We are (Still) Not Alone

From the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (click on image for pdf).  2009-10 will look even worse.

From the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (click on image for pdf). 2009-10 will look even worse.

It has been a long time since there has been a “we are not alone” post, reminding Madison readers that school finance is a state issue and needs a state solution.

It has been so long that there are many, many  stories of school cuts and layoffs in Wisconsin from the last few months that I never got around to noting.

I want to begin with one of these older items —  a story from before the state budget was passed — and then move on to more recent post state budget things.  As districts struggle with the difficulties that budget has produced  it is essential that these be understood  in the context of 16 years of struggles under our broken school funding system.

The story is from Appleton and the headline says much about the erosion of education in Wisconsin: “Award bittersweet for laid -off Appleton teacher.”  Here are some excerpts:

Appleton North High School teacher Kevin Deering will remember the last day of the school year with equal parts pleasure and pain.

On one hand, students surprised him Thursday by voting him North’s
Educator of the Year. On the other, it was Deering’s final day on the job after
district cost cutting forced layoffs of dozens of teachers for next school year….

“It’s kind of an emotional thing,” he said afterward. “It’s a bittersweet ending
to get voted Educator of the Year and not being able to come back. When I
came to North I never thought I’d be leaving two years later.”

Deering, 27, is in his fourth year of teaching, two of those in Appleton. He
teaches physical science, genetics, and biology. He is an advisor for Link
Crew, a program that eases freshmen into high school life, and has coached
girls track at Appleton East, football at North and boys track at North.

“He will be missed,” said North Principal James Huggins…

The layoffs are the result of budget cuts that became necessary after a
failed referendum in February and account for more than half of the district’s
$3 million deficit for 2009-10 that was projected in March.

With the state budget in deeper trouble than first thought, that figure could go higher.

Unlike last year, when most laid-off teachers, including Deering, were called
back, the number who will not return is substantial.

Due to the finalized state budget, we can now say it is all but certain the 43 teachers laid off earlier in Appleton — and the 40  teachers laid off by Oshkosh in March and all those laid off previously in other districts because the school funding system has been broken for 16 years —  will not be called back.  From bad to worse.

Oshkosh is now looking at more layoffs.

In the state budget Oshkosh was hit with a 3.76%, $2.3 million cut in general aid, as well the minimal revenue limit raise and categorical aid cut all districts must address, creating a $3.2 million hole to be filled (see here for an initial compilation of the impact on of the general aid changes to all individual districts).

As I write this the Board of Education is considering a depressing list of options which includes layoffs to paraprofessionals, counselors, interpreters, administrators  and teachers (art, physical education and technology have been identified as possibilities); eliminating programs such as marketing; raising class sizes; raising taxes; and closing schools.

Update: WBAY and NBC26 report that the Board voted to close Green Meadow and Lincoln Elementary Schools.  They also rejected the option of not filling open positions.

Yes, closing schools, in July.  Video here from WLUK-TV of parent reactions to the news that their childrens’ schools are on the chopping block less than two months before the start of classes.

As the Northwestern reports, the families are angry.  They are pitting one neighborhood against another, saying that different schools should be closed and saying the “”Oshkosh Area School District’s administrators and board members unfairly targeted Green Meadow.”

The anger is understandable and even good, but it needs to be redirected to the state officials who put the district in this impossible situation.

A few paragraphs from one of the Northwestern news story:

Administrators feel trapped by the unexpected revenue shortfall – the state has never before cut aid to schools in the 16-year history of the existing funding formula – because employment contracts have already been set. Reduction options are now limited to vacant positions and staff who were handed initial layoff notices in February but not let go in the first $2.2 million in budget cuts approved in May.

That means the proposed staffing reductions are based on limited options rather than student needs or interests, Lang said.

“All of our choices have a negative impact one way or another,” she said. Staff cuts hurt immediately, while reductions to site budgets or maintenance services could haunt the district in future years.

“We’re already living with the long term detriments from cuts made 10 years ago,” she said, referring to the district’s deferred maintenance problem….

On one end of the debate sits Board President Ben Schneider II, who said he would struggle to support a plan that raises taxes more than 3 percent.

“I don’t want to shock the system by shifting it all onto the tax payers,” he said. “I’m of the opinion that during a terrible economy we should be reducing taxes.”

