Red Herring

In this morning’s Wisconsin State Journal there is a story that again misrepresents the place of Madison School Community Recreation and Fund 80 in the district and the community.

The chart comparing Fund 80 levies in Madison to those in other districts ignores the fact that most or all of those locales have municipal recreation programs paid for by municipal taxes. Due to a historical quirk, Madison has very little in the way of a municipal recreation department and programs and services that other locales fund via municipal or county taxes are funded and governed by the school district via Fund 80. In order to get a realistic comparison of Madison’s spending on recreational and community education programming one must look at total levies devoted to this. The last time I did this (early 2006) I found that the combined spending on MSCR and the Madison Parks Department was about $20 million. De Moines, IA (about the same size) has a parks and recreation budget of about $20 million. Ann Arbor, MI is about half the size of Madison and has a Parks and Recreation budget of $12 million. Green Bay, also about half the size has a Parks and Recreation Budget of $8 million. In other words, the spending in these areas is very much in line with what others spend.

Particularly galling in the oversimplification is this paragraph comparing Madison to Milwaukee:

The district levied $9.9 million this school year for community service and recreation programs, triple what was levied in 2001-02. It also tops the levy in Milwaukee, which has roughly triple Madison’s population.

One thing missing here is a recognition of the fact that Milwaukee Recreation (funded via Fund 80), is supplemented by much more exstensive County services than there are in Dane Co. This accounts for some of the discrepancy. What I would guess accounts for most of it is the combination of incentives and disincentives in the State School Finance system. Madison is considered a property rich district and therefore any new money collected via local property taxes in areas under the revenue caps is “shared” with property poor districts elsewhere in the state via reduced state aid to Madison. Currently each new dollar Madison wants to spend under the caps requires collecting about $1.60. Because of these tertiary aid or “Robin Hood” provisions, local taxes account for about 67% of the district’s revenue. This, along with the fact that the combination of the QEO and the caps and rising costs for goods and services has forced major cuts in programs and services for a number of years, acts as a powerful disincentive for MMSD to have programming under the caps. Since Fund 80 is not under the caps, every dollar collected is spent in the district. Milwaukee also struggles with the structural gap in the state school finance system, but unlike Madison as a property poor district local taxes account for only about 20% of the Milwaukee School Budget. For every $1.00 Milwaukee collects in capped funds, the state kicks in about $3.00. The combination of incentives and disincentives is very different. It makes sense for Madison to want items moved from under the caps; Milwaukee must balance the need to direct money to core educational programming with the prospect of tripling the power of local tax money via state aid.

Fund 80 seems to always show up as a Red Herring around election time. In the linked article one Board member seems to be calling for Fund 80 expenditures being subject to referenda. Should we also place the entire school, municipal, county, state and federal budget before the voters for a yea or nay, or should our elected officials retain the traditional powers of the purse and be held accountable via the traditional means of standing for election? On this, I’m a traditionalist and would like to see greater power of the purse given to school boards via removal or reform of the revenue caps. I believe that all board members have expressed similar wishes and wonder why any would now broach the topic of diminishing these powers.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under AMPS, Budget, Local News, School Finance

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