The Axe Is Falling — School Layoffs, Closures and Cuts

Paul Gauguin "The Man with an Axe"

Paul Gauguin "The Man with an Axe"

All over Wisconsin — in districts where referenda failed, in districts where referenda weren’t tried and maybe in some districts where referenda passed — the axe is falling, teachers and programs are being cut and the “New Wisconsin Promise” of  “A Quality Education for Every Child” is sounding more like a cruel joke every day.  As long as Wisconsin’s politicians lack the courage to fix our broken school finance system with the  structural gap between allowed revenues and mandated costs, the annual Spring chopping ritual will continue.

If you know the story already and don’t need the latest details, skip to the bottom for ways to take action and make reform happen.

Appleton, where two referenda failed in February has eliminated 44 teaching positions, the equivalent of 31 full time teachers.  Here is what it will look like in the classrooms according to district financial officer Don Hietpas:

“We’re staffing the high schools this year at 28-to-1 (student-to-teacher ratio). We are staffing the elementary school at one per class than we did last year, so it’s 27-to-1. So the average class size is going up at all levels, except for K-3, which is an area we continue to protect.”

Board President Sharon Fenlon noted an unintended consequence that will have long term implications for districts and the teaching profession:

“It’s very tough,…especially because the layoff is in order of seniority. Many of the people laid-off are quite new to the profession and people we would like to encourage to stay in the profession, and to have to lay them off is very painful.”

Teachers aren’t the only thing on the chopping block in Appleton:

“We’re cutting capital projects, we’re cutting technology, we’re cutting other areas besides classroom teachers, secretaries, para-professionals, administrators, so the reductions will be across the board,” Hietpas said.

Appleton is often held up as the poster district for charter schools in Wisconsin, but all the charters in the world can’t stop the budget cuts when the school funding system is broken.

Eau Claire hasn’t tried a referendum since 2007 and hasn’t passed one since 1999.  After the defeat in 2007 they closed the “Little Red School” and continued with the steady cuts in othe areas.  This year the structural budget gap is about $4.1 million (from a budget of  about $105 million) and things look to be particularly bad.  SAGE has been cut back, athletic directors are gone, salary freezes are being floated and still more cuts will be needed. WEAU News has the list of things being considered:

–10 high school teachers. That would save the district $650,000.

–2 elementary art teachers (while cutting art time from 60 minutes to 45 minutes a week). That would save $124,000.

–15 elementary school support staff or assistants, saving $600,000.
–5 middle school support staff, saving $205,000.
–10 high school support staff, saving $410,000.
–4.5 central office support staff, saving $184,500.

–1.1 library media specialists. That would save $68,700.

–5 custodians, saving $310,000.
–1 senior maintenance position, saving $62,000.

–A vacant staff development/assessment coordinator position, saving $105,200.

Other options to save money include:

–Eliminating custodial overtime on the weekends. It would save the district $35,500, but could mean the cancellation of weekend athletics, music and theatre.

–Reducing elementary art, music, PE, and special ed PE program specialists. That would not cut teacher jobs, but eliminate positions above and beyond their daily duties. It would save the district $39,200.

–Discontinuing Spanish classes in elementary schools because grant funding is no longer available. That would equal a savings of $13,000.

Also on the table is “cutting the number of teams for certain high school sports. ”

As the Board struggles  “”to reduce the programs that have the least impact on the kids,” the head of the local teacher’s union points the finger where it belongs — our state elected officials:

“This problem isn’t going to go away. We’re going to have the same problem next year. We’re going to have it the following year until we really change the way schools are funded in the state of Wisconsin,” says Ron Martin, president of the Eau Claire Association of Educators.

And here from an earlier story:

But Martin says the school district and the school board really aren’t to blame. He says the revenue caps and funding at the state level are the major reason for the budget issues.

“It’s stifling us and in Eau Claire’s situation, it’s killing us.”

Pretty bleak assessment, but absolutely correct.

Waupun is another district that lost referenda votes in February.  Since 1996, eight operating referenda have failed in Waupun.  They’ve gotten used to cuts, but this time in addittion to eliminating 30 positions (30 positions!), it means closing schools.  Nothing divides a district like school closures.  To make matters worse, the schools slated for closure are not in Waupun proper, but in Alto and Fox Lake.  At the March 16, 2009 Board meeting, Fox Lake’s Mayor made a formal request to detach from the district.  The request had not been properly filed, but the Board went on record denying it anyway.  Fox Residents are still exploring options:

Kim Derleth, a member of the Concerned Area Residents for Education (CARE), said the Fox Lake-based organization will hold a special listening session at 6:30 p.m. today (Tuesday) in the Fox Lake Community Center to discuss area residents’ options.

Derleth said the intent of the session is to hear the viewpoints of the public to determine a course of action following Monday night’s “no” vote. One of the options the group has discussed is exploring secession from the Waupun Area School District.

It looks like this controversy won’t go away soon.

In Neneeh they are in the last year of a non recurring referendum and it appears that like Madison last  Novemeber, they asked for less than is needed to meet the structural gaps. In Neneeh’s case, the third year’s over the caps revenue authorization was $1.4 less than the first year’s and $1.2 less than the secon year’s.  It appears they also chose to fund a fiber optic netweork from operating funds.   Through the combination of factors, primary among them a state school fiannce system that is built on annual cuts and doesn’t allow for capital investments without referenda, Neneeh is facing about a $1 million shortfall in an $84.3 million projected budget for 2009-10.

The proposed solution, cut teaching positions:

Under the plan, Neenah would employ the equivalent of 447.5 teachers, compared with 458 teachers this year.

The staffing plan would cut 8.8 positions at the high school and 4.3 positions at the middle schools. It would result in no change at the elementary schools and slight increases in instructional support services (0.2 position) and contingency staffing (0.4 position).

“Staffing plan” may sound better than “cutting teachers,” but whatever the terminology there will be fewer class choices, larger classes (up to 30 students), less individual attention and a decline in educational opportunities.

Merrill and I am sure others have already started their cuts; Janesville and I am sure others are starting to work on theirs.   30 districts are holding referenda in April (the 29 detailed here, plus Salem), some won’t pass.  Sadly, more to come.

Now for the “do something” soapbox boilerplate.  If we don’t put/keep the pressure on, nothing will happen except more cuts, more referendum fights, more kids not getting the education they need and deserve, fewer kids reaching adulthood with the tools to be successful…we all need to get and be active.

Maya Cole’s recent op ed hit the right notes.  Pass it around.  Write your own letters to the editor:

Contact the Governor, your Senators and Representatives.  Make them keep their promises (for more as-yet-unmet promises from Governor Doyle, see here and here).

Don’t forget the April 1, 2009 MMSD “Legislative Informational Community Session” and the April 21 Assembly hearing on the School Finance Network (SFN) plan (details on both, here).

Connect with activists around the state and support real change by joining the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools.  Keep up-to-date with SFN by signing on as a School Finance Network supporter.

Talk to your friends, neighbors, co-workers…spread the word.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Accountability, Budget, education, Equity, finance, Local News, Referenda, referendum, School Finance, Take Action, Uncategorized, We Are Not Alone

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