Category Archives: referendum

WAES School Funding Reform Update, Week of March 22, 2010

From the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (of Penny for Kids fame).  Table of Contents below, click here for the full update.

  • School-funding reform is the topic of the day under The Dome
  • Students coming to the front of the school-funding reform effort
  • “Category 5″ crisis for schools … “A Penny for Kids” would help
  • Four-day school week is getting mixed reviews
  • Brodhead superintendent lays out need for April 6 referendum
  • WAES needs your support to keep working for school-funding reform
  • School-funding reform front and center on Wisconsin Eye
  • Rep. Schneider  says we must pay the price for quality schools
  • Help WAES correct e-mail update glitch
  • School-funding reform calendar

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Best Practices, Budget, education, finance, Local News, Pennies for Kids, Referenda, referendum, School Finance, Take Action

Fast MMSD Budget Hearing Report

Just a quick report, more later.

The big news is that by two 7-0 votes the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education agreed to raise taxes by at least  $11.7 Million ($4 Million from referendum and $7.7 from new cap room) and took most of Tier 4 (7-0 vote) and on a motion by Marj Passman some items from Tier 3 off the table (no time for links tonight, all documents are linked off of the district pages).  The Tier 3 items were 12, 35, 138, 140, 142, 146, covering Positive Behavior Support, Social Workers, Guidance Counselors, Nurses, Middle School Learning Coordinators and Psychologists.    The vote here was 5-2 with Lucy Mathiak and I believe Johnny Winston Jr Corrected Maya Cole voting no.

Passman’s motion came after a broader motion from Ed Hughes  to take many other items out of consideration (8, 12, 17, 35, 137, 138, 140, 142, 146, 149, 174, 175, 198, and maybe 44, 45 , 46– have to double check, it may be the 140s are wrong and the 40s are right Corrected:  8, 12, 17, 35, 44, 45, 46, 137, 138, 140, 142, 146, 149, 174, 175, 198) failed by a 3-3 vote with Winston abstaining. and Beth Moss, Marj Passman voting with Hughes.  The logic that helped Passman’s motion carry was that the Tier 3 cuts she identified paralleled Tier 4 cuts in those areas.  By Superintendent Nerad’s own admission the numbers in and even the inclusion in each Tier was a product of wanting the dollar amounts to come out neat and not any educational or policy thinking.

The one item not removed from Tier four was #9, Elementary Instructional Resource Teachers.  Much confusion around this in the budget and  the Reorganization. The one thing I know is that IRTs or coaches are considered n effective and efficient use of resources in all the research I’ve read.  I’m confused too.

I understand why Board President Silveira made the spending motions based on the amounts of the referendum and the new cap room, but the truth is authority is authority, is authority and it could just as well have been a round $10 million r $20 million.

The bulk of the night was public testimony.  Packed room, overflow crowd, strong support for schools and many reminders about the good they do, how.  Much of the testimony was about the Lincoln Open Classroom and some of the most moving about the Omega School.  Many also came to say “raise my taxes” and share their thoughts about why investments in education are so important. There was some anger, much rightly directed at state officials with Mark Pocan and Mark Miller called out by name multiple times.  Others were angry that in this year, after 17 years of cuts,  when the Board has the authority to almost fully fund education, they are hesitating.  Much more on this all later.

Stand up for schools!

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Best Practices, Budget, education, finance, Local News, referendum, School Finance, Take Action

Hatchets at the Ready — More Wisconsin School Budget News

Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, “Pass the Hatchet” (click to listen or download”

As they sharpen the hatchets to cut the Madison school budget, time for another installment in the sad story of diminishing educational quality in Wisconsin.

Might as well get the first “what you can do to stop this” out of the way at the start.  The easiest thing to do to help is to sign the Penny for Kids petition sponsored by the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES).  We (I’m a WAES Board Member) are asking that the state enact a 1 cent per dollar sales tax to address the immediate crisis and move Wisconsin toward better ways of investing in education.  You can read more and find out how to help in other ways at the links.

Most of these stories and links are from the last couple of weeks, but some are from earlier this year.  I’ve left Madison out this time, because we’ll be posting lots about the home front in the coming weeks.  This is no particular order and far from comprehensive (with districts holding April referenda reserved for another post).

I’ll get started with the districts mentioned in Chris Murphy’s  recent “What’s News: Schools’ money troubles are news all over Wisconsin “story on the Cap Times:  Oshkosh, Appleton and  Monona Grove.

Lots more on the major cuts in Oshkosh in this post.  My favorite recent thing is the Facebook group “The children in the Oshkosh Area School District are screwed!!!!!”  I love the lack of spin.

The Oshkosh West student paper has a good story: “Board decision ushers in winter of discontent.”  Here is an  excerpt:

State and local budget woes have placed a sharp edge at the throat of the Oshkosh Area School District. At an OASD school board meeting on February 10, board members voted 7-0 to raise the student to teacher ratio to 25:1 beginning in the fall of 2010, effectively eliminating some 35 teaching positions in order to shave approximately $2 million from the budget deficit. Although the board was scheduled to meet on February 24 (which was too late for publication in this issue of the Index) regarding specifics of implementation, the impact of these cuts could be dire, according to Assistant Principal Jay Jones.

“My biggest fear is that we could potentially lose some upper level electives that students have had some interest in,” he said. “One of the suggestions from Superintendent Bette Lang is that some of these elective classes will have to run every other year. But at the same time it could mean that an awful lot of classes simply do not run.”

Some more on the cuts and firings from School Board candidate Karl Lowenstein:

It is hard to describe the passion, energy, and eloquence of the students who lined up and stayed for hours to try to save smaller classes that were important to them. It was a testament to a hopeful future. Unfortunately, the board ignored their pleas.

In the end, the board voted unanimously to fire the teachers. There was very little discussion about the real implications of this cut. Bette Lang and the board members insisted that hardly anyone will miss the teachers–all it means is that small classes will be offered less frequently. Not one board member asked how a fired teacher can offer courses every other year. The board’s belief is that other districts have higher ratios, so our should too.

Although the information put out by the asst. principals at North and West, which listed all the classes which may be canceled next year, is surely exaggerated, the idea that firing 35 teachers will have no impact on the kind of education our kids get is simply not true.

Once those 35 teachers are gone, what will have disappeared from our high schools? It remains to be seen how many math teachers or business teachers or language teachers they will have to fire. It looks like at least 17 at West and 18 at North will lose their jobs. After that happens, we will have a better sense of how much worse the options have become for our high school students.

At least two more entries from his blog are worth reading: “Where’s the Plan? February 24 Meeting Report,” and “Students Organize Against Cuts.”

Here is a little more on the reactions from WLUK-TV.

