Sandbagged! Now Teabagged?

School districts and school finance reform advocates were sandbagged by Governor Jim Doyle and the Democratic controlled Legislature.  For years they had said “if you put us in control, fixing school finance will be a priority.’  We helped put them in control, districts built preliminary budgets based on the assumption that even if they wouldn’t enact a fix right away, they also wouldn’t make things worse.

But that is exactly what they did, make things worse.

They did this in many ways.  They cut the money targeted to the neediest students and districts via categorical aid.  They cut the amount of total revenue available to districts to well below “cost to continue.”  They upped the property tax credits, money that never goes near a classroom, and called it more money for education. They saddled school boards and districts with the unwelcome dual tasks of finding new savings and raising property taxes (for more on how this is playing out in Madison, see here and here).  Sandbagged.

Now — as districts are finalizing their budgets,  setting their tax levies and raising property taxes — the teabagger anti-tax crowd is coming out.  So far the only report I’ve seen is from Washburn, but more may well be on the way.

The Ashland Daily Press reports that   80-90 people showed up at the district budget listening session, many came to protest.  On August 18th, the Board of Education had passed a preliminary budget with what is being called a 24% tax increase in the local property tax contribution (I did the math and the mil rate will go up about 15%, not small, but not 24% either).  Like in Madison, there is a combination of a recent referendum, high property values, and most of all, the miserable state budget.  At the time the budget was passed District Superintendent Sue Masterson laid out the choices:

“We are not happy about it, but there is nothing we can do about it.”

… Masterson said cutting back to what would essentially leave “reading, writing and arithmetic” would be damaging to the community. She said that as part of the referendum process, many cuts had already been made and that the district had made as many cuts as they could without cutting the quality of instruction. She said that further cuts could result in dramatically larger class sizes and might require building changes that the district couldn’t afford in any event.

“The only way you cut now is putting 40 kids in a classroom, eliminating programs, which will result in an exodus of new families and existing families from local schools,” she said. “Consumer science programs, music programs, tech ed programs — when you start cutting those kinds of things… well, today’s public education families expect a rounded education,” Masterson said.

This hasn’t changed, but now the voices from the community are louder and more strident.  The Daily Press described the message from the September 1, 2009 listening session (let me note that MMSD has scheduled no listening sessions on their budget revisions):

One message came across loud and clear: The amount of the increase is unacceptable — and they expect the school board to go back to the budget and rework it so the increase is much closer to the 9 percent increase approved last November in a referendum allowing the district to exceed revenue caps. The tough economy makes a big tax increase especially difficult, many said.

…”The bottom line is we need to cut, and we need to keep Washburn houses filled with families.”

As is usual with these things, they were less forthcoming when asked for suggestions about what to cut and how to save:

Many at the meeting were unhappy they were being asked for suggestions for cuts when they didn’t have a line-item budget to look at for ideas, and others said the reason they hire an administrator and elect a school board is to make intelligent fiscal decisions on behalf of their constituents. Still, some suggestions were made.

Those included delaying improvements to the bleachers, cutting the food service program, and cutting administration costs by sharing an administrator with other school districts.

It is likely that there are some savings to be had, but after 16 years of struggling with annual cuts due to revenues that have been inadequate by design, the potential savings are minimal.

I have some sympathy with the people who are unhappy with the tax increase.  They are correct that too much of the investment in education is coming from property taxes.

I also have much admiration for the Board and administrators who are defending education as a valuable investment and have not yet given in to the anti-tax sentiment (contrast with Madison, where sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between the district and the anti-taxers).

The ones I have no use for are the those who say –as one attendee did — they are  “sick of hearing the excuse ‘the state did this to us.'”

This is both wrong — the state did do this to them — and counter productive, because  it cuts off productive protest directed at the state officials who actually have the power to make things better and electoral action directed to replace the ones who sandbagged us.  Getting mad at district officials over this makes no sense.

We’ve heard this sort of thing in Madison before (one sitting Board member still mouths these ridiculous ideas on occasion), but mostly the message that school funding is a state responsibility in need of a state solution has been heard.  This needs to happen all around the state.  Join the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools to help make that happen.

Thomas J. Mertz

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1 Comment

Filed under "education finance", Budget, education, Elections, finance, Local News, School Finance, Take Action, Uncategorized, We Are Not Alone

One response to “Sandbagged! Now Teabagged?

  1. John Smart

    Excellent commentary, TJ. Thank you.

    I heard from someone who was at that meeting in Washburn, and it was not pleasant. Local school boards are being squeezed and the legislature is saying – “Times is hard, times is hard!”

    People seem to forget that it’s kids and the future that are paying for this contretemps…

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