MMSD Budget, an Open Letter

On Monday May 17 (6:00 PM) and Tuesday June 1 (5:00 PM), the Madison Metropolitan School Board will hold public hearings and meetings on the 2010-11 Budget.  On June 1st they will vote to finalize the Preliminary Budget Both meetings are in the Doyle Building Auditorium and will be carried by MMSD-TV.

Many relevant documents can be found on the district Budget Page.  Among those missing are the Amended Preliminary Budget (reflecting actions through May 4)  and the Cost-to-Continue Budget partially incorporating the Reorganization.

In this penultimate phase of the budget process I will be proposing two budget amendments for the Board’s consideration (the ultimate phase comes in October when student counts, state aid and the property tax levy are all certified).  I am asking other concerned community members to join me in supporting these, either by testifying at the hearings or contacting the Board (  The amendments and the thoughts behind them are explained in the open letter to the Board below.

Members of the MMSD Board of Education

These last months I’ve watched as you’ve struggled with the 2010-22 budget.

The seeming inability of our state officials to reform education funding combined with a cuts in state education aid by those same officials, left you in a difficult position, with no clear, easy choices.

I’ve listened to hundreds of community members asking you to not cut particular items and many of these ask you to not cut at all.  The clear message from those who came before you was that tax increases are better than further cuts to our district.

This is the same spirit that animated 87,329 voters (over 68 %) to support the 2008 referendum.  Now you are poised to enact cuts much greater than the $9 million anticipated had the referendum failed.

I have also witnessed your consistent efforts to act on the best information possible in order to maintain successful initiatives, leave core programs untouched, preserve jobs and avoid greater inequities.   Although there is much about the process and the results (thus far) that I don’t like, you — along with administrators and staff —  have earned respect and even a little applause for having evaluated almost $30 million in cuts, efficiencies and savings and arrived at over $13 million that could be trimmed with relatively minimal impact on the things that matter most.  We shouldn’t fool ourselves or anyone else, there will be a negative impacts from the changes detailed in the Preliminary Budget.

Reflecting on this process three other things stood out.  First and most generally,  the idea of progress —  moving forward, improving educational opportunities and governance —  seemed to be lost in the efforts to maintain and preserve.   Second, the Board throughout this budget (and at other times) has been hampered by inadequate information.  Last, I continually heard “Equity” invoked as a rationale to keep budget items and occasionally heard it as a justification for cutting programs (as if the answer to inequity was to eliminate instead of moving or expanding something that was benefiting students); I never heard anyone talk about doing something positive to increase Equity.

These are the thoughts behind my proposals.   I find it almost criminal that people like you who are committed to public education can enact cuts at this level and not at minimum consider reallocating from some of those cuts in ways that have great potential to improve our schools.  I know I can’t sit by silently and allow that to happen.

I am proposing that you consider using $2.25 Million of the  approximately $13 Million in revenue authority  currently designated for property tax relief be used in the following manner.

  • Budget $.25 million for improved data collection analysis and reporting as required in the Strategic Plan, TAG Plan, and  Equity Policy, Literacy Education Evaluation and elsewhere. This should include the creation of a position working with the Board of Education to determine and meet their informational needs.
  • Budget $2.0 million in Supplemental Allocations to high need schools via the Equity Resource Formula (or a similar criteria) and aligned with purposes identified in School Improvement Plans and consistent with the Strategic Plan and Equity Policy. Since SAGE and Title I do provide resources to high need elementary schools, it may be advisable to disproportionately target secondary schools with these funds.

A little more background and details on each of these.

Observers of and participants in this budget process have repeatedly expressed frustration with the quality of information available to base decisions on. The Strategic Plan, the Equity Policy, the Literacy Evaluation Initiative, the Talented and Gifted (TAG) Plan, the Culturally Relevant Education Program and much more all include evaluation and reporting components. These are all critical to bringing improvement to the district. Because of budget pressures the staff are being asked to do more with less.  Reviewing not only the budget process, but also the State of the District Report and the draft Equity Report, it is clear that there is much room for improvement.   This is an area where a small investment could have great effect.

I want to make it clear that by data, I include qualitative assessments of programs and practices.  I would also encourage the use of some of this money to move forward with assessments other than the WKCE.  the limits of that tool are well known.  More generally, a word of caution about the utility of any and all assessments and analysis is in order.  Data should not and cannot drive policy, but good information, well presented should serve to guide decisions.   I have included the recommendation for a position working with the Board for two reasons.  First, I think that the Board knows best what information they would find useful and should be able to have a clear means of getting that information.  Second, in too many instances those directly involved in programs have been the sole source of information and evaluations resulting in a lack of perspective, objectivity and the very real possibility of conflicts of interest.

Much of my involvement in education advocacy stems from my 2005 appointment to the MMSD Equity Task Force.   This is an issue that is close to my heart and central to my advocacy at the local, state and national levels.

After much work, in 2008 the Board of Education enacted a policy based partially on the recommendations of that Task Force. Both the Task Force and the policy recommend where appropriate “unequal distribution of resources and services in response to the unequal distribution of needs and educational barriers.”  This is how schools can seek to combat societal inequality instead of reproducing it.

Before being decimated by budget cuts, MMSD used to do this through what were called “supplemental allocations,” which provided extra resources to our highest need schools.  Instead we rely on the limited and inadequate state and federal SAGE, Title I, IDEA, ELL and the like for limited and inadequate Equity based allocations.

We do nothing or next to nothing beyond what is required by law with general funds (as you know, the legal mandates for Special Education students and English Language Learners can only be met by supplementing with general funds); Title I and SAGE do nothing for students in our Middle and High Schools.

Little progress is being made in the achievement gap.  African American and Hispanic students are almost twice as likely to drop out as they are to participate in programs for the “Talented and Gifted.”  166 African American or Hispanic drop outs/90 receiving any attention from the TAG staff.   All parts of that statistic are ugly.  There is much room for improvement here and in other areas of concern for Equity.

Bringing back some form of Equity directed supplemental allocations would be an important step forward.  I am asking that you to consider taking this step.

In closing I think it is important to recall that for 16 years the state imposed revenue caps have forced painful cuts and made progress and improvements difficult.  As one of you said “We’ve given up on dreaming.”   Too much time and energy has gone into deciding what to cut and not cut and too little into making things better.  Recent state actions and inaction left the Board with difficult choices involving further cuts and significantly increased property taxes.  More time and energy spent deciding what to cut or not cut and how much to tax; very little spent trying to make our schools the best they can be.  Without the initiatives I’ve proposed  others like them, the district is projected to levy about$13 million less than is allowed by the state.  In the service of dreams and Equity, it is imperative that some of that authority be used to move forward, to improve, not just maintain and preserve.


Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Accountability, Best Practices, Budget, education, Equity, finance, Local News, Referenda, referendum, School Finance, Take Action, Uncategorized

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