With the High School cuts decided, the Oshkosh Board has moved on to debating school closures.  Two schools are on the block and the projected savings is $383,000.  Like Madison in elsewhere the discussions about cuts and closures are based on the combination of revenue limits that do not reflect the costs of education and the state budget that shifted much more of those costs to local property taxes.  The Northwestern reports some are urging taxing to the max.

Parents and teachers urged the district to increase taxes instead of making the tough choice to close another school.

“You can tax us to the max. I’m OK with that,” Lakeside parent Bill Keys said. “There’s no easy choice to be made.”

Increasing the tax rate to the maximum level would generate about $3 million in additional revenue and increase the tax bill on a home valued at $100,000 by about $66.

Now an editorial from the Northwestern: “Editorial: Teacher bashing won’t balance school budgets.”

Knocking teachers for compensation earned at the bargaining table is counterproductive, especially when concessions on health insurance and other benefits will have to be won through contract negotiations. Moreover, critics overlook that 34 teaching positions were cut this school year and that 35 positions have already eliminated for next school year, with more expected. On balance, Oshkosh educators have not been immune to economic pain.

And last from Oshkosh, a great exercise in sarcasm from columnist Tom Willderson (hat tip County Supervisor Mike Norton):

Your bill shows that I owe about $970 to the school district. This figure is much too high. My sons attend only two of the 13 grades the schools provide. Furthermore, they only use one of the district’s 21 buildings! My calculations show that I owe $7.18 for schools, given that my children use such a small part of what the district offers.

On to Appleton, where 27 educators’  jobs are on the block (16 full time positions).  The Post-Crescent reports some of the reasons for the layoffs:

It became obvious in recent months that the school board would have to lay off more staff after it was determined Appleton faces a $2.4 million budget deficit for 2010-11.

[Mark] Huenink [assistant superintendent for school services] said half of the layoffs are the result of an enrollment decline at the high school level, noting that even without staff reductions to balance the budget, the district would need to eliminate positions because there aren’t enough students signed up for several classes next fall.

Reading the district budget web page it appears that Appleton is caught in the old version of the budget gap and that not taxing to the max is not on the table, yet.

WHBY Radio reports that the layoff notices were approved on March 8.

Another part of the balancing might be a teacher pay freeze, but this doesn’t seem too likely.

Susan Troller has been following the Monona Grove situation in the Cap Times and one of the best sources of information is Board Member Peter Sobol’s blog.

As this video from Channel 3000 says, the big issue is school closures, but the long term picture isn’t good with cuts year after year. after year…

I really like the guy who hits the anti-tax/tax cuts politics as the root cause.

Rob Kahl the Mayor of Monona has also checked in.

Residents of the Monona Grove School District are hopefully by now beginning to fully understand the dire financial situation confronting our district. However, I think a quick recap is in order to ensure everyone fully comprehends the extent of the problem.

This is not a $1 million dollar budget hole that can be fixed this year with cuts including closing Maywood School. The district’s problems are much larger than that. Superintendent Gerlach has often referred to this as a $15 million dollar operating budget deficit and I know there are many questions of how he comes to that total. Quite simply, using a five year projection the total amounts to $15 million because the district needs to make $1 million in cuts each year in addition to the money cut in preceding years. The chart below shows how this amount is calculated.

Year 1 2010-2011 Needed Cut of $1 million

Year 2
2010-2011 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2011-2012 Needed Cut of $1 million

Year 3
2010-2011 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2011-2012 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2012-2013 Needed Cut of $1 million

Year 4
2010-2011 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2011-2012 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2012-2013 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2013-2014 Needed Cut of $1 million

Year 5
2010-2011 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2011-2012 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2012-2013 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2013-2014 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2014-2015 Needed Cut of $1 million

Total Deficit if No Cuts Made = $15 million….

. It is apparent to anyone with a calculator that the district will need to go to a referendum to raise more property taxes and do so soon as it is simply unfeasible to make the total amount of needed cuts. The “plan” of the district is prior to going to that referendum to have some “blood in the streets” in their own words by undergoing significant cuts to programming and closing Maywood School. After this blood letting, they will then come to the citizens of the district within the next year or so and ask for permission to exceed the property tax levy limits.

What’s missing here is that this has been going on in many districts for 16 years.

It is very sad the School Boards are (and have been) trying to find that magic balance point between the pain of repeated cuts and continued faith in the schools before asking for referendum.  Cut too much and people are too disgusted and disheartened to vote yes; cut too little and people think the Board is crying wolf.  Even Madison, with the “Partnership Pl;an” felt the need to put forth a referendum that required further cuts (and now the cuts are looking larger and some of the referendum authority may not be used).

Most of the “blood in the streets” right now is school closings, but other things are are also being cut.  A music teacher points to the cuts in her area:

* Increase the instructional minutes that define a full-time teacher for Elementary Related Arts from 1280 minutes per week to 1350 minutes per week.

* Reduce instructional minutes for the elementary related arts classes (art, music, PE) from 40 minutes twice a week to 30 minutes twice a week at grades 3-5, and for art only at grades K-2.

* Eliminate the 4th-grade string program

* Reduce staffing in 6-8th grade music programs by 1.53 full-time teachers.

This proposal intends to staff the middle school music programs with only 1 full-time teacher in each curricular area for band, choir, and orchestra.

All the proposed Monona cuts are here, on the district website.

It makes me think of what Madison has been through in times past and what is going on in Milwaukee this year.

South Milwaukee too.  Arts are always a place to look for cuts, especially when so much of “accountability” is linked to Math and Reading standardized test scores.  In both Milwaukee and South Milwaukee, students came out to protest (videos from WTMJ).

Milwaukee

South Milwaukee

I can’t find much in the way of details, but 9 teachers were cut in Weyauwega-Fremont a couple of weeks ago and it is anticipated that 7-8 support staff will also be axed.

Big cuts in ManitowocLast year they lost $400, 000 in state aid and had cuts of $1.6 million (it could have been worse, $700,000 in one time stimulus money stayed the hatchets).  They are looking at another $1.7 million in cuts this year, but the Herald Times Reporter quotes business services Director Ken Mischler being positive:

Despite the cuts that will need to be made, many other school districts are facing more dire situations, Mischler said.

“Financially, we’re doing OK,” he said.

Board member Jim Protsman said the fact that the 2010-11 year likely won’t be the last year of budget cuts would influence his decisions regarding cuts for this year.

There are at least a couple of dynamics going on here.  First, the whole “it could be worse” diminished ambitions and expectations is exactly the wrong attitude to bring to education, even in the business office.  Education should be about reaching higher and higher.  Second, there is the the professional pride that induces administrators to downplay the damage being done by the repeated cuts to educational opportunities.  The Board member quoted is correct that there will be more cuts next year and beyond, especially if people keep saying “it could be worse” and “it’s not that bad” instead of shouting that the cuts must stop.  If you want to join the shouting, become part of the Penny for Kids campaign.

