Be Thankful for What You’ve Got

“Be Thankful for What You’ve Got” (listen) by William DeVaughn

There are many, many things about the process and the results of the April 30, 2007 MMSD Board of Education budget meeting that I am not happy about. From my emails this morning I know that I am not alone. I intend to write about some of these in near future. This evening I want put down a few words on things I am thankful for (in no order).

§ Lindbergh will remain open

This is a school that has achieved much, despite a high “at risk” population and inadequate facilities. I am glad that a majority of the Board recognized how fragile these accomplishments are and decided that the best chance of sustaining them would be by keeping the school open.

§ The alternative programs will no longer be paying rent; Space owned by the district will be used more fully.

I don’t think consolidation was the only way to make this happen, but it is hard to deny that this is a good thing. The consensus I’m hearing is that it is a good space for these programs and the potential benefits of having them together outweigh the potential problems. We shall see.

§ For the most part, the Board members were conscientious and respectful.

That “for the most part” is one of the things I’ll probably write about later. For now, I think that the preparation displayed in many of the questions the Board members asked, the obvious concern for their understanding of what was best for the students and the district, and the respect they (mostly) showed each other and administrative staff should be noted with pride.

§ Board members used the Strategic Plan and the work of the Equity Task Force to guide their decisions.

That is what they are there for and they are good. Read them, you will find it rewarding. Some might be upset that these were employed to further conflicting positions, but I’m OK with that. The point isn’t that these documents make the right decision easy or obvious. Their function is to identify the kinds of things people associated with the district should be thinking about and to give them some guidance on how to think about them. I know the Equity Task Force didn’t think there were any easy answers.

§ For the most part the administrative staff was thorough and professional.

There are some places where I think the information and analyses volunteered and given in response to queries were lacking, but overall the knowledge and talents of the staff were very impressive. I also think their dedication to our children and our community was on display.

§ Some locally funded class size reductions will remain in place.

The benefits of reduced class sizes in the early grades are as well established as almost any educational practice. Preserving a portion of this in lower poverty schools is particularly important because all our schools have children who are poor or are “at risk” for one or more reasons. Low poverty schools get less help from both the federal government and the state (and to declining degree from the district). A poor child in a “rich” school does not have it easy and this will help. Additionally, this should help bolster the faith of middle class families in our schools.

§ There is a growing realization that the primary sources of MMSD’s budget problems are at the state and federal level.

Almost all the Board members and staff described almost all the cuts, fee increases or means of saving as difficult or seeking to do the least harm. This can only help energize the growing activism for reform in Madison and around the state. Lots of local action, please join us, join the ABC Madison list and watch this space for more opportunities.

§ The deeply offensive and patently absurd tactic of painting those who point to state and federal policies as the primary sources of our budget problems as somehow unwilling or unable to govern and budget responsibly is waning.

Ruth Robarts departure has something to do with this, but last night’s budget meeting (like many before) is evidence of the speciousness of this slander. Good riddance.

§ A referendum on the ballot in February of 2008 seems certain.

As long as we have to function under the current state finance system, referenda are the only tools we have to meet the needs and expectations of our community. Madison is a high needs district with high expectations for our schools. Due to this combination we are and will be a “high spending” district. I think we should be proud of this, that we as a community have made education a priority. A referendum will give the electorate a chance to provide the funds to meet these needs and expectations and reaffirm our commitment to education. We are going to need lots of help to make this happen. I’ll be posting updates here.

§ Almost all the good things about our district will continue.

I’ve been thinking about posting something longer on an essay by the educational historian David Tyack called the “A Conservationist Ethic in Education Reform.” Tyack’s point is that in search of the new and better, reformers often lose track of the need to preserve what is good and working. Tyack has certainly informed my unwillingness to embrace “innovation for the sake of innovation.” At this time I also think it serves as a reminder that despite the losses many in our community are feeling, there is much good that remains in place.

I’m sure there is more we should be thankful for (please add your thoughts to the comments). As I said at the top, I’m not at all happy with many of the things that happened, but I’m trying to temper my anger and disappointment and looking for things to be thankful for seemed like a good way to start.

Thomas J. Mertz

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2 Comments

Filed under AMPS, Best Practices, Budget, Equity, Local News, Referenda, School Finance, Take Action

2 responses to “Be Thankful for What You’ve Got

  1. Jerry Eykholt

    Thanks for your comments, TJ. You followed this very closely. While I don’t know if I share all your judgments about the cuts – I do appreciate your telling of the “landscape” around the issues.

    Yes, we have a broken finance system, but there are two very troubling trends with the bulk of the decisions:

    1. Very few of the cuts are lasting, structural changes to the way the district operates. Whether this is seen as good or bad, the bulk of the cuts are one-time savings and offer little guidance on how to manage future cuts.

    2. The language of the cuts was not focused on missed contact time with talented teachers. Very little was said about teachers losing jobs – or teacher’s loads suddenly increasing – or the coming turf wars for allocations. Right now, we see real pain and consternation, but next year we will experience a reduction in the daily dose of a truly good thing – student time with teachers who have time to talk.

    Of course, these two trends are seemingly, diametrically opposed. Our budget is largely a human resource budget – long-term, or structural cuts are going to mean letting teachers go.

    I cannot be critical of any of the board members, because I followed the discussion – the questions – and the debate. They worked and went above and beyond in trying to find a way out. The door, which was allowed only a narrow opening by our community, was when Carol Carstensen had the foresight to offer a referendum proposal about a month ago. The closing of that door, I think, was a mistake by the board. It showed a lack of leadership regarding the educational stakes facing our community.

    We cannot see the referendum as a savior, however. It’s just a pot of money. We actually should ask for more than we think we need for the next year – and the balance should be used to stimulate proactive, creative ideas for management and budgeting of the district in the long term. We have all we need within reach – but we have to be willing to reach out to each other and speak candidly about future directions.

    I think advocates of MMSD need to understand the cuts – be able to explain these cuts to friends – and put a personal face on the crisis of public education funding in Wisconsin.

    – Jerry

  2. Ed Blume

    You folks astound me with your capacity for happy talk.

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