2008 Madison Schools’ Referendum – Key Issues

1. Mortgage on future property with permanent increase: Asking taxpayers to refinance/mortgage their futures and that of the school district with a permanent increase of $13 million yearly for the operations budget. It has been stated the district needs the money to help keep current programs in place. It is expected that even after 3 years of this referendum totaling $27 million, the Board is projecting a continued revenue gap and will be back asking for even more.
2. No evaluation nor analysis of programs and services: The Board will make budget cuts affecting program and services, whether or not this referendum passes. The cuts will be made with no assessment/evaluation process or strategy for objective analyses of educational or business programs and services to determine the most effective and efficient use of money they already have as well as for the additional money they are asking with this referendum.
3. Inflated criteria for property value growth: The dollar impact on property to be taxed is projected on an inflated criteria of 4% growth in property valuation assessment; therefore, reducing the cost projection for the property tax levy. The growth for property valuation in 2007 was 3.2% and for 2008 it was 1.0%. Given the state of the economy and the housing market, the growth rate is expected to further decline in 2009. [10/13 Update: The above references to property valuation assessment growth are cited from City of Madison Assessor data. See ACE document “Watch List Report Card” [2008 Referendum Watch List 755K PDF] for State Department of Revenue citations for property valuation base and growth rate used for determination of MMSD property tax levy.]
4. No direct impact on student learning and classroom instruction: There is District acknowledgement of a serious achievement gap between low-income and minority student groups compared with others. There are no plans evident for changing how new or existing money will be spent differently in order to have an impact on improving student learning/achievement and instructional effectiveness.
5. Lack of verification of reduction in negative aid impact on taxes: District scenarios illustrating a drastic reduction in the negative impact on state aids from our property-rich district is unsubstantiated and unverified, as well as raising questions about unknown possible future unintended consequences. The illustrated reduction is from approximately 60% to 1% results by switching maintenance funds from the operations budget and 2005 referendum proceeds to a newly created “Capital Expansion Fund–Fund 41” account. [Update: 10/13: The reduction in the negative aid impact will take affect regardless of the outcome of the referendum vote. See the ACE document “Watch List Report Card” [2008 Referendum Watch List 755K PDF] for details.]

6. Full disclosure, accountability and transparency: Data and information has not been presented to show and verify criteria, assumptions, base lines, calculations and analyses for stated efficiencies, effectiveness, savings, past and current projects, cuts and reductions. [Update 10/13: The new administration is gathering and preparing information and data on a pro-active, but limited, basis.]
7. No cost-sharing and collaborative initiatives with other governments: Discussions and negotiations have not taken place with city and county governments for cost-sharing and collaborative initiatives to reduce costs, minimize duplication of services, and create better defined roles and responsibilities.
8. Making schools safe for students and staff: There are no specific plans or strategies for changes in the response system for safety, use of appropriate technology and curriculum helping students and staff develop shared responsibilities and conflict resolution. [Update 10/13: The administration is engaging input from school staff, students, parents and city officials for the development of plans. They are also working on identifying funding sources to provide for safer access from outside walk-ins to the buildings.]
9. Impact of economics and affordability: The impact of tax increases becomes staggering when put in the total context of a school referendum increase and an operations increase; a City of Madison projected 4-6% budget increase; a County of Dane projected 4-6% budget increase; the State of Wisconsin budget expense deficit and decrease in revenues; and the national economic scene of increased food and fuel costs along with the lack of stability in the financial and housing markets.

10. Expected approval of future Maintenance Referendum included in tax impact
: The District states that their figures showing the tax impact with approval of the current referendum includes the current Maintenance Referendum (approximately $5 million per year) running through 2009-10 will be approved again past 2009-10. [Update: 10/13: Projections are now available excluding the tax impacts of the current and projected maintenance referendums.]
11. Board discussing another new elementary school: The Board of Education has authorized the administration to seek property in south Madison to build a new elementary school. Planning initiatives are underway to propose a referendum for building an elementary school building in the near future. [Update: 10/13: The administration is not taking any action on this initiative at this time.] See ACE document “Watch List Report Card” [230K PDF Version] for detailed information on ‘key issues’
2008 Referendum Watch List 755K PDF
Prepared by Active Citizens for Education
Contact: Don Severson, President
608 577-0851