On to Kaukauna where the budget hole is $2.4 million in a $44 million budget and the layoffs have started. According to this WLUK-TV report, some of the the positions cut are in “School Within a School” alternative program which  serves students who are struggling and in danger of dropping out.

More than 125 people attended the meeting where the cuts were made, but that didn’t stop the hatchets.  There really isn’t much Board Members can do about the costs/revenue limit gaps but cut, these are a product of the broken school finance system that has been in place for 16 years (the Madison gap and the gaps in other districts where part of the equation is deciding whether to tax to the max are different in that Boards do have some options).  It is state action that is needed.

Milton has big problems too; an $850,000 gap in in a $34 million budget.  Possible school closures are again the focus of much of the frustration (really, the frustration needs to be directed at the state officials who continue to do little or nothing about this crisis)., but there are many other items on the chopping block.   These include laying off elementary teachers, cuting guidance staff, reducing the High School Dean to half time and axing a business education teacher.  The Janesville Gazette reports that one student provided some needed perspective on the last:

Ben Oliver, an 18-year-old Milton High student, spoke against the proposed elimination of a high school business teacher. He said with the state of the economy, the district should be adding, not subtracting from the business department.

“We have a local, national and financial responsibility to financially educate America’s youth, he said. “By no means is that a task for an understaffed department.”

WKOW had more — mostly on the school closures — in this report:

Just a couple more districts for now…

Wausau has a new teacher contract, below the old QEO 3.8%, but is still looking at $3.8 million in cuts from a $100 million budgetThey have also cut 10 teachers and added a sixth class to the workload of teachers in Middle and High School.

Two Rivers is looking to cut about $850,000.  Like in Madison, a proposed administrative restructuring is part of the package.  Other things include eliminating the one staffer for Gifted and Talented education, reassigning the Family and Consumer Science teacher, cutting pack on technology education, having a single librarian cover the Middle and High School,  and larger class sizes.

I’ve got at least another half dozen links that will have to wait, or more likely never be posted here because by the time I get to them there will be new cuts to in other districts to post on.  I hate this.

I hate doing this too.  Yet I keep on because I cling to the hope that if enough people become aware of the way education is being chopped in Wisconsin they will put enough pressure on out Legislators to move them from them to do something, even in an election year.

Might as well close with the “What you can do” also.

The easiest thing to do to help is to sign the Penny for Kids petition sponsored by the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES).  We (I’m a WAES Board Member) are asking that the state enact a 1 cent per dollar sales tax to address the immediate crisis and move Wisconsin toward better ways of investing in education.  You can read more and find out how to help in other ways at the links.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Budget, education, finance, Local News, Pennies for Kids, Referenda, referendum, School Finance, Take Action, Uncategorized, We Are Not Alone

February 16, 2010 Wisconsin Referendum Votes (Updated with Results)

Update, results:

Bangor, both pass, operating 379 yes votes to 214; construction 437 yes votes to 157 no votes.

Brodhead, fails, 1,021-828.

Edgar, passes 706 to 629.

Green Lake, fails, 393 to 374.

Hilbert, passes, 419 t0 305.

Rhinelander, both pass, operating 3,646 to 3,111, construction, 3,664 to 3,089.

Shiocton, pass, 8 votes, can’t find totals.

8 pass, 2 failed.

The video at the top is from the 2006 Madison referendum campaign, since the voter turnout on Tuesday is expected to be small I thought a little shame might help bring people out.

We are in a new era of referenda.  Referenda for building purposes remain much the same, except in many districts property tax increases to make up for drops in state support have made passage more difficult.  Operating referenda are also more difficult for the same reason, but there is a twist.  Previously the biggest financial issue was that rising costs — many of them mandated or near mandated — outstripped allowed revenue increases (the revenue caps).  This problem remains, but in many districts it has receded in importance because the drop in state support has made simply taxing to the max — using all the allowed revenue authority  — and the large property tax increases that result  intolerable to many voters and Board members.  According to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, a recent record 98 out of 427 districts — including Madison — did not tax to the max for the current yearEvery indication is that the percent will be higher this year.  For these districts, increased revenue authority via a referendum is irrelevant.   These districts have to cut to address the gap between allowed revenues and costs (like always) and are cutting to limit property tax increases.   It is a new era.

It is this situation that leading our schools into crisis and making our schools the center of conflict instead aspirations.  It is this situation that inspired the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools to launch the Penny for Kids campaign to increase state education funding and improve how it is allocated.  Click the links, find out more and sign the petition.

On Tuesday, eight districts will have a total of ten referenda before the voters; four for construction borrowing, and six for operating expenses (one recurring and five nonrecurring).  You can see all the referenda details here.

The Bangor district is asking for $580,000 in demolition and construction debt authority (for the old high school gym, this would be a no interest ARRA loan) and three years on additional revenue authority at $350,000 a year.  The district referendum page is here.  Here is what the LaCrosse Tribune reported on the operating referendum:

“We’ve pared things down, and even if this one passes we will still have to look at ways to reduce our budget and conserve our expenses,” Superintendent Roger Foegen said. “But the board felt in these tight economic times we couldn’t ask for any more than we are currently getting.”

The district is in the final year of a three-year $350,000 operating referendum, he said.

Without renewal, it will face a $400,000 to $450,000 deficit next school year.

The district already trimmed $600,000 from its annual budget before going to the public three years ago, Foegen said.

“Because of the state funding formula and the things that go into it, we need to maintain it if we are going to keep our current programs and personnel,” he said.

Foegen said the plan will cost the owner of a $100,000 property an estimated $78 in 2010-11; $39 in 2011-12; and $13 in 2012-13.

The Brodhead district has a four year non recurring measure on the ballot.  Here is how it breaks down:

2010-2011 $635,000
2011-2012 $810,000
2012-2013 $855,000
2013-2014$1,285,000
Total $3,585,000

The district has a nice referendum page here.  It includes a list of cuts made sine 2003-4, which is good reminder that the current crisis comes on top of 16 years of cuts because — by state design — revenues have bee kept below cost-to-continue.  You can read the whole list at the link, here are the programs:

Programs or Activities Eliminated

- Jazz Band II eliminated – FHA (Future Homemakers) eliminated

- FBLA (Future Business Leaders) eliminated

- drivers’ education eliminated

- District funding for 7th grade camp eliminated (still runs thru funding by student activity account)

- access to HSED/GED programming at BlackHawk Tech reduced and restricted

- greenhouse no longer heated by District funds (now provided by FFA Alumni)

- eliminated French as an elective class at the HS

There is also a narrative  of what will likely be cut if the referendum fails here are some excerpts:

The School Board has identified staff and program cuts that will be necessary to balance the budget without a successful referendum. These would include: three elementary teaching positions (moving all grades to three sections, regardless of the number of students in the grade); three teaching positions between the high school and middle school, plus two elective programs (and their teachers) at the high school and middle school; one guidance counselor; two administrators; the high school adventures class; the long-distance learning program; and ALL extra-curricular positions at the high school and middle school. These cuts would be phased in over the next two years.