Board member Karen Bowen, on the other hand, said she’d prefer a double-digit tax increase to cutting any more teachers or programs.

“I don’t think people really understand what our district will look like if we have to cut much deeper,” she said.

Bowen is right that people don’t understand.  Otherwise you wouldn’t have powerful people like new Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Mike Tate making ridiculous and insulting claims that the state budget “strengthened” education.   Districts need to educate their residents about the state of school finance in Wisconsin and then we all need to educate our state leaders and get them to act.

Bad news in Northeastern Wisconsin also, especially Door County.  Because of vacation homes, Door County is a high property value area  In combination with declining enrollment this has meant real problems for these districts under Wisconsin’s school finance system.  Since the full time residents who vote in referenda are not wealthy, they have also had great difficulties applying those temporary band aids.  The decline in relative state funding in the recent state budget aggravated the existing problems (click here for details of  how the similar “The Lake Effect”  combination has hit Northern Tier districts).  Here is what the Press Gazette reports some Door County districts (and others) are facing:

  • “Sturgeon Bay is set to take a 15.19 percent hit in general aid, according to this month’s estimates from the state education department. That change will take the 1,100-student district’s general aid allocation from nearly $5.2 million to nearly $4.4 million.”
  • “The Southern Door district also is facing a 15.19 percent decrease in general aid, according to state estimates. That change will mean the district takes in $3.2 million in general aid instead of nearly $3.8 million.”
  • “The Sevastopol School District is facing almost an identical cut, an estimated 15.18 percent, as is the Gibraltar School District, an estimated 15.17 percent.”
  • “In Marinette County, the Crivitz School District is facing a 15.18 percent decrease in general state aid. Funding could drop by about $172,000, from $1.1 million to $963,000.”
  • “In Ashwaubenon, the reduction will drop general aid allocation from more than $12.5 million to nearly $11.9 million.”

Bad all over.

A few more.

Wausau Daily Herald, “Everest, Merrill school districts face shortfalls.”

Reedsburg Times Press, “School will resort to tax hike.”

Racine Journal Times, “”Unified prepares for budget task ahead.”

Kenosha News, “Lower state aid might force cuts in Salem schools” (AMPS readers might recall the referendum struggles in Salem).

LaCrosse Tribune, “Tax hike ahead? La Crosse school officials point out ‘worst-case scenario.’”

And one last reminder that despite what Governor Jim Doyle has tried to get you to believe, at the local level ARRA Title I and IDEA stimulus  funds mostly cannot be used  not make up for the short falls.

Racine Journal Times, “Stimulus, strings attached: Four federal grants for Unified won’t help much with budget shortfall.”

Stay tuned for more (sadly).

If you want less, you have to get involved in the reform efforts.  Click here for a guide to organizations to join, links to contacting the media and state officials and more.

If we all sit back and shake our heads at how bad things are but do nothing more, this will never get better.  Get involved.

Thomas J. Mertz

1 Comment

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

One response to “We are (Still) Not Alone

  1. Jackie Woodruff

    WED., JUL 29, 2009 – 4:28 PM
    Politics blog: State budget efficiency affects Madison schools
    The lawmaker who leads the Assembly education committee offered me an interesting take on the 15 percent cut to Madison schools and dozens of other districts for the coming school year.

    Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts, D-Middleton, noted that while lawmakers finished crafting a 2009-11 budget prior to the July 1 start of the new fiscal year for the first time in years, doing so forced them to use old data to project how much money would be delivered to school districts.

    Using that old data, the Legislature wrote language they thought would limit cuts to any district to 10 percent. But when the state Department of Public Instruction worked up preliminary general school aids figures for the 2009-2010 school year a few days later, about 100 districts wound up with a 15 percent cut.

    “In other years, this wasn’t a problem,” Pope-Roberts said. “This year it’s a problem.”

    In Madison, that meant a $9.2 million cut in general aids. Madison was hurt by the funding formula in part because of its relatively high spending per pupil and high property values. Final aid figures won’t be calculated until October.

    Pope-Roberts is not optimistic that anything can be done about the cuts to Madison and other districts.

    “I don’t think it can be fixed,” she said. “I think we’re going to have to live with it.”

    She said the lawmakers from all over the state are hearing from constituents upset with the budget and the school funding formula.

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