Category Archives: finance

That Was Strange — MMSD Budget Hearing Report

Patti Smith, “Aint It Strange” (click to listen or download).

Short meeting, short report.

I got there 15minutes late, a very sparse crowd, maybe 4-5 people who weren’t there in a professional capacity, more reporters than citizens.  Strange.

By the time I got there public testimony had ended and Ed Hughes had already withdrawn his “Gift Card” Budget Amendment (more on that below).

I got special dispensation to testify and spoke briefly thanking staff and the Board for doing well under difficult circumstances and given the underlying structural issues, asked them to keep open minds on the use of the potential additional $10 million in revenue authority and identified a couple of places they should consider (addressing mobility and making supplemental allocations based on equity measures real again).  I was told that three people testified; I’m not sure if that included me.

They wrapped up and that was it, over by 5:30.  I ran into three friends afterwards who were on their way to the hearing.    I told them they had another chance on Sunday.

I think there are a lot of factors at play in the lack of attendance and interest.  Here are some:

  • Everyone understands that their actions are constrained by state matters.  In some way this is a victory, because not too long ago we heard a lot of  “don’t whine about the state, there are local mismanagement issues that are the problem.”  In some way this is a loss also.  By far the biggest factor in the fiscal situation is a broken system of state finance aggravated by cuts in state aid and diminished local authority, but there are choices on many things in the Budget that are local and I believe some of these choices are problematic.  When people rallied to protect their favorite programs or to keep their school open, they also became aware of and involved in these choices.  I think that was good.
  • They have generally done a good job under the circumstances.
  • There is no “cut list” to excite interest.
  • One friend said to me that “everyone I know is doing state stuff.”  See number 1.

Like I said in an earlier post, I think there are still things worth advocating on, worth getting excited about.

There was some excitement around Ed Hughes’ proposal in the media today.  Despite pleas from Dave Blaska this excitement did not translate into cyber-warriors actually bothering to attend the meeting and testify.   As of now 116 comments on the Wisconsin State Journal story, most of them ill-informed and hostile.

The odd thing about so much of this that Ed has been a Board Member who has repeatedly pushed back at the Unions.  Most of his new critics don’t know the history and don’t care to.  Ed gets that there is a  tension between the adversarial and collaborative aspects of the Board/Union relationship, and has on occasion pulled toward the adversarial more than I think is good.  I’m not privy to the nuts and bolts of negotiations, but that’s the impression I have and certainly his budget amendment last year calling for a freeze in pay for non teacher MTI affiliate members  backs up this impression.

Read these  posts by Ed  (1, 2, 3, 4) and his responses to Blaska at the above link to learn a little more about where he is coming from.    He is  not (as Blaska characterized)  “cowed” by the Union, but he probably does have “conflicting emotions” because he understands the tensions and also understands that the district staff is the most important factor in fulfilling the mission of providing quality education to all students.

To me this amendment was a nice gesture.  It doesn’t change much, it certainly doesn’t make up for the financial hits district staff are taking, but nice.  It isn’t the kind of thing I’d propose, but  it is something I could support.

I think it is sad that a relative few knee jerk anti-Union/anti-Teacher/anti-Public Education/anti-Public Sector trolls and flamers can create an atmosphere where a proposal like Ed’s doesn’t stand much of a chance.


Thomas J. Mertz

Addendum — Ed Hughes has some clarification on what happenedSusan Troller offers some background and context.


Filed under "education finance", Budget, Contracts, education, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, School Finance, Scott Walker

MMSD Budget Hearings, 5/19 & 5/22

Click on image for all the District 2011-2012 Budget Information.

The Kingsmen – “Money” (click to listen or download).

The Madison Metropolitan School District will be holding two Budget Hearings on May 19 (5:00 PM at the Doyle Building) and May 22 (1:00 PM, at Warner Park) prior to finalizing any layoffs in the their preliminary 2011-2012 Budget on May 23.  The Preliminary Budget itself is scheduled to be finalized on June 20, following the statutorily required Public Hearing that same evening.  Details on this week’s hearings are here and the full current budget timeline is here.

This has been a strange year and the process and budget  reflect this strangeness.  I’ll admit that I haven’t followed things as closely nor looked at the budget materials as thoroughly as I usually do.  Still I think it worth offering some information, raising some questions and issues, and offering some comments.  If this reveals my lack of preparation, so be it.

This is post  is pretty long, if you are just interested in the “asks” for the Budget Hearings, scroll to the bottom.

Due to a combination of circumstances, MMSD is not being hit as hard as most districts by Governor Scot Walker’s Budget proposals, in fact MMSD is adding things and cutting very little (except staff compensation).  The best explanations of these circumstances are from Board Member Ed Hughes here and here.

If you want all the details (and as background to what will follow here, you’ll need some of them), read Ed’s posts.   For those who don’t, I’ll offer these two big picture excerpts from the second post:

Bottom line, primarily thanks to the cuts in the take-home pay of our teachers and other staff, we should be able to get through the budget process reasonably unscathed (except, of course, for our staff’s paychecks).


While the process should be relatively straightforward for us this year, the budget solutions the state has compelled us to pursue will have unfortunate long-term consequences.  Our teachers, who are not overpaid, are our most important resource.  Maintaining the quality of our school district will depend critically on our continuing ability to attract and keep the best teachers around.

Much as the Governor might disagree, we’ll eventually have to pay our teachers what they’re worth.   When we do, our expenses will jump and our property tax levy will follow suit.  Talk about your deficit spending – in effect, the state is financing the next two years of rising school costs by borrowing from our teachers.  At some point, that debt will become due.