17 thoughts on “2008 Madison Schools’ Referendum – Key Issues”

  1. I’m a bit surprised to see the above statements presented as if there is no consideration for program review by either the board or the superintendent.
    From the superintendent’s first presentation of the proposal, he has been quite clear – and the board supports his position – that there are two parts to what we need to do. The first is to address the known funding shortfall that we will see in 2009-2010 and on. The second is a planning process and program assessment and review, to be carried out with strong community involvement, to set priorities and funding practices for future budgets. Any programmatic growth or change would be accomplished through reallocation of resources as a part of this process.
    I support this approach because I believe that the types of reviews and assessments that are needed will take time. In several cases, more time than we would have before we would need to be planning for significant budget and program cuts without a referendum.
    While many of us have our own lists of programs that we believe to be obvious candidates for review if not elimination, the problem is that our lists may not match. That is, there are many opinions on what is/is not needed, what does/does not work, or, for that matter, what constitutes a serious review.
    The timing on the referendum and long-range planning processes are not ideal; most of us would rather carry these projects out in reverse order. But that is not the hand that we were dealt. We recognize the certainty of a significant shortfall inn 2009-10 without a referendum, and we also recognize that a serious planning and review process cannot be accomplished in less than six months (the background work on budget and personnel decisions will take place in early 2009).
    That is, most reasonable people understand that it would not be realistic to think that the new superintendent, head of business services, and other key staff, could start on July 1 and have several major program reviews completed by January. They are talented, to be sure, but very few people could pull this off.
    In the meantime, the process of preparing the 2009-2010 budget will start sometime in early 2009. If my past experience with budgets serves, it also is unlikely that we would be able to conduct quality reviews – certainly reviews that could guide program and resource allocation decisions – between August and mid-January.
    Without a successful referendum we are left to the process that has frustrated so many of us in recent years – cutting without solid evaluation of the programs, shaving slices off of the thin economic base for schools, and potentially implementing cuts that we then revisit because the impact is (often predictably) untenable.
    Is this ideal? No. Nor is it a refusal to assess programs, identify and implement solutions to long-standing issues such as the achievement gap, or ‘more of the same’ as Don would have you believe. The superintendent and the board have said this from day one: this is a partnership with TWO significant parts. Referendum to stabilize the financial base of our schools, and Review and Planning to set priorities, allocate resources to programs that are demonstrably working and to critical areas of need.

  2. I’m supporting the referendum. It’s not very much money annually on my taxes. My kids are receiving a very good education, albeit somewhat less than what they might have received in the early 90s, prior to the state de-funding of public schools. 3 yrs. is enough time for Dr. Nerad and the BoE to sift through their important issues. It might even be enough time for the Dems to retake the Legislature and fix school funding. The alternative (massive special ed cutes to high schools) will pretty much kill my special needs child’s chances to get into UW. It’s tough enough from the staffing levels as it is. So folks, you have 2 votes from our household!

  3. I’m supporting the referendum, even though my kids are attending non-MMSD schools. It’s much needed money. I don’t necessarily support every allocation in their budget. For example, I was told this morning that MMSD runs around a ‘late bus’ to pick up kids who have overslept to deliver to our local middle school. I haven’t checked to verify truth of this, but I am not sure I would support this expenditure. Likewise, I could think of better ways to spend the large amounts of money spent to bus kids back and forth from Midvale to Lincoln. The TAG kids are woefully under served, in my opinion. But these are all just my limited perspectives. And my personal disappointments and disagreements are not enough to turn my vote.

  4. What would be the most significant direct outcomes if the referendum did not pass? Is anyone willing to predict this? That would be a valuable contribution to the discussion.

