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December 14, 2006

2007/2008 Madison School District Budget Outlook: Half Empty or Half Full?

Susan Troller's piece today on the larger than usual reduction in "revenue cap limited" increases (say that quickly) in the Madison School District's $332M+ 2007/2008 budget is interesting, from my perspective, due to what is left unsaid:

  • The District has been running a "structural deficit for years, revealed only recently after school board Vice President Lawrie Kobza spent considerable time seeking an answer to the question:
    "Why did our equity go down this past year since we, the board, passed a balanced budget in 2005/2006? Why did it go down by $2.8M (about a 1% variance in last year's $319M+ budget)?
    Superintendent Art Rainwater responded:
    "The way we have attempted to deal with maintaining the quality of education as long as we could was to budget very, very aggressively, realizing that we had an out of fund balance ($5.9M in 2006/2007). We made the decision 7 years ago or so to budget aggressively and try to manage to that budget believing that we would use less fund equity over time than if we set aside a set amount. So that's been our approach. That fund equity has now come down to the point that we believe we can't do that any more and we will not bring you a balanced budget that is aggressive particularly where it gets into aggressive on the revenue side in how much efficiency we believe we can budget. So, what the effect of that is to increase the amount you have to pay.
  • I've not seen a published figure on how much the District's equity has declined during this "7 year aggressive" budget posture. The District's operating budget in 1998/1999 was approximately $245M. The current year's budget is $332M. Enrollment has remained flat during this time.
  • Madison is a "rich" district, spending 23% more per student than the state average. Madison is also a property tax rich district, with an average property value per student of $775,000 (Appleton is $411K, Milwaukee $267K, Verona 526K and Middleton-Cross Plains $779K) - via SchoolFacts 2006. George Lighbourn's recent WPRI school finance article is, in my view correct:
    Even the most vocal proponents of change understand the reality that big changes are not in the offing. They know that they are up against the most formidable impediment to change, the printout, that age-old tabulation showing how much money each school district will get out of Madison. Any change that shows dozens of school districts will see a decline in state aid has almost no chance of succeeding.
  • All of this points to the importance of managing the $332M+ budget well, choosing the most effective curriculum and building public confidence for future referendums. I wonder when the public might have learned of the structural deficits (and the District's dwindling cash equity) had elections gone a different way the past few years (reformers vs old guard)? Learn more about the April, 2007 School Board election.
  • Notes/links:
School finance is a mess. However, the Madison School District's $332M+ budget provides resources far beyond most public school systems. Throwing up our arms and blaming the state or feds, or ? will not solve anything and certainly does not put our children's interests first. Transparency, responsibility, creativity, local control (be careful what we wish for with respect to state and federal school finance updates) and wise investments are key to maintaining the community's remarkable financial and voluntary public education support.

Posted by Jim Zellmer at December 14, 2006 9:28 PM
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