And, what is the impact of these cuts? Class sizes in the elementary school would increase from the current 18-23 students, to classes in the high twenties. Class sizes in the high school would increase from the current mid-twenties to around thirty, with some classes pushing thirty-five students. With the larger class sizes, students would receive less of the individual attention many of them need to be successful in school. Curriculum development and innovative new programs would fall by the wayside. Students would have less access to advanced coursework, at a time when they most need it to compete with graduates of other schools. And, access to some elective programs that prepare students for specific career fields might be eliminated altogether. Students having problems at school or home would have less access to a counselor.

Remember that Governor Jim Doyle and the Democratic leadership continue to boast of having “protected education.”  With “friends” like that — who look the other way while cuts like these are on the table — education doesn’t need enemies.

The Janesville Gazette reports another factor at play in the Bradhead and other votes on Tuesday (the Beloit Daily News includes similar observations):

District officials have “real serious concerns” if the referendum fails because families will have three days to file by the state’s open enrollment deadline to attend different districts, [Superintendent Chuck] Deery said.

“I’ve been hearing from quite a few families that that’s exactly what they’re going to do,” he said. “They won’t wait around (to see the board make the cuts). They want those activities for their kids.”

This is the death spiral.  State policies and budgets force program cuts, enrollment declines as temporarily better off districts poach students, accelerating the cuts.

Edgar is asking to issue

general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed $7,600,000 for the public purpose of paying the cost of remodeling existing physical education facilities for use as performance center/auditorium, constructing replacement physical education facilities, adding additional elementary classrooms, renovating and remodeling food service and music facilities, and acquiring equipment

The main Wausau Daily Herald story is here.  There are also a number of letters to the editor, all the ones I saw were in support.

Green Lake has the only recurring measure this time around.  For reasons that should be obvious recurring referenda make more sense.  The Bangor situation described at the top of this post is a perfect example.  Three years ago they went through the work to pass a nonrecrring referendum; now three years later they are having to ask again.  The reality of a system that does not provide for adequate revenues isn’t likely to change soon (here are those links to help work for change:  Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, Penny for Kids, School Finance Network and the AMPS “Take Action” page) and districts and communities repeatedly “going to referendum” is a divisive waste of resources.

The open enrollment issue is part of this story too.  Green Lake has implemented environmental education and International Baccalaureate programs in an attempt to reverse the demographically-driven declining enrollment by attracting new students.

The Green Lake referendum page is here, with this video:

Here are two items from their Q&A:

QUESTION: What happens if the referendum vote is no?

ANSWER: The district would have to cut $660,000 in the next budget, and there would be no additional funds for maintenance or technology. This would be followed by more cuts each year after that. There would be program and staffing reductions. Suffice it to say, the school would not be the same as it is today.

QUESTION: Has the district made cuts?

ANSWER: Yes, in the past four years the cuts have totaled over $600,000. This has allowed the district to extend the 2001 referendum extra years beyond the five years it was predicated to last.

Also worth reading is this from the RiponPress.com:  School: Tax effect would be minimal.

Hilbert is another construction project debt vote and like Bangor is looking to take advantage of stimulus related no interest loan opportunities.  They are asking for $4.7 million.  The Appleton Post-Crescent decribes the projects:

[U]pating classrooms; adding a new science wing; converting the current instructional media center and science labs to a larger library and media area and computer classroom; and upgrading heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

This is really the basic essentials, and if we turn this down I don’t know where we will go,” said Hilbert Supt. Tony Sweere, expressing hope that more voters “can get behind this.”

“It amounts to a 25- to 30-year fix for the middle/high school campus, which hasn’t been touched since it was built in 1974-75,” he said. “This will upgrade everything.”

A larger construction referendum failed by 89 votes in November 2008.

Rhinelander
is another district with both construction and operating expenses on the ballot (referendum page here).   The state finance squeeze has been particularly tough on Rhinelander.  They’ve tried repeatedly for relief from referenda without much success.  Since 2005, four construction debt referenda have failed, as have five operating votes.  The only one to pass was an HVAC upgrade paid for by a one-time operating levy increase.

The current construction ask is for ‘for remodeling and repairing existing buildings” and would also take advantage of the  ARRA interest savings.

On the operating expenses and state funding, here is how SDR business director Marta Kwiatkowski described the situation in the Daily News:

“The way the state’s school aid formula works means that every school district in the state eventually will go bankrupt, some sooner than later. In time, every district will need to go to referendum, asking residents to exceed the revenue caps,” she said.

State aid to the Rhinelander district has dropped precipitously in the past decade. In 2000-01, state aid was $13.2 million, approximately 52 percent of the general budget. By 2008-09, state aid had dropped to $7.7 million, approximately 28 percent of the general budget, requiring residents to shoulder more of the cost of running the district. State aid is estimated to be at zero for this district in four years. The adjacent graph charts the decline of state aid to the district since 2001 and the corresponding rise in property taxes.

Year Property Taxes State Aid

2000-01 $12,035,267 $13,249,469

2001-02 $13,460,627 $12,387,722

2002-03 $14,108,872 $12,145,111

2003-04 $15,351,872 $11,337,277

2004-05 $17,012,020 $10,089,233

2005-06 $15,613,885 $11,693,310

2006-07 $16,560,823 $10,859,344

2007-08 $18,600,885 $ 9,314,011

2008-09 $19,875,455 $ 7,721,621

The district’s annual budget from state aid and tax revenues for 2008-09 was $27.59 million, down $317,820 from the previous year. Comparatively, in 2001-02, the annual budget from these sources was $25.84 million.

Here are the proposed cuts if the referendum fails (click on image for pdf):

Closing schools, cutting extra-curriculars, raising class sizes, stopping book purchases….throwing the future in the trash.

Shiocton is another example of the false attraction of nonrecurring referenda, compounded by the squeeze of state defunding.  Their four year referendum is expiring but because of state cuts in education investments, they had tor raise property taxes last year by 20%.  The plan now is to ask for another nonrecurring operating referendum below cost-to-continue and combine that with cuts (this is similar to what Madison did with the “Partnership Plan“).

Here is how the Appleton Post Crescent explained things:

The referendum asks voters’ permission to exceed state revenue limits by $500,000 for the 2010-11 school year, $600,000 for 2011-12 and $700,000 in each of the following three school years.

Shiocton school Supt. Chris VanderHeyden said the district faces a $900,000 shortfall next school year if it does not take this step to help balance the budget by covering the cost of preserving district education programs.

