Smart, Caring Students, Working for Good

Madison SOS Teen Leaders at the State Capitol

Madison SOS Teen Leaders at the State Capitol (note: SOS is not the group working on the school referendum, but another group working for good in different ways)

Among the items in the MMSD Philosophy of Education is this call for students to be given the tools to engage historical, political and social knowledge to create a “faith in our future:”

To develop faith in our future by understanding and appreciating the history and geography of our nation and our world and their social and political systems.

It doesn’t say anything about working to create that better future, but this story — by Tamara Madsen in the Capital Times on students working on behalf of the Novemember 4 school referendum —  shows that at least some of  our students have grasped the truth that they can and must take active roles in making their community and futures better.

Madison high school students get organized, push referendum

Officials at La Follette were forced to drop the Italian language program from the curriculum for the 2008-09 school year, and students had to scramble to restructure their class schedules.

Stroup said elimination of the courses put many seniors like her in a tough situation when thinking ahead to college.

“Their schedules are messed up now because colleges want you to have four years of the same foreign language, and they’ve had to switch to French and Spanish, and it’s thrown things off for them,” Stroup said.

She is part of a group of Madison Metropolitan School District students intent on bolstering community approval for the school referendum so deeper budget cuts won’t have to be made going forward. Leaders of the group hope to have some two dozen students getting out the word about voting “yes” on Nov. 4.

Voters will be asked if they want to let the school district exceed its revenue limits by $5 million during the 2009-10 school year, then by an additional $4 million in each of the following two years. After that, the higher limits would be permanent. The referendum would add $27.50 onto the tax rate of a $250,000 home in the first year, district officials say, but accounting changes would decrease taxes for homeowners in the second and third years.

The district faces an $8.1 million hole in the budget for the 2009-10 school year, $4.4 million for 2010-11 and $4.3 million for 2011-12.

Stroup, a senior and president of La Follette’s Student Athlete Advisory Council, was one of eight students from Madison’s five high schools who met with Superintendent Dan Nerad more than three weeks ago to learn more about the referendum.

Stroup said she came away with a greater understanding of many issues, including the fact that the money being asked for by the district will be used just to continue current programs.

Nerad has already laid out a plan for program and service cuts in the 2009-2010 budget if voters do not pass the referendum. Those include increasing class sizes at elementary and high schools, trimming services for at-risk students, reducing high school support staff, decreasing special education staffing and eliminating some maintenance projects.

Even if the referendum does pass, the $5 million the district would get the first year still would not cover the $8.1 million gap and would force some budget trimming.

“I really want people to understand that this referendum is just to get by; it’s just to help sustain,” Stroup said. “If the referendum doesn’t pass, there’s going to have to be a lot of cuts.

“People think these cuts are insignificant, but they can affect students greatly. The highlight of a student’s day could be going to chess club or forensics, but cutting one of these programs could devastate them.”

The meeting with Nerad was organized by Natalia Thompson, a West High School senior who runs Madison SOS (Speak Out, Sister!), a nonprofit group that seeks to engage high school girls in grassroots activism.

Although she’s not old enough to vote, Thompson, 17, was one of two West students who took time earlier this month to make a public appearance at a Madison School Board meeting to explain why she is in favor of the referendum.

When school started this month, Thompson was disappointed that the writing lab at West was closed due to staff cuts. A federal grant will lead to its reopening in the near future, but other programs are under pressure as well, like West’s Fine Arts Week. The annual event, which takes place in May and has art, drama and dance elements, will not include one-act performances this year because of staff cuts.

Getting the chance to sit down with Nerad and learn more about school finance issues influenced Thompson to act.

“I do really see this as sort of one of the biggest social justice and political issues facing my generation — access to affordable, quality education — and I am seeing through my work in the community how important the schools are,” Thompson said.

She will work with the pro-referendum group Community and Schools Together leading up to the election by writing campaign literature, opinion pieces for news outlets and handing out literature in neighborhoods. She hopes at least 20 to 30 students will join her.

In an effort to collect even more student support, she also created a Facebook page titled “High School Students for the Referendum” that has 60 members.

To do her part, Stroup plans on handing out campaign literature and working on a short speech to give during announcements at La Follette.

Thompson said she’s been pleased with student responses to assist in getting the word out.

“With every student I’ve talked to about it, as soon as I explain what this is — what’s going on, why we need students to get involved — there’s no question it’s something they want to support,” Thompson said. “We’ve been faced with budget cuts since we’ve been in kindergarten.”

Since a state-imposed revenue formula was implemented in 1993 to control property taxes, the school district’s overall budgets have continued to rise due to annual increases in salaries and fixed costs like transportation, but it has had to cut $60 million worth of programs, staffing and services.

District officials are planning sessions at the five area high schools to offer information on the referendum, though they cannot collaborate directly with any advocacy efforts.

Nerad, though, said he will continue to cultivate lines of communication with students by becoming actively involved in the Student Senate and scheduling lunches at schools to establish dialogue.

“I believe we have a mission-based responsibility to ensure that we’re developing in students the skills of civic responsibility, and how to engage around important civic and social issues,” Nerad said. “I believe that part of my role and our role is that we have to model that by ensuring students do have a voice on issues that affect them.”

He said student engagement has always been one of his priorities in his job as superintendent, and he’s been pleased to see students’ interest in the referendum issue. “I think it’s very heartening to see, and it’s less about them and more about students that will follow them.”

On a personal note, I’ve had the pleasure of working a little with Natalia and others and I want to tell them what a pleasure it has been and how much their contributions are valued.

Thomas J. Mertz

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

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