For a number of reasons, I’m fairly confident that the MMSD referendum will pass. In fact, I still think that Madison could have and should have passed a larger referendum. I’ll start with the could have and then revisit some of the should have.
The graph at the top of the page shows successful recurring operating referenda since November, 2004 as percentages of the district revenue caps in place at the time of the votes (operating referenda linked to building projects were not included, the final total price was used for multi-year recurring referenda, $13 million in Madison’s case). The pending Madison referendum is in red. This referendum represents 4.98% of the district’s revenue limit; the average of all the successful referenda is 8.53%. If Madison had asked for the average percent, it would have been an over $22 million referendum. With $22 million, we could have restored valued programs, renewed the maintenance and technology revenue authority, realistically considered new ways to improve the education our district offers, and more. The lesson here is that other districts, with much less of a culture of educational support, have passed relatively more sizable measures than we are considering.
For further evidence that Madison could have afforded more, we need look no further than the the recently approved 2009-10 budget and mil rate (district documents, here). Due to greater than expected growth in the tax base, individual tax rates went down more than expected, from 9.92% to 9.81%. This points to two important things. First, the starting point for referendum-related tax increases is lower than anticipated. Second, the quality of our schools continues to be a contributing factor to our healthy local economy.
Affordability is a matter of opinion and it is impossible to prove or disprove the outcome of offering the voters a larger referendum, but both the above pieces of evidence are suggestive of a positive prognosis. With counterfactuals, that’s about as good as you can do.
I could offer at least 24,189 reasons why there should have been a larger referendum. I just want to touch briefly on three today. First, I do not believe that there are $3 million worth of cuts over the next three years that will not have a negative effect on the quality of education our district provides; second, there are many valuable things that have been cut in that past that I think should have been considered for restoration; last, there will be a need for a maintenance referendum in 2010 and I believe that an extension of this should have been included.
When discussing the quality of education, it is always important to begin with the observation that we are a district with high needs. We have a higher percentage of students with disabilities, students in poverty and English language learners than the state average (data can be accessed here and is summarized here). These categories are important, because each of them are covered by underfunded mandates. Because our percentages are higher and the mandates are underfunded, Madison must spend a higher percentage (than the average district) of our general operating revenue to address these needs.
This is part of the reason that I do not believe that after 15 years and over $60 million worth of cuts, $3 million more worth of “harmless” cuts can be found. I am not naive enough to pretend that there aren’t programs and positions that are not as effective as they should be, but I do believe that there are also new and old ways that money reallocated from these budget lines could be used to improve the quality of our schools. As framed by this referendum, any new ideas or restorations of old services will only be possible after $3 million worth of cuts are found.
In a letter to the Cap Times Steve Pike detailed some of the ways past cuts have harmed our schools. I have touched on some of others here (as well as other places). Both in local budget discussions and in the fight for state finance reform, I have repeatedly said “we cannot afford to cut more.” I believe that. I believe that many of the cuts that have already been made were harmful. We have more deteriorating facilities, less current technology, larger classes, less community outreach and parent-teacher contact, a smaller variety of offerings, more difficult situations with specials classes, fewer support staff…than we used to have and and we should have.
The maintenance and technology renewal is somewhat different, but just as important. The 2009-10 school year is the last year of the non-recurring maintenance and technology referendum passed in 2006. In the 2010-11 year, MMSD will lose $5.5 million in revenue authority from this referendum (while adding an anticipated $4 million or $9 million — depending on how you count it — from the referendum on the ballot November 4). The current referendum could have been offered so that this amount was included on a recurring basis, beginning in 2010. This amount would have still left the referendum well below the average (as percentage of revenue limits) of passed recurring referenda pictured at the top. As far as I can tell this possibility was never publicly considered by the Board of Education. Because of this oversight, the district, the Board and the community will have to engage in an additional referendum process and campaign.
I’ve been campaigning on behalf of the referendum and will enthusiastically vote yes because the the alternative is so obviously wrong. My enthusiasm will be tinged with regret that the referendum could have been bigger and better, could have provided more room for dreaming and less need for cutting. I believe that a referendum like that would have passed also and our children and our community would have both benefited.
The referendum on the ballot is more than affordable, but less than it should have been. Vote Yes for Schools!
Thomas J. Mertz