  5. The district has put together some preliminary and very – and I mean very – general categories where cuts are likely to occur if the referendum does not pass. In that event, the board and the district will begin working on the specifics of what will be cut from where for 2009-10.
    This is the answer as it is posted on the district web site:
    In addition to the $3 million budget shortfall (gap) that has been addressed in the 2009-10 budget, $5 million in cuts would be necessary.
    The MMSD along with the community will go through a strategic planning process in the second half of this school year that will help to prioritize what the district should focus on. Possible budget reduction strategies will come from this process.
    These cuts, coming after $60 million in budget reductions over the last 14 years, will have a direct effect on the classroom.
    The board and superintendent have made a conscious choice to NOT get into specifics until we know whether the referendum succeeds or fails. There are many reasons for that decision – several related to our wish to focus on the referendum rather than put people – especially staff, students, and parents – through the intense anxiety that has occurred in past years when the message was “pass the referendum or we will cut [fill in the program].”
    After the past several years of cuts, we very much need to have a positive, productive, discussion as a board and with the community about priorities for spending and priorities for review and possible reallocation. It is my experience and personal opinion that that it will be easier to have that type of discussion if we are not mixing it with advocacy for a referendum.

  6. Don’s weekly updates are highlighted in bold. I thought it would be useful to keep the comments with his updated post.

  7. Jim, thanks for doing that. There are still several flat out wrong statements – or at least manipulated truths – in Don’s posts, notably regarding plans for program review and willingness to acknowledge and address achievement gaps. Nonetheless, the grudging acknowledgment that indeed the district has been uniquely accessible – I believe that Eric Kass and/or Dan Nerad have been available to Don for weekly meetings – is a tiny step forward for Don. I guess change is hard, and acknowledging change is harder.

  8. Many years ago, while working for a very large, private organization, I participated in a number of sizable (at least for me – $20M+) capital projects. Elaborate, often detailed projections and presentations were required. I later asked who conducted the “look back”, that is, who reviewed the documents to see if in fact the planned savings or program reviews actually occurred?
    The answer, of course, was no one. I posed the same question to a (huge) government contractor some years ago. Same answer (staff turnover among other problems).
    The projects were likely useful and productive, but not always. I also found it interesting that at year end, for financial planning and Wall Street purposes (manage earnings expectations), money was suddenly available and needed to be spent by a certain date, often without the analysis mentioned above.
    I suspect that Don (and hopefully others) will, indeed look back and see how things have played out. Keep in mind that this tax increase via referendum represents a bargain with the taxpayers in return for a serious program review. Said review must survive a number of school board elections (starting with Lucy and Arlene’s seats in April 2009), a challenging financial climate, changing expectations and demographics and flat enrollment, not to mention consistent leadership and the ability to get taxpayers, teachers and parents on board (this thread makes me think that a much smaller governance model is more likely to succeed – charters, or ?).
    Finally, somewhat related (think about those year end spending splurges mentioned above); I’ve often wondered if MMSD’s grant receipts actually help in the short term but make the budget more difficult later on due to staffing increases?

  9. Jim, I agree with your comments. There is a LOT of work to be done and, ultimately, history will be the final judge of whether there is genuine commitment to meaningful change. Just as important, are the track records of people who say they are committed to making change happen.
    You raise an important question at the end of your poste: “Finally, somewhat related (think about those year end spending splurges mentioned above); I’ve often wondered if MMSD’s grant receipts actually help in the short term but make the budget more difficult later on due to staffing increases?”
    I posed this question (at some length) when the board was asked to approve a data partnership with the Minority Student Achievement Network a month or so ago. The data would be shared under a funded grant that was not directly to MMSD but appeared (to me) to require staff time and other resources on the district’s part. The responses were less than reassuring.
    It may be that I am overly sensitive to the issues of required local match (in kind or dollar) when grants are written. The fact is that someone has to do something to carry out the activities for which funding is received. The options that I see are a) redeployment of existing staff, b) hiring new staff, or c) not doing the work promised in the grant. “a” and “b” imply additional outlays or redirection of staff time and resources; “c” implies a huge legal problem (e.g. fraud) if the grant is spent and the work left undone.
    This is an area that, similarly to Fund 80, has been traditionally treated as “free money” without close scrutiny of the commitments associated with the grant. While we can and should be pursuing grants to augment state and property tax funds, we also need to modernize our understanding of grants and make sure that the commitments do not overshadow the resources that the district puts forward.

