Right and Wrong — MMSD Board Members on School Finance, State and Local

I had not recently thought about what was said by Madison Metropolitan Board of Education members as they passed their initial budget in May, but the happenings in Washburn brought them to mind and reminded me that the struggle to recognize that investments in education are a state responsibility requiring a state solution isn’t over in Madison.

As we now know the state budget produced multiple financial problems for MMSD (we know this, but you wouldn’t know it by going to the MMSD budget page or the news releases, or the “recently in the news” — they missed this from Board President Arlene Silviera and everything else that has happened since January).  As a result, the entire Board of Education has been in one way or another looking to the state for long and short term help.

Back in May, that was not the case.  One member got things right; most were too happy with what then seemed like a positive budget to bring up the long term state issues; one got things wrong in an offensive and dangerous manner

Johnny Winston Jr. is the one who got it right.

He revealed the truth, school finance is a state and federal problem and requires at the very least a state solution. Recent developments at the state finance level have moved us further from that solution.

For a variety of reasons (listed below), until the latest state budget Madison had enjoyed relatively painless budgeting in the most recent years. At the same time, the state school funding system remains broken, any of the varied nips and tucks that have been made at the local level have only provided limited relief, they’ve only been partial remediations – and temporary. The real fix has to come at the state level, it must be comprehensive and it must be sustainable.

Lucy Mathiak is the one who got it wrong.

In addition to her misguided championing of local solutions to a state created problem (see here for MMSD’s official and correct position), Mathiak mostly misidentified and wrongly interpreted the main factors that contributed to the recent lack of major harmful budget cuts in Madison.

Here is my list, in approximate order of importance:

  • Tax Incremental Finance District closure windfall (over $5.4 million).
  • Successful Operating Referendum, ($5 million for 2009-10).
  • Confused and overzealous fiscal conservatism in the 2007-8 budget (scroll down), resulting in a $4.3 million general fund surplus (added to the Fund Balance).  Astute readers will remember that the 2007-8 fiscal year was the year that MMSD was a rough budget season and that schools were almost closed and many harmful cuts were made (in my opinion, the two biggest factors in this surplus were underestimates for state special education funding and local salary savings, see more here).
  • A new management team. Superintendent Dan Nerad and Asst. Superintendent Erik Kass have brought new eyes to the budgeting process and found some savings and efficiencies. However, as their experiences in Green Bay and Waukesha demonstrate, there are serious limits to what any management team can do to stave off harmful cuts.
  • Losing students to open enrollment. This made FTE cuts less painful for the 2009-10 budget. The benefits of this are limited and only work when efficiencies of size are present, but because the structural gap in the state finance system is based on per pupil funding, fewer pupils means a smaller gap.

Right and wrong, partial and temporary, these factors are all about played out. The party is over and the bills must be paid.

As Asst. Superintendent Erik Kass said, 2010-11 is looking “ugly,” and I’ll add that this ugliness has nothing to do with mythical local mismanagement (in fact the recent surpluses and the harm caused by the cuts and conflicts that created those surpluses reveal that the very Board members Mathiak praises had pushed the district too far on issues of  budgeting and were the ones closest to mismanaging) and the solution will not be found via equally mythical miraculous local administration and governance.

The new state budget has brought back to MMSD the hard choices needed to make the cuts that do the least harm and to find the fiscal strategies that can be sustained. The Title I and IDEA stimulus money will soften the blows, but that is yet another partial and temporary band-aid.

The self-serving myths Mathiak mouthed back in May are dangerous because they make it harder to convince people that school finance reform must be a priority.  I’m glad I remembered what she said, because these falsehoods must be countered at every opportunity.

Join the movement for real education funding reform.  Check out the School Finance Network; become a member of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools.

If you do these things, you will be going a long way towards righting some very significant wrongs.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Budget, education, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, Referenda, referendum, School Finance, Take Action, Uncategorized

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