Yesterday afternoon I submitted the final version of an amendment on class sizes to the Madison Metropolitan School District 2017-18 Preliminary Budget. The Board of Education will consider and vote on this (and other amendments), as well as the Budget at our meeting on June 26, 2017 (6:00 PM, Doyle Building Auditorium). In my previous post I presented my then current thinking about the amendment and asked for feedback. This post is a brief walk-through of the final version, highlighting (and to some extent explaining) changes.
In general, the legislative process requires compromise, and tempering idealism with realism. I have tried to keep that in mind throughout the budget work, but at this penultimate step compromise and realism become more prominent.
From top to bottom, excerpts followed by comments.
Amend the 2017-18 MMSD Preliminary Budget by immediately allocating an additional $500,000 to expand the number of budgeted unallocated classroom teacher positions, and
Dependent on the per pupil categorical aid provisions of the biennial Wisconsin State budget allocating up to an additional $1,000,000 to expand the number of budgeted unallocated classroom positions proportionately with no additional allocation if the categorical aid increase is $100 or less, up to $1,000,000 if it is $200 or more, and
Both compromise and realism are present here. Reviewing the Budget, previous and pending actions; talking and listening to budget staff, Board Members, community members, I have concluded that the present Budget can support targeted class size allocations of $500,000, and that a favorable State Budget would justify an increase to that amount of $1,000,000. I am sure we will hear more on this from all parties prior to and at the June 26 meeting.
I try to be forthcoming and transparent, so I want to acknowledge that the best projections indicate that spending the $1,000,000 which is dependent on the State Budget will push the property tax levy increase beyond the 3.97% projected in relation to the November 2016 referendum, to approximately 4.3% (there won’t be final numbers till October). I should also note that my proposed increase in levy is only one half of the projected $2,000,000 that would be available.
One other thing of importance here is the shift from talking about the number of positions to talking about dollars. Being a budget amendment, that is necessary. Translating dollars to FTE is an inexact calculation. MMSD makes wide use of a figure of about $80,000 to budget full time teachers, inclusive of benefits, payroll taxes and everything else. However, teachers hired late tend to be less experienced, have lower levels of post-graduate education, and are less likely to enroll in “family” insurance plans, making them somewhat cheaper. If I had to guess, I would say that the probable cost per FTE hired under this amendment would be about $60,000, so $1,500,000 would yield 25 FTE, but it could be higher and the yield could be fewer than 20.
Establishing the following guidelines for the prioritizing the allocation of these new positions to schools: setting standards, but allowing for flexibility based on unique circumstances, local knowledge, and professional judgment, with primary consideration to be given to allocating positions to meet the standards in the order listed below:
- High Poverty, K-3 not to exceed 18 students.
- High Poverty, 4-5, not to exceed 23 students.
- Other Schools, K, not to exceed 20 students.
- Other Schools, 1-3, not to exceed 22 students.
- Other Schools, 4-5, not to exceed 25 students.
- High Poverty, 6th Grade, Core Academic Classes (Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies), not to exceed 25 students.
- Other Schools 6th Grade, Core Academic Classes (Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies), not to exceed 27 students.
- High Poverty, 7-8, Core Academic Classes (Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies), not to exceed 27 students.
- Other Schools, 7-8, Core Academic Classes (Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies), not to exceed 29 students.
- 9th Grade Core Academic Classes (Reading/English, Math, Science, Social Studies), not to exceed 28 students.
- 10-12 Grade Core Academic Classes (Reading/English, Math, Science, Social Studies), not to exceed 30 students.
For the purposes of this amendment designating the following schools as High Poverty:
K-5 (non-AGR schools marked with *; non-Title I schools marked with #)
Lake View Elementary
Nuestro Mundo Elementary
Orchard Ridge Elementary
6-8 (non-Title I schools marked with #)
Badger Rock Middle
Black Hawk Middle
There are two significant changes here. The first is in the composition and ordering of the priorities. The second is moving from “hard caps” to “guidelines” or “standards.”
On the presentation of the priorities, the feedback I received was crucial. Overwhelmingly, people were most concerned about the early grades in high poverty schools, and advocated a “the smaller the better” policy for these grades. My personal preference for something more nuanced (read complicated) and giving more attention to (what I consider) extremely large classes in some of our lower poverty schools remains, but these are compromises I can endorse.
Budgeting hard caps is difficult, amending a budget that wasn’t built on hard caps is even more difficult (especially when proposed hard caps are smaller than the numbers used to make initial allocations). Going forward, revising the current (weak) MMSD Class Size Policy, and giving more attention to class size at every stage of the budget process may create a more favorable environment for hard caps in future budgets, but not this one.
While understanding that (almost) any absolute rule will on occasion lead to less than optimal choices, I am wary of calls for flexibility. Some years ago I wrote about the introduction of “flexibility” in SAGE and other policies:
Remember warnings about your face getting stuck in some ugly expression? I think the champions of “flexibility” in Wisconsin and elsewhere need loud and repeated warnings that their “flexibility” in educational policy (along with privatization, cuts in funding, destruction of local control…) in fact constitutes a possibly permanent acceptance of declining educational quality and is an ugly betrayal of our traditions and our responsibility to our children. They are bending our schools out of shape and our children will be stuck with it.
The events of the last six years have only reinforced my wariness.
My ideal method for balancing mandates and flexibility is to mandate default choices, but simultaneously create a process by which deviations from the default are justified and approved. Although the amendment doesn’t go that far, I do think the reporting requirements (below) embody some of this concept and will create opportunities for accountability.
Requiring that public reports be made to the Board of Education, which include the amount of funds remaining from this allocation, the number of sections or classrooms added to date from this allocation for each of the listed priorities, the number of sections or classrooms remaining that exceed the guidelines for each listed priority based on then current enrollments.
At minimum three public reports be made,
- A Baseline Report to be issued as soon as possible after the passage of the Preliminary 2017-18 Budget, but no later than July 14, 2017.
- A Start of School Report, to be issued no earlier than the completion of registrations (August 21, 2017) and no later than the end of the second week of school (September 15, 2017).
- A Report, to be issued with the October/November Enrollment Reports.
I hope these reports accomplish two additional things. First is increased transparency in school and classroom staffing. I think these are the most important part of our Budget, and MMSD has been more translucent than transparent with them. Second, I think the reports will contribute to the ongoing discussion of the costs and impacts of spending on class size reduction.
Before closing I want to note that I left out any mandate tying the allocation of the new positions to specific dates. The main purpose of that was to give greater weight to the highest priorities, but the process was awkward, and the reconfiguration of the priorities accomplished some of this.
In closing I am going to cut-and-paste the closing of my previous post, once again urging participation in this process:
If you think I did more right than wrong, please let the Board (and the world) know about your support for the amendment. As usual, you can email us [email@example.com], or testify at the June 26th meeting where we will be voting on this and the entire preliminary budget. Talk to your neighbors, co-workers, and friends, write a letter to the editor, post on Facebook. Instagram, or tweet something, draw something, dance…be creative.
Thanks in advance for the feedback and support.
Thomas J. Mertz