Hatchets at the Ready — More Wisconsin School Budget News

Tav Falco’s Panther Burns, “Pass the Hatchet” (click to listen or download”

As they sharpen the hatchets to cut the Madison school budget, time for another installment in the sad story of diminishing educational quality in Wisconsin.

Might as well get the first “what you can do to stop this” out of the way at the start.  The easiest thing to do to help is to sign the Penny for Kids petition sponsored by the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES).  We (I’m a WAES Board Member) are asking that the state enact a 1 cent per dollar sales tax to address the immediate crisis and move Wisconsin toward better ways of investing in education.  You can read more and find out how to help in other ways at the links.

Most of these stories and links are from the last couple of weeks, but some are from earlier this year.  I’ve left Madison out this time, because we’ll be posting lots about the home front in the coming weeks.  This is no particular order and far from comprehensive (with districts holding April referenda reserved for another post).

I’ll get started with the districts mentioned in Chris Murphy’s  recent “What’s News: Schools’ money troubles are news all over Wisconsin “story on the Cap Times:  Oshkosh, Appleton and  Monona Grove.

Lots more on the major cuts in Oshkosh in this post.  My favorite recent thing is the Facebook group “The children in the Oshkosh Area School District are screwed!!!!!”  I love the lack of spin.

The Oshkosh West student paper has a good story: “Board decision ushers in winter of discontent.”  Here is an  excerpt:

State and local budget woes have placed a sharp edge at the throat of the Oshkosh Area School District. At an OASD school board meeting on February 10, board members voted 7-0 to raise the student to teacher ratio to 25:1 beginning in the fall of 2010, effectively eliminating some 35 teaching positions in order to shave approximately $2 million from the budget deficit. Although the board was scheduled to meet on February 24 (which was too late for publication in this issue of the Index) regarding specifics of implementation, the impact of these cuts could be dire, according to Assistant Principal Jay Jones.

“My biggest fear is that we could potentially lose some upper level electives that students have had some interest in,” he said. “One of the suggestions from Superintendent Bette Lang is that some of these elective classes will have to run every other year. But at the same time it could mean that an awful lot of classes simply do not run.”

Some more on the cuts and firings from School Board candidate Karl Lowenstein:

It is hard to describe the passion, energy, and eloquence of the students who lined up and stayed for hours to try to save smaller classes that were important to them. It was a testament to a hopeful future. Unfortunately, the board ignored their pleas.

In the end, the board voted unanimously to fire the teachers. There was very little discussion about the real implications of this cut. Bette Lang and the board members insisted that hardly anyone will miss the teachers–all it means is that small classes will be offered less frequently. Not one board member asked how a fired teacher can offer courses every other year. The board’s belief is that other districts have higher ratios, so our should too.

Although the information put out by the asst. principals at North and West, which listed all the classes which may be canceled next year, is surely exaggerated, the idea that firing 35 teachers will have no impact on the kind of education our kids get is simply not true.

Once those 35 teachers are gone, what will have disappeared from our high schools? It remains to be seen how many math teachers or business teachers or language teachers they will have to fire. It looks like at least 17 at West and 18 at North will lose their jobs. After that happens, we will have a better sense of how much worse the options have become for our high school students.

At least two more entries from his blog are worth reading: “Where’s the Plan? February 24 Meeting Report,” and “Students Organize Against Cuts.”

Here is a little more on the reactions from WLUK-TV.

With the High School cuts decided, the Oshkosh Board has moved on to debating school closures.  Two schools are on the block and the projected savings is $383,000.  Like Madison in elsewhere the discussions about cuts and closures are based on the combination of revenue limits that do not reflect the costs of education and the state budget that shifted much more of those costs to local property taxes.  The Northwestern reports some are urging taxing to the max.

Parents and teachers urged the district to increase taxes instead of making the tough choice to close another school.

“You can tax us to the max. I’m OK with that,” Lakeside parent Bill Keys said. “There’s no easy choice to be made.”

Increasing the tax rate to the maximum level would generate about $3 million in additional revenue and increase the tax bill on a home valued at $100,000 by about $66.

Now an editorial from the Northwestern: “Editorial: Teacher bashing won’t balance school budgets.”

Knocking teachers for compensation earned at the bargaining table is counterproductive, especially when concessions on health insurance and other benefits will have to be won through contract negotiations. Moreover, critics overlook that 34 teaching positions were cut this school year and that 35 positions have already eliminated for next school year, with more expected. On balance, Oshkosh educators have not been immune to economic pain.

