Mayor Dave Cieslewicz knows the primary source of Madison’s school budget woes. Published in Southern Exposure, the newsletter of the South Metropolitan Planning Council and elsewhere.
Thomas J. Mertz
School Funding System Needs Reform
By Mayor Dave Cieslewicz
“The worst choice, except for all of the others.”
This is what comes to my mind when reflecting upon the recent budget challenges that Madison school district leaders, parents and students have faced. After the recent, difficult debate over the issue of school consolidations and other painful budget measures, there can no longer be any doubt that the school funding system is broken beyond repair.
As the school district correctly notes, thanks to this broken system, they are trapped within a spiral of budget shortfalls and cuts to programming. Although they were able to avoid consolidating schools this year, they were nonetheless forced to reduce resources for special education, increase class sizes, and make a number of other cuts that threaten the quality of our public schools. This is a pattern that has been continuing, and worsening, for a number of years.
This is not to be critical of the school board or the administration. I know from experience how difficult these budget decisions can be, and am confident they are making the best decisions they can, given the hand they have been dealt by the state. There are no more easy choices or easy cuts to make. We are well beyond the point where platitudes such as “finding efficiencies” will make the budget balance.
Until we see reform at the state level, we will face these same decisions, and our community with go through the same difficulties, year after year. School district leaders know this, and embarked earlier this year on a campaign to build political support for ending the current, unfair system.
The City of Madison is answering that call, by making school funding reform a central part of our legislative agenda. For starters, the revenue caps must go. I am a strong believer in local government and local accountability. We in Madison are perfectly capable of making local budget decisions and choosing local leaders who reflect our values.
The next step is to create a new system that provides fair and adequate funding for our public schools. I am encouraged that every Madison-area legislator has signed on to a resolution calling for a new system to be in place by July 1, 2009.
The resolution specifies four key components of a new, fair system: it must provide funding based on the actual cost of education, not arbitrary per-pupil formulas; it must provide adequate resources to educate all of our children, regardless of their background; it must provide additional resources for special needs, such as non-English speaking students; and it must be based on a fairer tax base that moves us away from reliance upon the property tax.
These are all important goals. Until we achieve them, the turbulence our community experienced during this year’s school budget will not only happen again, it will get worse. And once again, we will be forced to make “the worst choice, except for all the other ones.”