Regardless of whether the referendum passes or fails, the school district of 790 students in pre- kindergarten through grade 12 will need to cut $400,000 to stay in the black, VanderHeyden said.

About 65 percent of the $400,000 will come in staffing cuts, he said, which includes a reduction of 3.5 teachers and two paraprofessionals. The rest will come from such areas as departmental budgets, athletics, staff development, textbook adoptions and food service. “We will make the cuts but we also need the referendum to balance the budget,” he said. …

The increase this year was up nearly 20 percent. Either way, the tax rate will drop next year, VanderHeyden said. If the referendum passes, property taxes will drop $107 for the owner of a $100,000 home. If it fails, the property taxes will drop $278 for the owner of a $100,000 home.

So if it passes, there will be major cuts and taxes will go down.  If it fails, there will be even larger cuts and taxes will go down more.  Where is the choice for fully funding education?

The best answer is that choice has to be made at the state level.  Here are those links again: Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, Penny for Kids, School Finance Network and the AMPS “Take Action” page (the last has links to contact state officials).

Last but not least is Three Lakes.  This is one of those districts caught in declining enrollment and relatively high property wealth.  It also another district in the last year of a nonrecurring operating referendum.  Three Lakes is in worse financial shape, has been squeezed harder, have been cutting for years; according to the district figures, without a successful referendum they will run out of money in February 2011.

Therefore they are asking:

…that the revenues included in the School District budget for three years beginning with the 2010-2011 school year and ending with the 2012-2013 school year be authorized to exceed the revenue limit specified in Section 121.91, Wisconsin Statutes, by $1,517,469 a year, for non-recurring purposes consisting of funding operating expenses.

In the Rhinelander Daily News District Administrator George Karling and others give the big picture:

Three Lakes District Administrator George Karling said the override voters are being asked to approve is necessary to fund current programs and amounts to about half of the annual revenue that has been lost, compared to 10 years ago.

With about $900,000 in the district’s general fund, Karling said Three Lakes would only have funds available to operate through February 2011 absent approval of the override.

Informational material the district sent to voters indicates the district is not allowed to operate at a deficit and would “become insolvent and close in the near future” if the referendum fails.

School Board Clerk Tom Rulseh said the district’s budget is “really tight,” with the budgeted expenditures of $10,507,798.50 for 2009-10 down about $80,000 from the previous school year, while the revenue override is necessary to continue to operate.

“I don’t know where the money would come from” if the referendum fails, Rulseh said.

…When asked whether it would be necessary to approve another revenue override three years from now, Karling said he hopes state lawmakers change Wisconsin’s school funding formula by then to provide more money for Three Lakes, which is considered a “property rich” district and receives little state funding.

He said proposals on the state level to boost funding for K-12 education include an additional 1 percent sales tax, which is known as “A Penny for Kids” and backed by the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, and a “65 percent hold harmless” provision to lessen the amount of lost revenue because of declining enrollment.

They also note that dissolving the district would likely lead to even higher property taxes.

That’s the roundup.  More votes in April.  Before closing I wnat to again share something and suggest you follow my lead.  When I do these posts that involve districts all over the state, I often take a look around their web sites.  I am always struck by the good work being done, some traditional, some innovative but all a source of pride for the students, the educators, the families and the communities.  All the sites are linked at their names, so I suggest you do the same.  It is a good reminder of why education is so important and why we need to do better recognizing that.  When you are done, help Wisconsin do better by getting involved for change.

Here are those links again: Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, Penny for Kids, School Finance Network and the AMPS “Take Action” page.

Vote Yes for Schools (and do more)

Thomas J. Mertz!

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Something Nice — Wausaukee Wins Awards (and more on State and Local School Finance)

From WBAY-TV

AMPS followed the travails of the Wausaukee School District as the pressures 0f Wisconsin’s broken school finance system led it to the brink of dissolution.  A successful referendum in August 2008 gave the district new life.   This Wednesday, Wausaukee celebrated three prestigious awards, the High School won a Federal Department of Education National  Blue Ribbon School citation, Waunakee Community Middle School was selected as a Association of Wisconsin School Administrators Middle School of Excellence and both the High School and the Elementary School earned Wisconsin Promise Schools of Recognition.

Supt./Principal Jan Dooley explained the criteria for the Blue Ribbon award:

The Department of Public Instruction nominated our high school based on the category, “dramatically improving schools with at least 40 percent of our students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.” In analyzing our data at the federal level, the federal review team moved our high school from this category to the category, “schools in the top 10% in their state with at least 40% of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.” We are extremely proud of our students’ scholastic performance which led to the selection of our high school as a 2009 National Blue Ribbon School.

Dooley is right to be proud of the students, the staff and the community.

Wausaukee is a classic “small but necessary” district that is squeezed by the state finance system.  The Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES)  has long fought for reforms that recognize the diverse circumstances of  districts, schools and students in targeting educational investments.   As a result, Wisconsin  now has a (too) small “Sparsity Aid” (Wausaukee got about $39,000 this year).   Progress, but not enough and other state actions have undercut the good of this reform.  In particular the decreases in state aid have brought schools around the state to the brink of crisis (Wausaukee lost about 15% in state aid,  over $100,000 in total).

WAES continues the work on sparsity and other reforms, but this crisis has led to a stepped up action to address revenues through the Penny for Kids campaign for a dedicated 1 cent per dollar sales tax to fund education.  Sparsity, poverty aids and other moves in the right direction are part of the proposal, but the immediate revenue needs are the main focus.

Wausaukee was able to pass a referendum in 2008, but the cuts in state aid and the consequent raises in property taxes make that very difficult now.  Madison was also able to pass a referendum in 2008, but last year they they lost 15% in state aid didn’t tax to the max and next year —  when they will again lose 15% — they will likely tax well below the limit.  Here are the figures for state aid to Madison Schools for the last seven years ( from Asst. Supt. Erik Kass via Board Member Ed Hughes):

2004-05 – $50,064,391

2005-06 – $58,996,880

2006-07 – $56,984,763

2007-08 – $57,301,616

2008-09 – $60,743,743

2009-10 – $51,513,826

2010-11 – $43,761,093 (projected)

The old problems are still around — costs and allowed revenues not aligned, mandates underfunded, diversity not accounted for…  —  but there is also a new/old problem and that is that property taxes are becoming unsustainable.   The last time that happened, the state stepped up by pledging to provide 2/3 of educational investments.  In his first budget Governor Jim Doyle walked away from the pledge and it has been downhill ever since, reaching new lows with the 2009-11 budget (Doyle’s last).  This is why the Penny for Kids revenues are necessary.  Click the link and sign the petition.