And last from Oshkosh, a great exercise in sarcasm from columnist Tom Willderson (hat tip County Supervisor Mike Norton):

Your bill shows that I owe about $970 to the school district. This figure is much too high. My sons attend only two of the 13 grades the schools provide. Furthermore, they only use one of the district’s 21 buildings! My calculations show that I owe $7.18 for schools, given that my children use such a small part of what the district offers.

On to Appleton, where 27 educators’  jobs are on the block (16 full time positions).  The Post-Crescent reports some of the reasons for the layoffs:

It became obvious in recent months that the school board would have to lay off more staff after it was determined Appleton faces a $2.4 million budget deficit for 2010-11.

[Mark] Huenink [assistant superintendent for school services] said half of the layoffs are the result of an enrollment decline at the high school level, noting that even without staff reductions to balance the budget, the district would need to eliminate positions because there aren’t enough students signed up for several classes next fall.

Reading the district budget web page it appears that Appleton is caught in the old version of the budget gap and that not taxing to the max is not on the table, yet.

WHBY Radio reports that the layoff notices were approved on March 8.

Another part of the balancing might be a teacher pay freeze, but this doesn’t seem too likely.

Susan Troller has been following the Monona Grove situation in the Cap Times and one of the best sources of information is Board Member Peter Sobol’s blog.

As this video from Channel 3000 says, the big issue is school closures, but the long term picture isn’t good with cuts year after year. after year…

I really like the guy who hits the anti-tax/tax cuts politics as the root cause.

Rob Kahl the Mayor of Monona has also checked in.

Residents of the Monona Grove School District are hopefully by now beginning to fully understand the dire financial situation confronting our district. However, I think a quick recap is in order to ensure everyone fully comprehends the extent of the problem.

This is not a $1 million dollar budget hole that can be fixed this year with cuts including closing Maywood School. The district’s problems are much larger than that. Superintendent Gerlach has often referred to this as a $15 million dollar operating budget deficit and I know there are many questions of how he comes to that total. Quite simply, using a five year projection the total amounts to $15 million because the district needs to make $1 million in cuts each year in addition to the money cut in preceding years. The chart below shows how this amount is calculated.

Year 1 2010-2011 Needed Cut of $1 million

Year 2
2010-2011 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2011-2012 Needed Cut of $1 million

Year 3
2010-2011 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2011-2012 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2012-2013 Needed Cut of $1 million

Year 4
2010-2011 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2011-2012 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2012-2013 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2013-2014 Needed Cut of $1 million

Year 5
2010-2011 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2011-2012 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2012-2013 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2013-2014 Needed Cut of $1 million PLUS
2014-2015 Needed Cut of $1 million

Total Deficit if No Cuts Made = $15 million….

. It is apparent to anyone with a calculator that the district will need to go to a referendum to raise more property taxes and do so soon as it is simply unfeasible to make the total amount of needed cuts. The “plan” of the district is prior to going to that referendum to have some “blood in the streets” in their own words by undergoing significant cuts to programming and closing Maywood School. After this blood letting, they will then come to the citizens of the district within the next year or so and ask for permission to exceed the property tax levy limits.

What’s missing here is that this has been going on in many districts for 16 years.

It is very sad the School Boards are (and have been) trying to find that magic balance point between the pain of repeated cuts and continued faith in the schools before asking for referendum.  Cut too much and people are too disgusted and disheartened to vote yes; cut too little and people think the Board is crying wolf.  Even Madison, with the “Partnership Pl;an” felt the need to put forth a referendum that required further cuts (and now the cuts are looking larger and some of the referendum authority may not be used).

Most of the “blood in the streets” right now is school closings, but other things are are also being cut.  A music teacher points to the cuts in her area:

* Increase the instructional minutes that define a full-time teacher for Elementary Related Arts from 1280 minutes per week to 1350 minutes per week.

* Reduce instructional minutes for the elementary related arts classes (art, music, PE) from 40 minutes twice a week to 30 minutes twice a week at grades 3-5, and for art only at grades K-2.

* Eliminate the 4th-grade string program

* Reduce staffing in 6-8th grade music programs by 1.53 full-time teachers.

This proposal intends to staff the middle school music programs with only 1 full-time teacher in each curricular area for band, choir, and orchestra.

All the proposed Monona cuts are here, on the district website.

