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November 4, 2009

Madison schools -- "the biggest loser"

Susan Troller:

Despite an ailing economy, Madison School Board members were guardedly optimistic last spring as they put together the district's preliminary 2009-2010 budget. The community had overwhelmingly passed a referendum the previous fall that allowed the district to exceed state revenue caps, providing an extra $13 million to the district through 2012.
As a result, the board was anticipating a rare year where public school programs and services were not on the chopping block and was looking forward to crafting a budget with minimal property tax increases. Initial projections worked out to a $2.50 increase on an average $250,000 Madison home on this year's tax bill.

For once, it looked as if both parents and taxpayers would be happy with the budget, a rare scenario in Wisconsin where school spending formulas and revenue caps often seem tailor-made to pit taxpayers against school advocates.

But the preliminary budget plan the Madison district drew up and approved in May predated the news that Wisconsin's revenue situation was far worse than predicted. The result was a steep reduction in what the state's 438 school districts would get from Wisconsin's general school aid fund. The drop in general school aid amounted to $149 million, or 3 percent.

These cuts, however, would not be shared equally across every district, and the formula used was particularly unkind to Madison, which overnight saw a gaping hole of more than $9 million, a drop in aid not seen by any other district in the state.

"We were so happy last spring. In retrospect, it was really kind of pitiful," says Lucy Mathiak, vice president of Madison's School Board. The mood was decidedly more downbeat, she notes, in late October when the board gave its final approval to the $350 million 2009-2010 school district budget.

I'm glad Susan mentioned the District's total spending. While such budget changes are difficult, many public and private organizations are facing revenue challenges. The Madison School District has long spent more per student than most Districts in Wisconsin and has enjoyed annual revenue growth of around 5.25% over the past 20+ years - despite state imposed "revenue caps" and flat enrollment.

Some can argue that more should be spent. In my view, the District MUST complete the oft discussed program review as soon as possible and determine how effective its expenditures are. Board Vice President Lucy Mathiak again raised the issue of evaluating math curriculum effectiveness via University of Wisconsin System entrance exam results and college placement. This request has fallen on deaf ears within the MMSD Administration for some time. [Madison School Board Math Discussion 40MB mp3 audio (Documents and links).] I very much appreciate Lucy's comments. The District's extensive use of Reading Recovery should also be evaluated in terms of effectiveness and student skills. The District should be planning for a tighter budget climate in this, the Great Recession.

Finally, I found Marj Passman's comments in the article interesting:

"I understand that the economy is terrible, but for years we heard that the reason we had this school funding mess was because we had Republicans in charge who were basically content with the status quo," says board member Marj Passman. "I had expected so much change and leadership on school funding issues with a Democratic governor and a Democratic Legislature. Honestly, we've got Rep. Pocan and Sen. Miller as co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee and Democratic majorities in both houses! Frankly, it's been a huge disappointment. I'd love to see that little beer tax raised and have it go to education."
In my view, we're much better off with "divided" government. The current Governor and legislative majority's budget included a poor change to the arbitration rules between school districts and teacher unions:
To make matters more dire, the long-term legislative proposal specifically exempts school district arbitrations from the requirement that arbitrators consider and give the greatest weight to revenue limits and local economic conditions. While arbitrators would continue to give these two factors paramount consideration when deciding cases for all other local governments, the importance of fiscal limits and local economic conditions would be specifically diminished for school district arbitration.
Madison School District Spending History.

It's good to see Susan Troller writing about local school issues.

Posted by Jim Zellmer at November 4, 2009 8:07 PM
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