It would be fabulous if the developers, city planners and MMSD did have a working relationship that provided the utopia of school planning Peter is describing but if there were then we wouldn’t be in the situation.

  13. Franklin School eats in the gym also (no separate cafeteria and has only one gym). Doesn’t seem to be a problem.
    I read elsewhere on this blog that the BOE has a joint committee with the Madison Common Council to address issues as they pertain to city planning and MMSD. Why don’t we know more about this process?

  14. Actually the Common Council meeting was on the same night as the last W/M Task Force meeting. From the BOE calendar for January 17th:
    7:00pm – Common Council/BOE Liaison Committee, Doyle Admin Bldg, McDaniels Auditorium
    New Developments/Growth and Implications for Schools
    Housing Patterns’ Impact on Enrollments
    Schools with Declining Enrollments
    We had a neighborhood representative present. There was about 5-8 people at the entire meeting. It was a compilation of data shared with city planners with the district and the same data provided to task force members earlier in Fall.
    Throughout the Task Force meetings, there were only 2 members of the Council who attended, while all of them were invited to each.
    Realtors and preschools were also sent our monthly newsletters.
    All this discussion with Common Council, developers and such is a good one…to have everyone at the table… but I might also add to be careful what ya wish for…right now the BOE is pretty open to parental input.
    Another factor that plays well for the build it and they will come is the economic development within the business community….that of not only Madison but Middleton and Verona as well. The business, where I work, has been thriving with many new gratuates who are planning families.
    I was unable to attend the final vote of the Task Force but find it interesting that now, the data doesn’t “speak to” growth? Yet, to build was a unanimous outcome of the final vote for all present.

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