I want to write more happy stories about education in Wisconsin, like this one started out to be.   Wausaukee and other districts are doing great things and that work needs to be celebrated and to continue and expand.  Till the continuance and expansion become real state priorities, I guess I’m stuck doing the jeremiads and calls to action.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Breaking News — MMSD Budget and Levy

At a fairly boring meeting (only one vote was not 7-0;  Beth Moss and Ed Hughes voted against option three, to forgo $3.08 million in maintenance  referendum authority and defer projects, Beth Moss discussed but did not introduce  an amendment halve this to $1.5 million) , the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education passed the 2009-10 Budget and tax levy (agenda with linked documents here).

Every option to minimize the property tax levy that was offered was enacted, plus one more from Lucy Mathiak.  The basic strategies were re-budgets to reflect past history and new efficiencies, rescheduling of debt payments, forgoing referendum authority and use of Fund Balance Equity.  Madison will not be taxing to the max.

More than one member offered accurate, detailed and impassioned words about the failure of the state of Wisconsin to meet its obligations for educational investment.  I give Arlene Silveira the points for detail and a tie between Arlene and Marj Passman for passion.  Arlene emphasized the need to hold our elected officials accountable in the coming months.  I’m with her on that…November 1010 elections aren’t that far off.

Probably more on the meeting later.

Here are the details of the budget and levy:

Total Levy — $234,240,964

Fund 10 –$ 218, 955, 521

Property Tax Charge-back — $85,945

Fund 38 – $65,250

Fund 39 – 0

Fund 41 – $6,835,765

Fund 80 – $8,298,483

Mil Rate 10.18 (an increase of .37 over 2008-9)

Impact on $250,000 home = $92.83 higher taxes.

Work on the 2010-11 budget will begin immediately.  It will be hard and it will not be good.

One last note, although I would have liked a more thorough consideration of Fund Balance practices prior to the pasages of this budget, it appears that that will happen before the next budget cycle really kicks in next Spring.

Thomas J. Mertz

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SAGE on the (Chopping) Block

chp_socratesAs the struggles of underfunded education in Wisconsin continue some of our best programs are being placed in danger.  This is starting to happen with the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) initiative and like so much else will be worse in the 2010-11 district budgets.

SAGE includes four components:

  • class sizes of no more than 15:1 in grades K-3;
  • increased collaboration between schools and their communities;
  • implementation of a rigorous curriculum; and
  • improved professional development and staff-evaluation practices.

All of these are to one degree or another “best practices” backed by research and common sense.

While good, SAGE isn’t perfect.  Only a limited number of SAGE contracts are available, meaning that some districts don’t have access to the program and others like Madison must make hard choices about where to implement SAGE.   SAGE is supposed to be targeted to children in poverty, but there are no direct strictures requiring a certain number or percentage  of students in poverty in the SAGE contracts.  Unlike the more comprehensive poverty aids in the School Finance Network plan, SAGE is limited to only those students in the earliest grades.  On top of all this, SAGE is woefully underfunded, requiring extensive money from district’s general operating budgets for implementation in in all schools but those with the highest poverty levels.

I’ve written about these issues before; recent events have made them more relevant than ever.  SAGE is currently funded by the state at $2,250 per low income student in a SAGE classroom.   If you have nearly 100% poverty this funding covers the cost of the additional class rooms and teachers needed to reach 15-1 ratio; as the poverty percentage goes down, the need for local funding to reduce class size goes up (see some calculations here).  One unfortunate ‘solution” that has been broached is to concentrate students in poverty in certain schools.

Madison has mostly used a percentage over numbers approach, meaning that SAFE contracts have been assigned in a way that serves the schools with the higher percentages of students in poverty, but not the highest numbers of students in poverty.  This is because implementing SAGE in a large scho0l with a middling poverty level is expensive.  I think (I’m not 100% sure) , in part due to this approach the MMSD budget passed in May projected that there would be 100 fewer children in poverty in Madison SAGE classrooms.

The reality is that as general operating budgets get squeezed, the local funds won’t be there, even the promise of the SAGE partial reimbursement will not be enough and districts will abandon the program.  As 2009-10 district budgets are finalized, SAGE is on the chopping block.

A school in Wisconsin Rapids came close to losing SAGE because they couldn’t meet the 15-1 ratio, but the Department of Public Instruction gave a temporary waiver.  The future status is still undecided.

Superior is also requesting a waiver.  Without the waiver, the district will have to spend an additional$240,000 to meet the 15-1 ration.   Even if the waiver is granted,  Superintendent Janna Stevens “intends to assemble a group to look closely at SAGE and determine the program’s future in Superior.”  this doesn’t sound too promising.  Business manager Jack Amadio has described the general operating fund as cut “to-the-bone” and projects “another tough year in 2010-11.

“We’ll start looking ahead because we know we’ll have to trim some more out of 2010-11,” Amadio said. “We’ll try to do whatever we can. Maybe we’ll try to limp through for a year, and hopefully in the next biennium, the 2011-13 biennium, there might be a rebound.”

It will take more than hope, it will take action on the part of our elected officials.

Stevens Point has a referendum on the ballot Nov. 3.  If that does not pass, SAGE will be among the items considered for cuts in 2010-11.

I’m guessing SAGE will be targeted for cuts in many more districts in 2010-11.   This is what is happening with class size reduction in California.  California once had a proud public school system, but the anti-tax crowd drowned out common sense, state support kept getting cut and now points of pride are getting scarce.

We can’t let Wisconsin go down this path.  Somebody has to stand up for the good public education does and advocate for full funding.  Recent events and statements indicate that it won’t be our elected officials of either party, so it has to be you and me.  Get involved.

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Wisconsin School Referenda in Tough Times

20081008_mpls_levysign_33With most Wisconsin school districts contemplating or committed to sizable local property tax increases for 2009-10 and looking at continued service and program cuts combined with more property tax increases in 2010-11, this is not the best time to be asking the voters to approve a referendum.  Personal budgets are tight, the economy is uncertain and there is a delicate balance between program and service cuts as demonstrations of fiscal responsibility and program and service cuts undermining quality to the extent that it is difficult to garner further support (the “starve the beast” idea).

Yet because the problems caused by the latest state budget were piled on top of 16 years of struggles due to the broken state school finance system, some districts feel they have no choice.  These include ones seeking building projects, ones who feel they cannot endure any more cuts and continue to provide the quality of education they are committed to, and ones that are anticipating the expiration of a non-recurring referendum and the budget gap this will produce.

Although there has been little or no official acknowledgment or discussion, the Madison Metropolitan School District is in this last category.  At the end of the 2009-10 fiscal year, Madison will lose about $5.5 million in revenue authority for ‘maintenance and technology.”   The probable cuts for 2010-11 are bad; without this money they will be more horrific than anything we have experienced lately.  If the district wants to extend this authority, the time to start making their pitch is now.   I hope they do and I hope they get started.

