MMSD Budget and the Death of Journalism

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On August 10, 2009 the Madison Metropolitan School District had their first public discussion about how they might address the the multiple fiscal messes handed them by our state budget-makers.  AMPS previewed this meeting that day.   No professional media saw fit to do likewise.  The issues on the table involve tens of millions of dollars and the the future of the children of Madison.

I attended the meeting and can report that there was not a professional journalist in the room.

Five days later, WISC-TV broadcast the story that appears at the top of this post.  Yesterday morning, the Wisconsin State Journal front page, headline, above-the-fold article was on the MMSD budget and what was presented and discussed at that meeting almost a month ago.  I want to note that there is nothing in the WISC-TV report or the State Journal story that was not before the public back at the start of August.  I have not seen any other stories on the MMSD budget.  Both stories are “competent,” neither was timely and there are some important things that our local media missed.  So new(s)?

Because they were not in the room and apparently did not bother to view the video of the meeting, both reporters missed some fairly big news.  That evening Asst. Superintendent Erik Kass revealed that for the 2008-9 school year MMSD will likely run a $5 million to $7 million surplus.  That’s a lot of money and directly effects the current options before the district.  This surplus follows a $4.3 million surplus in 2007-8 (also largely or completely ignored by the media, despite the fact that MMSD almost closed schools that year and did make major cuts that now appear to have been unnecessary).  The rebudgeting of teacher and substitute allocations being proposed by the administration is based on these surpluses (there was also some cuts that weren’t called cuts back when the preliminary budget was passed and they appear to have been based on similar rebudgeting).

This sad state of  journalism is hardly breaking news.  To cite three recent treatments, Robert Godfrey previously posted on the death throws of education reporting; Andy Hall — a great education reporter — saw the handwriting on the wall and moved on; Brenda Konkel has been noting the dearth of good local journalism and how this diminishes the basis for engaged citizenship; and my old friend Bill Wyman gets a lot right in his “Why Newspapers are failing” post.  I want to add my voice to these and fill in some of the of the other gaps left by our so-called reporters.  Here goes.

If you accept the lowered standards of television news in 2009, the WISC-TV report is actually pretty good.  It gets the basic facts right, gives at least minimal context and even includes multiple sources (two to be exact — Supt. Dan Nerad and MTI Union President Steve Pike).  I’d like more on the wider context of a broken state finance system, the dilemmas of other districts and maybe some reactions form Governor Doyle and the legislative leaders who thought the choices they made were good policy (hello Mark Pocan, hello Mark Miller…we won’t forget who is responsible for this mess).  Even the presentation of the financial information is relatively clear and relatively complete (at least in comparison with the State Journal), something which is not easy to do in a television news report.  My biggest complaint on this one is the lack of timeliness

If you don’t know the topic, The State Journal article  reads like a competent by-the-book, fill-in-the-blanks, news piece.   The problem is that journalists are supposed to know more about their topics than most  readers.  When they don’t, they miss things that the public should know.  Gayle Worland,  State Journal, misses some things.

I want to be clear that this is not about Ms Worland’s failings; I understand that the pathetic business model of local reporting doesn’t allow for, value or reward the development of expertise or the kind of digging beyond the quotes from easily accessible sources that real quality journalism is based on.  I also want to offer a special tip of the hat to Ms Worland for at least doing the leg work to get Andy Reschovsky’s perspective.  In this day and age even a little thing like that shows some professional pride.

One reason the WISC-TV story gets higher marks is that it gives passing mention to an option being floated by the district to refinance debts and use this opportunity to avoid paying $6.69 million in debt service in 2009-10,  a development that does not appear in the State Journal.

I have some questions about this idea and how much is being saved in the long term, whether is best to both refinance the debt and pay some or all of the debt service in 2009-10, and perhaps most significantly are we getting a second opinion on this move; because the proposal was designed in consultation with the Robert W. Baird company, who will profit from refinancing and whose current Managing Director of public finance in Wisconsin is David W. Noack, who, in his last job, sold Wisconsin school districts some “dubious securities,” which have since collapsed (there has been no publicly released documentation on the debt refinance proposal yet).  Lots of questions, none of which are even hinted at in either news story.

Given the centrality of taxation to both stories (especially the State Journal’s) I have to wonder why neither story saw fit to mention that under MMSD’s current plan the property tax levy will be about $7 million dollars less than is allowed under state law.

Again, this is big news. and the reporters didn’t get it.

Among other things it means that the authority granted by the November, 2008 referendum will not be employed (technically, the referendum authority will likely be used and other authority won’t be used but the dollars and cents come out the same).   It also means that for the first time in recent memory (ever?) Madison will not be providing the maximum possible financial effort on behalf of our children.  That gives me pause.

I’m guessing that some of the blame for missing this fact should be allotted to incompetent public relations and spin by the district.  We’ve been hearing about the “Partnership Plan” ad nauseum but now that there is a real action on the table which will mitigate potential local property taxes and can be expressed in dollars and cents, they miss the opportunity to shine the light where it would be most impressive.  You need big screaming headlines:  MMSD REFUSES TO TAX TO THE MAX:  TAXPAYERS SAVE $7 MILLION. Instead this fact isn’t even part of either story.

A side note:  Regular readers will know that I believe a big part of comprehensive school finance reform has to reverse the trend of increased reliance on property taxes, so I have some sympathy with the anti-property tax rhetoric.  However, I do think that much of the what we have been hearing since Superintendent Nerad arrived is subtly counter-productive for comprehensive reform.  Two big parts of the Partnership Plan were that “Mitigating property taxes is good” and that “We can continue to cut and not harm education.”  The anti-property tax message sounds a whole lot like a general anti-tax message unless presented very carefully.  When there are cuts in services and allocations we are being told either that there are no cuts or that the cuts will have no impact on the education being offered.  This invites people to say “keep on cutting” and to forget that there have been cuts for 16 years.  Nerad has made a good case for supporting education and comprehensive reform in other contexts, but the result of these mixed messages is cognitive dissonance.

Back to the State Journal story for two last, quick items.  First, other than the Reschovsky quote, there is little in the way of context or the state finance system or even the local context of 16 years of cuts.  Last, the quote from Erik Kass on the 2010-11 budget near the end is true and needs to be heard:

“These (numbers) are ugly.”

Local news sources have an essential role into play in keeping local institutions and government vital and honest.  To fulfill this role requires that reporters develop expertise and have the time and space to cover stories in some depth.  If the reporters don’t tell the public what is going on, most people won’t bother to seek out the information themselves and will consequently neglect opportunities for involvement and vote from ignorance.   This is what is happening in Madison.

I read school related news from around the state and in the local weeklies and I find a much higher level of coverage of local news than we see in Madison.  These papers serve their communities.

As Bill Wyman notes in the essay linked above, one reason that newspapers are failing financially is that they aren’t providing news.   So, as the Wisconsin State Journal and Capital Times parent company touts their revamped (and ugly and hard to navigate) madison.com,  perhaps offering timely and well-informed stories about local matters could be given some consideration too.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Budget, education, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, School Finance, Uncategorized

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