It makes me think of what Madison has been through in times past and what is going on in Milwaukee this year.

South Milwaukee too.  Arts are always a place to look for cuts, especially when so much of “accountability” is linked to Math and Reading standardized test scores.  In both Milwaukee and South Milwaukee, students came out to protest (videos from WTMJ).

Milwaukee

South Milwaukee

I can’t find much in the way of details, but 9 teachers were cut in Weyauwega-Fremont a couple of weeks ago and it is anticipated that 7-8 support staff will also be axed.

Big cuts in ManitowocLast year they lost $400, 000 in state aid and had cuts of $1.6 million (it could have been worse, $700,000 in one time stimulus money stayed the hatchets).  They are looking at another $1.7 million in cuts this year, but the Herald Times Reporter quotes business services Director Ken Mischler being positive:

Despite the cuts that will need to be made, many other school districts are facing more dire situations, Mischler said.

“Financially, we’re doing OK,” he said.

Board member Jim Protsman said the fact that the 2010-11 year likely won’t be the last year of budget cuts would influence his decisions regarding cuts for this year.

There are at least a couple of dynamics going on here.  First, the whole “it could be worse” diminished ambitions and expectations is exactly the wrong attitude to bring to education, even in the business office.  Education should be about reaching higher and higher.  Second, there is the the professional pride that induces administrators to downplay the damage being done by the repeated cuts to educational opportunities.  The Board member quoted is correct that there will be more cuts next year and beyond, especially if people keep saying “it could be worse” and “it’s not that bad” instead of shouting that the cuts must stop.  If you want to join the shouting, become part of the Penny for Kids campaign.

On to Kaukauna where the budget hole is $2.4 million in a $44 million budget and the layoffs have started. According to this WLUK-TV report, some of the the positions cut are in “School Within a School” alternative program which  serves students who are struggling and in danger of dropping out.

More than 125 people attended the meeting where the cuts were made, but that didn’t stop the hatchets.  There really isn’t much Board Members can do about the costs/revenue limit gaps but cut, these are a product of the broken school finance system that has been in place for 16 years (the Madison gap and the gaps in other districts where part of the equation is deciding whether to tax to the max are different in that Boards do have some options).  It is state action that is needed.

Milton has big problems too; an $850,000 gap in in a $34 million budget.  Possible school closures are again the focus of much of the frustration (really, the frustration needs to be directed at the state officials who continue to do little or nothing about this crisis)., but there are many other items on the chopping block.   These include laying off elementary teachers, cuting guidance staff, reducing the High School Dean to half time and axing a business education teacher.  The Janesville Gazette reports that one student provided some needed perspective on the last:

Ben Oliver, an 18-year-old Milton High student, spoke against the proposed elimination of a high school business teacher. He said with the state of the economy, the district should be adding, not subtracting from the business department.

“We have a local, national and financial responsibility to financially educate America’s youth, he said. “By no means is that a task for an understaffed department.”

WKOW had more — mostly on the school closures — in this report:

Just a couple more districts for now…

Wausau has a new teacher contract, below the old QEO 3.8%, but is still looking at $3.8 million in cuts from a $100 million budgetThey have also cut 10 teachers and added a sixth class to the workload of teachers in Middle and High School.

Two Rivers is looking to cut about $850,000.  Like in Madison, a proposed administrative restructuring is part of the package.  Other things include eliminating the one staffer for Gifted and Talented education, reassigning the Family and Consumer Science teacher, cutting pack on technology education, having a single librarian cover the Middle and High School,  and larger class sizes.

I’ve got at least another half dozen links that will have to wait, or more likely never be posted here because by the time I get to them there will be new cuts to in other districts to post on.  I hate this.

I hate doing this too.  Yet I keep on because I cling to the hope that if enough people become aware of the way education is being chopped in Wisconsin they will put enough pressure on out Legislators to move them from them to do something, even in an election year.

Might as well close with the “What you can do” also.

The easiest thing to do to help is to sign the Penny for Kids petition sponsored by the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES).  We (I’m a WAES Board Member) are asking that the state enact a 1 cent per dollar sales tax to address the immediate crisis and move Wisconsin toward better ways of investing in education.  You can read more and find out how to help in other ways at the links.

Thomas J. Mertz

1 Comment

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

One response to “Hatchets at the Ready — More Wisconsin School Budget News

  1. Leslie Henry

    We also have a facebook page in South Milwaukee… forward south milwaukee.

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