Thomas J. Mertz: Legislators need to focus on flawed school financing
Thomas J. Mertz, guest columnist — 10/06/2007 9:23 am
The earlier than anticipated closure of two tax incremental financing districts may provide Madison Metropolitan School District with $5.4 million — and an opportunity to temporarily escape the full effects of Wisconsin’s broken education finance system and avoid both budget cuts and a divisive referendum this year.
Communities and Schools Together, a grass-roots advocacy organization dedicated to securing the support our schools need, asks the City Council to support the closure of these districts and urges the School Board to use these unanticipated revenues to partially or fully offset the 2008-2009 structural gap between allowed revenues and costs under the state revenue limits.
CAST has been working since March to gather community input regarding an operating referendum. We heard an outpouring of support for strong funding of public schools. We would like to thank all those who have volunteered, offered support or provided input on their priorities to the School Board. We would also like to thank the board and the administration for recognizing the need for a referendum and beginning the process in a timely fashion.
Referendum campaigns are not easy. Madison values education but getting approval of any increase in taxation would be difficult. CAST is confident that district voters would affirm the importance they place on education by supporting a referendum. However, even a successful referendum might exacerbate divisions in the community. The closure of the tax incremental financing districts gives us an opportunity to avoid this for one more year.
In the coming year we will welcome a new superintendent. The closure of the tax districts and the use of that money for operating expenses will allow for a positive period of transition, instead of one devoted to healing the wounds of draconian budget cuts or a referendum campaign.
As beneficial as the tax windfall will be, it will not cure the ills of a flawed system of school finance.
After 15 years of finding efficiencies, cutting over $60 million and eliminating over 600 staff positions, every additional reduction threatens the education of our children, the health of our neighborhoods, and the economic strength of our region. The $5.4 million will allow the schools to continue doing the good they do for one more year, but it isn’t enough to restore all the valuable programs that have already been cut or expand the good with new programs like 4-year old kindergarten.
Absent reform at the state level, the next fiscal year will require an operating referendum to prevent even larger cuts. In order to again look at school budgets as an opportunity to do the most good instead of an exercise in doing the least harm, the state must act to address the fundamental flaws in the way we fund our schools.
At the CAST meeting there was a spontaneous and collective commitment to redirect our energies toward state school finance reform. Our current system is a contradictory collection of underfunded mandates requiring districts around the state to cut about 1.5 percent from their same service budgets annually.
The children of Wisconsin deserve a system that guarantees sufficient resources for all children to achieve, that provides for reasonable local control, that recognizes the diverse needs of our students and communities, and that seeks fairness in taxation and puts education first.
Until the next referendum, CAST will be working with ABC Madison (All the Best for Children) and the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools to support the resolution sponsored by Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts demanding that the Legislature address the problems of school funding and all other efforts to bring about positive reform.
Community and Schools Together welcomes the prospect of setting aside referendum campaigns to work for fundamental changes in school funding at the state level. Please join us; our future depends on getting this right.
Thomas J. Mertz is co-chair of Communities and Schools Together.
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