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Commentary on Madison’s April 7, 2015 Maintenance Referendum; District spending data remains MIA

Molly Beck:

If approved, the referendum would raise property taxes about $62 on the average $237,678 Madison home for 10 years. The district is still paying off $30 million in referendum debt for the construction of Olson and Chavez elementary schools in the late 2000s, according to the district. The final payment, for the Olson project, is due in 2026.

The aggressive school district campaign to get the word out to voters about the proposal and a community group that has been knocking on doors advocating for its passage have largely been met with very little opposition.

“It’s really quiet,” said board vice president James Howard. “I guess we’ll just have to wait until April 7 to find out” whether it has community support.

Board member T.J. Mertz, who has worked closely with the pro-referendum nonprofit Community And Schools Together, said the board has received about a half-dozen emails questioning the increase in property taxes.

“But there is no organized opposition,” Mertz said. “Whether that’s a function of apathy, the political culture of Madison or the lack of a strong Republican Party (in the city), or whether this is a popular measure, it’s impossible to read in the absence of no organized opposition,” adding that there also has not been a conservative school board candidate in about six years.

The proposal comes at a time when the school district faces at least a $12 million gap in its $435 million operating budget for the 2015-16 school year. The maintenance work and $2 million in technology costs also included in the proposal would ease pressure on the district’s budget, Mertz said.

I emailed Michael Barry to confirm Ms. Beck’s $435,000,000 Madison Schools’ budget number, which is 8% or $32,000,000 higher than the previously discussed $402,000,000 2014-2015 budget. I’ve not heard from Mr. Barry.

That said, pity the poor citizen who wishes to determine total spending or changes over time using the District’s published information.

Pat Schneider:

At a forum this week on the referendum projects, many in the crowd on the city’s near west side focused on property taxes and “what we’re doing to save money,” Silveira said Tuesday in a meeting with the Capital Times editorial board.

“People get confused. They think if we pass the referendum, we won’t have the gap on the operating side,” said Silveira, the current president of the school board who is retiring at the end of her term next month.

In fact, cuts in state funding will contribute to a shortfall that, if voters approve the referendum bond sale, would demand a property tax increase next year of up to nearly 5.2 percent to balance the budget, about 1 percent of which would be due to spending approved by the referendum.

Those projects to expand crowded schools, add accessibility and update mechanical systems, as listed in this article about referendum advocacy and detailed on a school district web page.

Wisconsin State Journal:

The State Journal editorial board endorses this reasonable request.

Madison’s per-pupil spending on schools is more than $1,000 above the state average of about $12,000. That’s mostly due to operational costs, including higher pay and benefits for employees.

Madison property taxes are high, too. That’s partly because the state sends less aid to Madison, based on a formula that penalizes communities with higher property value.

But when it comes to construction, the Madison School District has been conservative. The district with nearly 50 schools and 28,000 students has built only three new schools in the last 45 years.

Moreover, Madison’s debt per student is the lowest among all of the school districts in Dane County, and half the state average, according to district figures. At the same time, interest rates are incredibly low.

The proposed maintenance tax & spending referendum includes plans to expand two of the District’s least diverse schools: Van Hise & Hamilton.

Only 20 Percent Turnout Expected Statewide for Tuesday’s Election.

Madison School District Continues to Support Wide Diversity Variation Across Schools; Status Quo as Spending Referendum Looms

Abigail Becker:

The Research & Program Evaluation Office studied the hypothetical possibility of moving students from crowded schools to others in the district and took into account six considerations the School Board adopted in 2007 when evaluating boundary changes.

These considerations include reasonable bus routes, a rule to keep students from moving schools more than once in five years, grandfathering fourth and fifth grades, desirable school size, avoiding low-income concentrations and keeping neighborhoods intact.

The report studied the possibility of moving some students between schools: Sandburg to Mendota; Midvale and Van Hise to Thoreau; Hamilton to Cherokee; Hawthorne to Lowell; and Kennedy to Allis.

Each proposed boundary change except one, Hamilton to Cherokee, failed to live up to the six-consideration framework, leading researchers to conclude that future long-term facilities solutions will be “more comprehensive, less politically controversial and less challenging for MMSD students and families than changing school attendance boundaries,” according to the report.

The district is proposing $27 million in additions and renovations at several schools to address crowding and other issues. Over the next several weeks it plans to seek feedback from the public.

At its Monday meeting, the School Board briefly debated the merits of using boundary changes instead of renovations.

Related: Madison School District considers school boundaries, might low income distribution be addressed?.

Madison Schools’ Referendum & Possible Boundary Change Commentary

Molly Beck:

Even though expanding eight schools is only part of the plan, “if there’s any one (school) that looks particularly challenging to explain,” Hughes said, “we know that will be what the opponents of the referendum will latch onto. … We are going to have to be able to work through that and decide whether each of these is separately defensible.”

Hughes added that attendance area boundary changes are tough, but the board might find out that could be a solution for one or two of the schools.

Board vice president Arlene Silveira and board member T.J. Mertz also said that the controversial idea needed to be thoroughly vetted.

“We have to have the discussion about boundaries — we have to show that we looked at it, and what that showed,” said Silveira, who also added that internal transfers at popular schools like Van Hise Elementary and Hamilton Middle School needed to also be examined as a way to relieve crowding.

Board member Mary Burke said making the proposed investment in the eight schools could ultimately save the district the cost of having to build schools, especially if the district sees enrollment gains in the future as schools improve.

Related: Might low income student distribution be addressed? and Effective school maintenance spending?