Revenue Caps in 1996 Predicting the Future

Madison Metropolitan School District
Superintendent Cheryl H. Wilhoyte
1996-97 Budget Message
May 6, 1996


While we await spring each year in Madison, we have the MMSD operating budget to mark the season. I am pleased to present to you this evening my recommendations for the 1996-97 budget for Madison’s schools.
I have to say that at least in one respect I am more pleased than usual to present the budget because this proposed budget reduces our property tax levy by nearly $16 million. This 9% decrease in school property taxes will result in a tax cut of about $200 on the property tax bill of the average homeowner in Madison. It is not often a superintendent gets to deliver that kind of news.

Since 1992, I have been actively lobbying for changes in the way schools are financed in Wisconsin. Far too much of the burden of paying for schools has been placed on the shoulders of local property taxpayers, especially in a community like Madison which has received only a fraction of the state aid other communities have received.

This budget reflects the payoff for the countless hours we’ve invested pressing for school finance reform. Our successful advocacy means Madison will receive a more equitable share of state school aids. This additional state aid along with the small increase in our budget will result in significant — and long overdue — property tax relief.

This recommended budget calls for an increase in per student spending of only 1.9% — well under the current inflation rate.

At a time when our schools are challenged to meet the increasingly varied needs of a more diverse student population, this is a budget that does not allow us to do all that we need to do. And at a time when schools must move swiftly from what can literally be described as the Stone Age — the slate chalkboard era — to the new high-tech world of the “Cyberschool,” this is not a budget that allows us to move as fast as we need to move.

With a budget this tight, we’ll have to do without in some areas. I’ve made many cuts … cuts that no superintendent wants to make…. Under this budget, for example, we cannot continue our full summer school program. Our budget for text material purchases is frozen again this year, and with 360 more students to accommodate our ability to keep up with the rapid pace of change in the area of instructional materials will be further eroded. The budget does include a $500,000 increase for building maintenance, but leaves a critical need in the area of maintenance that cannot be met with current operating budget resources. Both staff and the Blue Ribbon Panel have focused on the additional $7-9 million yearly expenditure that is needed to adequately safeguard our half-billion dollar investment in school facilities.

The decisions that have been made in areas like summer school and the budget for instructional materials are far from desirable educationally, but in my judgment they are necessary. When our overall budget can increase only 1.9% per student, we have to set careful priorities. The many difficult decisions that have been made in putting together this budget enable us to maintain our longstanding commitment to small class sizes, and there is no more important investment we can make. And we will be able to move aggressively on school restructuring at La Follette and Midvale-Lincoln with the implementation of our new learning standards to position our schools, students and graduates for the 21st Century.

We also are able to bring full-day kindergarten to more schools, and as we’ve explained before, we can accommodate the additional expense within the state revenue limit without making corresponding reductions in other areas of the budget. The even better news is that in the long run the added cost of expanded full-day kindergarten will be paid for with higher aid payments from the state, so we won’t add a dime to our local property tax bills for the extra full-day kindergarten.

This is the fourth year our budget is limited by the revenue cap imposed on local school districts by the State of Wisconsin. The cap certainly has taken a toll, as evidenced by reductions in services such as summer school, but you need to be aware that the cap’s true long-term impact is only just beginning to be felt. As this chart shows, the gap between what we are allowed to raise in revenue and the cost of continuing current services will widen in the years to come, reaching $3 million by 1998 and well over $6 million by the turn of the century.

A troubling factor not captured on this chart is the potential effect of student enrollment trends. The budget projection depicted on the chart is based on the assumption that enrollment will remain stable. The trouble is that our current enrollment projections indicate that enrollment will begin to decline in 1998. Declining enrollment will result in an even tighter revenue limit, further widening the gap between how much revenue we will have and how much we will need just to maintain our current level of service, to say nothing about future needs in areas like technology and facility maintenance.

This proposed budget allocates resources only for next school year, but as the Board, our staff and our community review the many policy decisions that make up this budget, I encourage you not to confine your thinking to 1996-97. We need to be thinking long-term, and we need to be asking ourselves perplexing questions that must be answered if our schools are to be well-positioned for the 21st Century.

We need to discuss as a community — and as a state, really — what to do about the fact that the state revenue cap limits the increase in our revenue to 2.9% while the state law pegs increases in salaries and benefits for teachers and administrators at 3.8%. With the widening budget gap I’ve described, we are on a course that is simply not sustainable.

One of four things has to happen:

The revenue limit has to be raised…

The salary cap has to be lowered…

We have to accept that personnel costs will continue to eat away the non-personnel portion of our budget, leaving less and less available to pay for anything other than people…

Or, we have to reduce the number of people who get those 3.8% increases, which means a loss of services and, ultimately, larger class sizes.

We also need to begin thinking about how we best meet our needs in the area of bricks and mortar — projects like the needed addition at O’Keeffe Middle School and our future space needs in the Country Grove area.
How will this community pay for the $2-4 million annual investment we need to make in technology? That is something we didn’t have to worry about in the chalkboard era, but we have to think about it now.

How do we answer the question raised by the Blue Ribbon Panel, how do we provide for the annual $7-9 million additional expenditure for facility maintenance? We can try to carve it out of the operating budget, but we can’t fool ourselves, that will mean fewer instructional services and larger class sizes. Our other options are to go to referendum to seek an increase in the revenue limit on our operating budget, or continue to borrow for this purpose, which also requires a referendum for each bond issue.

The budget I propose to you tonight reflects our best thinking about how to deal with the fiscal dilemmas we face in the short term. But as we plan for the long haul, the magnitude of the challenge comes into sharper focus. This reality demands that we ask some very basic questions of ourselves.

How much do we expect from our schools? How much do we value small class sizes? How important is it for our schools to keep pace with the stunning rate of technological change in our society?

How much do we expect? Will our investment match our expectations?

How much do we value our class sizes? Enough to keep them small?

How important is it to equip our schools for the 21st Century? Important enough to accept the fact that it is simply and unavoidably more expensive to buy PCs and CD-ROMs than it was to buy chalk and slate boards?

We all have some thinking to do. And we all have some choices to make.

Posted by Janet Morrow

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Filed under AMPS, Budget, Local News, School Finance

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