Madison has not begun discussions, but others have.  There are five referenda on the ballot at special elections in October and November 2009 and more being contemplated.

Two of the ones that are set are for building projects.  These are being fast tracked in order to try for the 0% interest ARRA srtimulus bonds.

On November 3, voters in Pewaukee will vote on $24.95 million in debt authorization for classroom construction and other renovations, including a swimming pool (more from the district here and from a pro-referendum community group here).  That same day the Trevor-Wilmont voters will  decide on an $11 million plan to build an addition and renovate (more from the district here).

Pewaukee is also asking for $400,000 in annual recurring authority for general operating purposes for the new facilities.

Wheatland will go back to the voters on October 27, asking for four years of nonrecurring authority in the amount of $300,000 per year.  Nonrecurring authority in this amount expired at the end of the 1008-9 year, so this is in a sense a renewal.

A similar referendum failed last April (here and here).  The language is a great example in truth in marketing:

BE IT RESOLVED by the School Board of the Joint School District Number 1, Towns of Wheatland, Brighton, Randall and Salem, Kenosha County, Wisconsin, that the revenues included in the School District budget for the 2009-2010 school year and for three school years thereafter, to and including the 2012-2013 school year be authorized to exceed the revenue limit specified in Section 121.91, Wisconsin Statutes, by $300,000 a year, for non-recurring purposes in order to maintain the current educational level of the District and cover shortfalls due to decreased funding.” (italics and bold added).

Sad but true, the shortfalls are bigger than ever and referenda continue to be the only way to fully fund education.

On October 6, 2009 the Whitehall district has a three year non recurring maintenance, technology and infrastructure referendum on the ballot. The amounts are $200,000 for 2009-10, $150,00 for 2010-11 and $100,000 for 2011-12.  Superintendent Mike Beighley explained the thinking behind the referendum:

“When we look at the ability to improve our district with the limited increase in taxes, I think we have an obligation at least to present that to the public as an option,” said Beighley.

All across the state other districts see similar opportunities to “improve,” yet know that refrerenda are difficult and the odds of passage are less than 50%, so they don’t even ask.

Two districts struggling to finalize referenda plans are Wisconsin Dells and Rhinelander.

In the Dells, the possibility of the ARRA 0% bonding makes building an addition for 4 year-old kindergarten an attractive option. The district is holding a community meeting on September 9 and may go for the November 3 date.  They are also considering an operating referendum to make up for part of  the state budget created mess:

[District Administrator Chuck] Whitsell also said the district is facing an $800,000 budget deficit next school year, and because of no raise in the per pupil taxing authority it has been given from the state, the district might ask taxpayers to increase the revenue limits in another referendum question.

I hope they do ask for the operating money and get it.

In Rhinelander the need is clear, but the path to meeting the need has been continually blocked.  It is one of those districts that has been caught in almost all the faults of the current school funding system.  The district is geographically large, but the economies of scale are small or negative.  Enrollment has declined and incomes are not great, but property values remain relatively high.  Referenda have repeatedly failed.  There have been cuts for 16 years, 150 positions have been lost in the last seven years and more are on the table.

Here in Madison we think we have experienced the failures of the school funding system (and we have to a great extent), but I talk to my friends in Rhinelander and can only shake my head and think how lucky we are to have avoided the full weight of these failures.

Dating back to 2004, 10 operating referenda have been voted down in Rhinelander.  Yet it looks like they will try again.  I am filled with admiration for their perseverance and commitment.

The date hasn’t been set, but the word is  Rhinelander voters will get two questions this time.  One will ask for three years of $1,5 million revenue authority for operations and the other is for $13.7 million in construction bonding to maintain and remodel facilities.

Superintendent Roger Erdahl summed up the situation succinctly:

“It would stop closing buildings, it would stop laying off staff, which are the techniques we currently use to balance our budget.”

Here is what will happen if there is no successful referendum (from NewsoftheNorth.Net):

The following actions would be taken in the year 2010-11, in order of priority:

  • Close and sell South Parking building, requiring a mandatory grade re-configuration, for a savings of $117,000.
  • Close and sell Cassian-Woodboro building, with an accompanying grade re-configuration, for a savings of $120,000.
  • Reduce extra-curricular activities for a savings of $27,800.
  • Reduce custodial staff, for a savings of $472,000.
  • Reduce regular education paraprofessional staff, for a savings of $200,000.
  • Reduce full-time teaching staff by 12.5 by raising class sizes from the current low 20s to low to mid-30s in grades 4-12; or by reducing electives at the middle and high schools; or by doing a combination of larger class sizes and the reduction of electives, for a savings of $1 million.

In the year 2011-12, the following drawdown actions would be taken:

  • Reduce full-time staff, raise class sizes and reduce electives to achieve a savings of $296,000.
  • Decertify the elementary and secondary charter school and absorb these students into the other district school buildings for a savings of $240,000.
  • Reduce high school graduation requirements and move to a six-period day; reduce staff at the middle school and eliminate all professional travel and staff development, for a savings of $160,000.
  • Eliminate all Fund 10 staff development and travel and impose a moratorium on the acquisition of textbooks and instructional materials; eliminate middle school activities and travel; reduce administration staff, for a savings of $320,000.
  • Move 7th and 8th grade to the high school building; with grades 3 – 6 moving to the middle school building to reduce full-time staff, for a savings of $240,000.
  • Close and sell Crescent school building for a savings of $125,000.
  • Moratorium on all maintenance upkeep and repair of buildings, except for emergencies, for a savings of $500,000.

This is the destruction of public education.  This is the inevitable result of what Ruth Page Jones has called the “Going out of Business Plan” that is Wisconsin’s system for investing in education and the future.

Next time the Governor or a Legislator starts gabbing about how “education is a priority we protected in the state budget,” drop them a line and ask about Rhinelander.  Ask them if education has been “strengthened” as their political mouthpiece claims. Ask them what they are going to do to fix the mess they have made and inherited.

And be proactive.  The best way to help the children of Rhinelander and Wisconsin is to work for change via the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES).  Our state needs to look  for ways to fully fund the education of every child in every district, we need to consider a “Cents for Schools” dedicated sales tax, we need to make sure that the money is going where it is needed most, we need to do better.  WAES is the loudest and clearest voice saying these things.  Lend your voice and make the call for reform even louder.

Thomas J. Mertz

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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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We are (Still) Not Alone

From the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (click on image for pdf).  2009-10 will look even worse.

From the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (click on image for pdf). 2009-10 will look even worse.

It has been a long time since there has been a “we are not alone” post, reminding Madison readers that school finance is a state issue and needs a state solution.

It has been so long that there are many, many  stories of school cuts and layoffs in Wisconsin from the last few months that I never got around to noting.

