“We’ve given up on dreaming” — Madison Board of Education Referendum Discussion (updated)

Paul Klee, "Dream City," 1921

Paul Klee, "Dream City," 1921

Elvis Presley, “If I Can Dream” (click to listen or download)

Update on schedule of public forums below.

The MMSD Board of Education held their first discussion of a possible referendum at their Monday, July 28, 2008 meeting. Most of the right and expected things were said (more below, video should be up here soon).

What stuck with me from the meeting was something Marj Passman said. I’ve used part of her statement as the title of this post.

“We’ve given up on dreaming…the dreams that keep you going.”

The topic was the toll that the pressures from the state school finance system has taken on our district and how a referendum might help. There was much talk at other points in the meeting of wanting to avoid both a comparative discussion of potential cuts and belaboring past cuts. Ms Passman spoke to some of this, but she did something much more important; she reminded us that endless cycles of cuts have taken away opportunities to think about and work toward the best possible public schools. It made me think of the Langston Hughes poem, “A Dream Deferred.” As Marj said, we need these dreams to keep us going.

This is important in so many ways.

Struggling to do more with less without dreams or hope is demoralizing. As teachers and staff and the administration and the Board lose track of their dreams and hope, this hopelessness is inevitably communicated to our students. That’s exactly the wrong lesson to be teaching.

As the structure and dollar amounts for a referendum discussed, I hope all keep what Ms. Passman said in mind. Some will oppose a referendum of any size and many others will look to do a referendum on the cheap, partially in anticipation of planning and restructuring that Dan Nerad is already laying the groundwork for. This is the wrong attitude. We need to give Supt. Nerad some room to work; we need to finance our schools so that not every new initiative requires scaling back some existing program; we need to be able to try to make some of our dreams a reality.

I’ve got other observations about the discussion, but first some “news.”

The biggest news is that new Asst. Superintendent for Business Services, Erik Kass, in reviewing the assumptions for budget projections, “found” a $1 million “error.” That places the 2009-10 budget gap at $8.2 million, instead of $9.2 million. Mr. Kass will be doing a complete review of the projections prior to the final decision on a referendum. As Supt. Nerad pointed out, there may be no more errors or if there are additional errors found they may lead to increases or decreases in the projected budget shortfall.

The other important news concerns the schedule for decision making. The almost unspoken assumption everyone is operating under is that there will be an operating referendum on the ballot on November 4, 2008. For that to happen, the Board needs to have referendum language to the clerk’s office by the start of September. This means a pretty tight schedule for all discussions, forums, deliberations and votes. Things may change, but here is my understanding of the next steps (with some comments).

August 4, 200 Board of Education Workshop Meeting

At this meeting I think more of the nitty-gritty of a a referendum will be discussed. This may include alternate ways to look at budget history and projections (Board members had some specific requests), a projected schedule through the November vote with some initial talk of communication planning (another Board request), recurring vs. nonrecurring and other matters of type and form, maybe a presentation of some of the potential cuts or changes if there is no referendum or if a referendum fails, the scheduling of public forums prior to a referendum vote and more.

August 11, Regular Board of Education Meeting

This looks to be a continuation and expansion of the discussions from the August 4 meeting.

Week of August 11, Public Forums

This is the tentative time set aside to hear from the public. There will likely be two forums, one on the East Side and one on the West Side. In order to be as friendly as possible, the administration is seeking to schedule these at non-MMSD sites. It was heartening to hear the Board and Supt. Nerad seeking ways to involve as many people and groups as possible.


From Board President Arlene Silveira, on the The Daily Page:

We will have 2 information/public input sessions for the community to provide feedback on our options. These are scheduled for:

* Tuesday, August 12, 6:00-8:00pm, Warner Park Community Center
* Thursday, August 14, 6:00-8:00pm, Memorial High School

The discussion of the forums also touched on what the Board does and does not want from the forums, with a general agreement that the comparative cut talk isn’t very helpful. Elected officials seeking to shape the kind of input they get from the public is a tricky issue. On one hand, it is very reasonable for them to first figure out what will be of use to them and then look at ways to get this type of information. On the other hand, on things like referenda (and maybe everything else), it is important that officials be exposed to the full and free range of opinions and ideas. Whatever attempts are made to shape this process, experience tells me that people in our district will do and say whatever they want.

August 18, Board of Education Workshop Meeting

This is probably when referendum form and language will be discussed and perhaps voted on.

August 25, Board of Education Workshop Meeting

Johnny Winston (and maybe others) anticipated the possibility that the Board may not be ready to make a final decision on August 18, that they may want more time to think and hear from constituents. If this is the case, the vote will be on August 25.

A few other observations.

The presentation of the current fiscal situation by Erick Kass and Supt. Nerad was very good. I suggest you take a look.

The timing on all this is tough. Some of this has to do with the change in the Superintendency. I think it would have been better if the discussions and public input had started months ago, maybe as long ago as last Fall. It didn’t and we have to make the best of it. The Board should also learn from this and do better in anticipating and preparing to make major decisions on things like referenda. I think that in the long run the strategic planning process that Supt. Nerad is initiating will take care of this, but there may be things that will come up before that process is far enough a long to deal with them (Leopold crowding comes to mind).

Supt. Nerad and many Board members correctly identified the state funding system as the root cause and seem committed to upping the effort to work for change.

My last thoughts are two-fold. First, I urge everyone to use the available opportunities for public input and to use them to share your dreams for the schools. Second, the (pre)campaign work has begun, contact Communities and Schools Together (CAST) to get involved.

Thomas J. Mertz


Filed under "education finance", AMPS, Best Practices, Budget, education, Elections, finance, Local News, Referenda, referendum, School Finance, Take Action, Uncategorized

3 responses to ““We’ve given up on dreaming” — Madison Board of Education Referendum Discussion (updated)

  1. Tamara Madsen at the Cap Times now has a story up on the meeting: School referendum talk picks up steam.

  2. Ted Voth Jr

    The Katrination of the US proceeds apace. Why did George W go down to New Orleans on ‘Katrina Day’ every year? To celebrate. Hurricane Katrina
    did to New Orleans what li’l Georgie’s political ‘philosophy’ wants to do to civil society generally. And this philosophy prevails in the Wisconsin State Assembly, and all too much on the Madison Common Council. DESPITE the Constitution of the US: ‘We the people of the United States, in order to promote the general welfare do ordain and establish
    this Constitution. So, what now?

  3. Pingback: MMSD Budget, an Open Letter « AMPS

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