  10. Can someone please address one concern of mine?
    Why do Madison part-time teachers receive full-time benefits? (Very good benefits at that). How many are in this position, and how much would be saved if this were corrected?
    I have continued to ask this simple question and get zero response. It’s almost as if I am not allowed to bring this up, but I am asked to dig deeper. This makes me wonder how many other sacred cows are untouchable. I am very sceptical of the District’s willingness to police themselves until they become more open regarding spending.

  11. My spouse is a teacher, and they do not receive full benefits if they are under a certain percentage work time.

  12. The board has been looking at the issue of part-time staff who receive full-time benefits for the past two years. (This was a line that Lawrie Kobza initiated.)
    It’s more complicated than a simple count. The numbers change on a monthly basis for a number of reasons – enrollment changes, medical leaves, etc. For example, positions can be increased if there are more students than expected; they also can be decreased to less than full time if enrollments fall.
    In addition to district level changes, there are the collective bargaining issues related to who gets benefits at what level of employment.
    Where we, as a board, have the biggest immediate leverage is in pressuring district administrators and HR directors to consolidate positions (e.g. 1 full-time person at two sites rather than 2 half-time people at two sites) as much as possible. I believe that we have made the most progress in that area. This is an on-going discussion with administration.

  13. But Lucy, that is my whole point. It is not more complicated than that. To throw up your hands and say it’s simply a collective bargaining issue is a cop out. WHY does the union get such great deals? And WHY is the School Board, Administration and the Union so cozy, to the detriment of the taxpayers? Why do we not re-examine ALL spending before turning to the public for more of their money?
    In these difficult economic times, it’s asking a lot to expect people to continue to reach deeper to support a system that protects so many of their own.

  14. Rich, I believe that you missed my point. We are looking at the issues and are exerting leverage where we have the best chance of creating change at this time.
    Our focus in the last round of bargaining was in making changes to the health insurance benefits without ending up on the losing end of an arbitration decision. That focus resulted in renegotiated health coverage for every bargaining unit except the portion of MTI that covers teachers. From our perspective, that was the biggest priority.
    As for board and administration coziness, I want to make sure that I understand your reference point. Could you give me some examples?
    For what its worth, the one thing that I have seen since I have been on the board is that what you or I might see as the inevitable outcome of arbitration may not be what an arbitrator rules. We have gone to arbitration more often in the past year, but have not always prevailed. That puts us in the position of deciding whether we are willing to risk losing an expensive arbitration process that could end up costing us more in the awards to employees than we would have incurred by reaching a negotiated settlement.
    We may not go to arbitration as often as some people would like us to. It seems to me, however, we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
    If we decide that we risk losing more by going to arbitration and decide against it, we are portrayed as soft and cozying up to the unions. If we go to arbitration and lose, especially if we lose more than when we started, we are portrayed as wasteful of taxpayers money.
    There are no guarantees no matter how carefully we plan, so we make the best decisions we can with the information available at the time.

  15. Lucy,
    I appreciate the boards assertive approach to the arbitration. I have repeated this over and over…but the board should be a reflection of the community,parents, tax payers positions as we vote you into office. The union is the representation of the MMSD staff. It seems in the past the board provided NO community representation and just voted always in the administration and staff support without community thought or input. I believe that tide has slowly changed…but it could still move more toward the community reprensentation.
    The grant/budget issue is of interest to me.
    In the last few years of working hard in my children’s schools I can tell you what the parents have paid for:
    Xerox machines, overhead projectors, music instruments for music class, books for teachers, and library, shelves for library, playground equipment, sewing machines for FCE, re-surfing a playground that is made of tar, TV/VCR for classrooms, computers for the classrooms, rug for students to sit on in the library, matts for kindergarteners to sleep on, paper for the xerox machine, kleenex, classroom field trips, balls and equipment for PE classes, saw, weedeater, and tools for our janitors.
    As I have aged, I realize while our schools needed all these things, we have enabled the system to depend on us, and I wonder if all the tax payers realize that a certain percentage of us parents are providing and paying a greater percentage to support not only our own children but ALL the staff and students in the schools. When community members complain that the schools are not doing enough and they do not have students in the schools, I am sympathetic, but the taxes are not covering the basics as you can see by the above list! I do wonder if we use are staff efficiently, as I have seen underutilizations when I know many students are in need of help.

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