I want to begin with one of these older items —  a story from before the state budget was passed — and then move on to more recent post state budget things.  As districts struggle with the difficulties that budget has produced  it is essential that these be understood  in the context of 16 years of struggles under our broken school funding system.

The story is from Appleton and the headline says much about the erosion of education in Wisconsin: “Award bittersweet for laid -off Appleton teacher.”  Here are some excerpts:

Appleton North High School teacher Kevin Deering will remember the last day of the school year with equal parts pleasure and pain.

On one hand, students surprised him Thursday by voting him North’s
Educator of the Year. On the other, it was Deering’s final day on the job after
district cost cutting forced layoffs of dozens of teachers for next school year….

“It’s kind of an emotional thing,” he said afterward. “It’s a bittersweet ending
to get voted Educator of the Year and not being able to come back. When I
came to North I never thought I’d be leaving two years later.”

Deering, 27, is in his fourth year of teaching, two of those in Appleton. He
teaches physical science, genetics, and biology. He is an advisor for Link
Crew, a program that eases freshmen into high school life, and has coached
girls track at Appleton East, football at North and boys track at North.

“He will be missed,” said North Principal James Huggins…

The layoffs are the result of budget cuts that became necessary after a
failed referendum in February and account for more than half of the district’s
$3 million deficit for 2009-10 that was projected in March.

With the state budget in deeper trouble than first thought, that figure could go higher.

Unlike last year, when most laid-off teachers, including Deering, were called
back, the number who will not return is substantial.

Due to the finalized state budget, we can now say it is all but certain the 43 teachers laid off earlier in Appleton — and the 40  teachers laid off by Oshkosh in March and all those laid off previously in other districts because the school funding system has been broken for 16 years —  will not be called back.  From bad to worse.

Oshkosh is now looking at more layoffs.

In the state budget Oshkosh was hit with a 3.76%, $2.3 million cut in general aid, as well the minimal revenue limit raise and categorical aid cut all districts must address, creating a $3.2 million hole to be filled (see here for an initial compilation of the impact on of the general aid changes to all individual districts).

As I write this the Board of Education is considering a depressing list of options which includes layoffs to paraprofessionals, counselors, interpreters, administrators  and teachers (art, physical education and technology have been identified as possibilities); eliminating programs such as marketing; raising class sizes; raising taxes; and closing schools.

Update: WBAY and NBC26 report that the Board voted to close Green Meadow and Lincoln Elementary Schools.  They also rejected the option of not filling open positions.

Yes, closing schools, in July.  Video here from WLUK-TV of parent reactions to the news that their childrens’ schools are on the chopping block less than two months before the start of classes.

As the Northwestern reports, the families are angry.  They are pitting one neighborhood against another, saying that different schools should be closed and saying the “”Oshkosh Area School District’s administrators and board members unfairly targeted Green Meadow.”

The anger is understandable and even good, but it needs to be redirected to the state officials who put the district in this impossible situation.

A few paragraphs from one of the Northwestern news story:

Administrators feel trapped by the unexpected revenue shortfall – the state has never before cut aid to schools in the 16-year history of the existing funding formula – because employment contracts have already been set. Reduction options are now limited to vacant positions and staff who were handed initial layoff notices in February but not let go in the first $2.2 million in budget cuts approved in May.

That means the proposed staffing reductions are based on limited options rather than student needs or interests, Lang said.

“All of our choices have a negative impact one way or another,” she said. Staff cuts hurt immediately, while reductions to site budgets or maintenance services could haunt the district in future years.

“We’re already living with the long term detriments from cuts made 10 years ago,” she said, referring to the district’s deferred maintenance problem….

On one end of the debate sits Board President Ben Schneider II, who said he would struggle to support a plan that raises taxes more than 3 percent.

“I don’t want to shock the system by shifting it all onto the tax payers,” he said. “I’m of the opinion that during a terrible economy we should be reducing taxes.”

Board member Karen Bowen, on the other hand, said she’d prefer a double-digit tax increase to cutting any more teachers or programs.

“I don’t think people really understand what our district will look like if we have to cut much deeper,” she said.

Bowen is right that people don’t understand.  Otherwise you wouldn’t have powerful people like new Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Mike Tate making ridiculous and insulting claims that the state budget “strengthened” education.   Districts need to educate their residents about the state of school finance in Wisconsin and then we all need to educate our state leaders and get them to act.

Bad news in Northeastern Wisconsin also, especially Door County.  Because of vacation homes, Door County is a high property value area  In combination with declining enrollment this has meant real problems for these districts under Wisconsin’s school finance system.  Since the full time residents who vote in referenda are not wealthy, they have also had great difficulties applying those temporary band aids.  The decline in relative state funding in the recent state budget aggravated the existing problems (click here for details of  how the similar “The Lake Effect”  combination has hit Northern Tier districts).  Here is what the Press Gazette reports some Door County districts (and others) are facing:

  • “Sturgeon Bay is set to take a 15.19 percent hit in general aid, according to this month’s estimates from the state education department. That change will take the 1,100-student district’s general aid allocation from nearly $5.2 million to nearly $4.4 million.”
  • “The Southern Door district also is facing a 15.19 percent decrease in general aid, according to state estimates. That change will mean the district takes in $3.2 million in general aid instead of nearly $3.8 million.”
  • “The Sevastopol School District is facing almost an identical cut, an estimated 15.18 percent, as is the Gibraltar School District, an estimated 15.17 percent.”
  • “In Marinette County, the Crivitz School District is facing a 15.18 percent decrease in general state aid. Funding could drop by about $172,000, from $1.1 million to $963,000.”
  • “In Ashwaubenon, the reduction will drop general aid allocation from more than $12.5 million to nearly $11.9 million.”

Bad all over.

A few more.

Wausau Daily Herald, “Everest, Merrill school districts face shortfalls.”

Reedsburg Times Press, “School will resort to tax hike.”

Racine Journal Times, “”Unified prepares for budget task ahead.”

Kenosha News, “Lower state aid might force cuts in Salem schools” (AMPS readers might recall the referendum struggles in Salem).

LaCrosse Tribune, “Tax hike ahead? La Crosse school officials point out ‘worst-case scenario.’”

And one last reminder that despite what Governor Jim Doyle has tried to get you to believe, at the local level ARRA Title I and IDEA stimulus  funds mostly cannot be used  not make up for the short falls.

Racine Journal Times, “Stimulus, strings attached: Four federal grants for Unified won’t help much with budget shortfall.”

Stay tuned for more (sadly).

If you want less, you have to get involved in the reform efforts.  Click here for a guide to organizations to join, links to contacting the media and state officials and more.

If we all sit back and shake our heads at how bad things are but do nothing more, this will never get better.  Get involved.

Thomas J. Mertz

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