MMSD Budget Facts and Thoughts

Just some things that have been on my mind as this budget process unfolds.


The November 2008 referendum that many of us worked so hard for was a waste of time and effort.  There was no way of knowing that at the time and it doesn’t have to be that way, but as of now that’s the reality.  Last year the referendum added $4 Million to the Revenue Limit, but the district levied at least $6 Million under the limit (it gets complicated when you figure in Fund 80  — which has no limit — and the 2005 maintenance referendum and other factors…).  This year the 2008 referendum adds $8 Million in revenue authority; the Board of Education has already “decided” to levy $10,570,692 less than they are allowed.  The cuts and efficiencies already decided are $2.5 Million greater than those the referendum sought to avoid.


There are about $5.37 Million in cuts and efficiencies offered by the administration left on the table, plus amendments from Board Members.


The funding for a 1/2 time Albanian Bilingual staff member (item 61) which was cut on Monday was projected to  cost the owner of a $250,000 home 38 cents a year.  The same is true for the Korean position (item 62).  Maintaining current levels of service for Hmong Bilingual staff  (item 63) — which has not been decided yet — would cost that same home owner $3.01 a year.


For 2009-10 the English Language Learner division staff to student ratio was 18.85/1.  In 2005-6 it was 16.26/1.   One FTE has been cut already; 8.5 are pending.  These are the Hmong BRS (item 63)  and High School allocations (item 60).  The ELL population is projected to grow.


The proposal to make staffing levels contingent on pay freezes is an example of the Board of Education (or at least some members) attempting to avoid responsibility (Board Amendment here; news story here).  Proper staffing levels are a policy decision; we elect the Board to make these decisions.  The Board has more than sufficient revenue authority to fully staff at the recommended levels and give raises.  They are welcome to cut staffing levels if they think that is best and they are welcome to attempt to negotiate a contract with no raises, but these choices are theirs and not the unions’.   Assuming this goes forward and the unions choose raises over staffing, who would bear the responsibility for a student who was injured because an under-staffed security team could not respond fast enough?  In my book it would be the Board of Education and their desire to not use the full revenue authority.


On this and related pay freeze proposals, it should be kept in mind that the projected health insurance savings mean that for all staff total compensation packages are below those budgeted.  A pay freeze combined with these savings would mean a decrease in total compensation.


MMSD should keep the Legislative Liaison position, especially since the district voted to leave the Wisconsin Association of School Boards on Monday.  Recent state action and inaction may make it seem like having a liaison has not been effective; believe me, without that voice and expertise, things would be worse.


Brenda Konkel got it right on the “secret straw poll” distraction.  Here is what I posted in the comments on the Cap Times editorial:

As one who follows these things closely, has attended every budget-related meeting of the Board of Education and has long advocated greater openness in all governing activities, I have to say this is being blown out of proportion.

The tally or “straw poll” was not secret nor was it a vote. It was discussed repeatedly in open meetings prior to Board Members participating. Upon request copies of the tallies were given to me and at least one other community member at the conclusion of the first meeting where it was used. A check of the tallies and the subsequent votes would reveal that they don’t match, that Board Members did change their positions when items were the subject of open deliberations.

I would have preferred that copies were public prior  to, not at the conclusion of the meeting where it was first employed, but that was a logistical issue.


I was at a meeting of Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools people yesterday.  Some of the people there were amazed at the hundreds of Madisonians who came out to tell the Board of Education that they preferred tax increases to further cuts.  Some of the people were also perplexed that with this kind of support the Board of Education is cutting and considering cutting at the levels they are.  I’m perplexed too.  I’m also disappointed.


Near the conclusion of the April 26 Board meeting one Board Member explained voting to cut a program that “in ideal times” they would not vote to cut.  The explanation included things outside the control of the Board– tough economic times, the state actions and inaction — but it also included something like “unfortunately we live in a time when people are reluctant to pay higher taxes for education.”  The people at the hearings weren’t reluctant.   I know that most of the people who worked to elect this Board Member aren’t reluctant.  I don’t know what kind of emails the Board is getting, but I have come to think of this attitude on the part of elected officials — state and local — as the “Tea Party in their head.”   Strong majorities of he people of Madison have repeatedly made it clear that they support tax increases for education, yet our legislative delegation and now our Board of Education instead listen to voices in their heads saying the opposite.


Some of the savings and efficiencies are great.  It would be nice there was some effort to allocate these to improving or expanding good things, instead of to avoid tax increases.  With the partial exceptions of shrinking Strategic Plan funding, Fine Arts and Math Task Force funding, Culturally Relevant Education and Talented and Gifted (and maybe a some other small things), there isn’t much thought or talk about improvement, about progress.  The achievement gaps continue.  Avoiding tax increases is not going to bring about a positive change there.


Strong statements about the harm done by cuts to programs and services from the administration and the Board have been much too rare.  Everything they said back when they were talking about why a referendum was needed remains true, yet now we hear that larger cuts than were projected without a referendum are acceptable.  If only in support of state level school funding reform efforts, the harm being done must be made clear.


I think some clarification about schedules and process is in order.  The calendar on the district web site has been out of date for some time, so here’s my attempt.

05/03/10 Board of Education Meetings Executive Session at 5:00 PM to discuss contractual matters and Legislative Liaison.

Open Meeting at 6:30 PM on Budget

05/04/10 Board of Education Workshop Meeting 5:00 PM. No public appearances. Last meeting before Preliminary Budget is Finalized. From this point forward further cuts are very difficult, especially those involving staff. Add backs are in theory easier.
05/10/10 Board of Education Meeting 6:00 PM. Regular Meeting, opportunity for Public Appearances. Budget will in all likelihood not be directly on the agenda.
05/15/10 Preliminary Budget Published
05/17/10 Budget Hearing 6:00 PM
05/24/10 Layoff Notices Due This is the due date, but logistics dictate that decisions be made weeks in advance.
06/1/10 Statutorily Required Budget Hearing and Vote The state requires advance publication of a the Budget and a hearing prior to the vote. This vote will be the last time that a simple majority can change things. After the (possibly amended) Preliminary Budget is passed, five votes are needed.
10/08/10 Revenue Limit Calculation from DPI
10/15/10 State Aid Calculation from DPI
10/25/10 Final Approval of 2010-11 Budget and Tax Levy

I don’t think I’ll be doing an “On the Agenda” post this week.  The agenda is here.  With one exception I think all the relevant documents are available on the Budget Page (there is a broken link in the agenda, so I’m not 100% sure).  The exception is the Cost-to-Continue Budget, partially revised to reflect the Reorganization.  That still hasn’t been posted by the district, but you can find it here.


Remember you can contact the Board at and please, please sign the Penny for Kids petition so there is some chance that we never have to do this again.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Best Practices, Budget, Contracts, education, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, Pennies for Kids, Referenda, referendum, School Finance, Take Action, Uncategorized

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