It should noted that since Ed posted, the Board found funding for the Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants, so that cut is off the table.

What’s New?

The biggest addition is 4 year old Kindergarten.  The numbers and analysis for this, other additions and savings/efficiencies, shifts are in the “Superintendent’s Recommendations.”  Here are the additions (I believe funding has been identified for the first set  —  including 4K —  and is contained in the initial Budget proposal, but the second set remains unfunded, leaving the budget out of balance):

And here are some more recent additions:

First, doing 4k is right and good and I’m glad that it is going forward.  It has been a long struggle and all who have made this happen should be proud.

Some other observations  on some of these.

The cost of the last is a big unknown (I point out the other TAG related adds because I think this item will be the topic of much discussion and the total increase needs to be considered).   There are other unknowns.

The Unknowns

There are always lost of unknowns at this point in the budget process.  The biggest one being the state budget, but also things like pupil counts and relative property values;  as well as local items like the TAG issue, Board member Amendments and of course any changes that might come as a result of the public input at the Budget Hearings.  I want to highlight some of these.

  • Unused Revenue Authority:  This is the big, big one.  Because MMSD has under-levied the past couple of years there is about $10 million in unused authority (see the Ed Hughes posts for more).  The Biennial Budget as proposed by Governor Walker does not allow the use of this authority.  Word is that this was unintentional and Republican Senator Luther Olsen has given something like assurances that this will be fixed before the state budget is finalized.  $10 million is  a lot of money.  If MMSD has this authority,  advocates for improving or expanding educational offerings, or revising upward compensation packages will have some room to work, and will no doubt come up against those who wish to hold the line on property taxes.  It will get interesting.
  • The Size of Mandated Revenue Cuts: As drafted, the Walker Budget requires all to reduce districts total state and local revenues by 5.5% (if the unused authority is allowed, MMSD would actually be allowed an increase).  Board of Education (proposed) Budget Amendment AA-4 states that “various sources” are saying this may change to 5.0%,  increasing MMSD’s limit by $1,429,798.  The amendment also proposes that this potential authority be used to add to the Fund Balance.  This is, or should be, a non-starter.  Because…
  • Surpluses, Equity and Fund Balances:  For the third year in a row, MMSD is running a surplus.  This year it is projected to be between $5.5 and $6.2 million (I can’t be the only one thinking back to the pain and drama of last year’s budget process in light of this development).  The Fund Balance is now projected at over $46 Million or double what it was just a few short years ago.  In the last year MMSD also adopted  a Fund Balance Policy and the projected year end total is in excess of the maximum allowed.  Some Fund Balance is already allocated to the 4K start up.  The Administration had recommended that $2,788,592 of this be used to create an escrow account for future debt repayments.  They are now recommending that $6.5 or $5.5 million be used in this manner.  The $1 million difference is in deference to a Board Amendment to use $1 million for maintenance.  For reasons related to the crazy quilt of school finance, most directly the hold harmless provisions, placing this money in escrow should increase future state aid (should, because things could change).  I can support using some of this for an escrow account, but think that some should be spent this year, both on maintenance and education.

So in these uncertainties there are some likely opportunities for change, a big question mark around TAG  and perhaps the possibility of  increased spending on maintenance, programs, services , and maybe  — if the $10 million in revenue authority is allowed  —  upward adjustments to compensation packages to offset the pension payment increases (many other Wisconsin public employers have done this).  Uncertainties and opportunities.

The Rest of the Board Amendments

So far this year the Board Amendments are unsigned.  Weird.  Maybe if I’d attended or watched some of the meetings I’ve missed I’d understand this or know which is whose.  All four that have been posted are here.  In addition to the one sending more money to the Fund Balance and the other spending Fund Balance on maintenance discussed above, there is a proposal to add a “Family (Parent) Engagement Coordinator, Elementary” and to add a “Director of African American Achievement.”  Both are designated to be part of the The Division of Equity & Family Involvement.   I support the first, with one suggested revision and oppose the second.

Family involvement is key to success in so many ways and MMSD’s efforts in this area have been limited by budget cuts and pretty hit-or-miss even before cuts took their toll.  I’m not sure that one district level position will make a big difference, but it is a start.  The revision I offer for consideration is making this position part of revamped Community Engagement & Public Information department.   I think there may be  synergy here, after all parents and families are part of the community and the strongest link to others who aren’t as directly connected to the schools.

Maybe if we had or were adding positions  — plural —  directed at the achievement of students in poverty and/or other groups, I could support a “Director of African American Achievement.”   As is, 50% of our students are poor, 17% are Hispanic, 10% are Asians, 17% are English Language Learners, 1% are Native American, 47% are white, 6% identify as mixed race,  and 20% are African American.   Of the approximately 2,500 MMSD students in tested grades who ranked in basic or minimal on the WKCE, about 1,125 are African American.  That’s half, bad and needs attention, but the other 1,125 students who are failing need attention too.    I also have to take into consideration the degree to which Cultural Relevance has come to dominate the equity work of the district, the degree to which cultural relevance has been defined almost exclusively in relation to African American culture and the so far unimpressive results (see the recent report on equity work  here, some test scores from the Cultural Relevance program are on page 76).  At this time and without adding other positions targeted differently, I can’t support this.

What’s the Ask?

I decided to do this post because people have been asking me about what’s going on with the MMSD Budget, many wanting to know where they should put their advocacy energy.   I think I’ve covered and provided links to answer the “what’s going on.”  The “what’s the ask” is harder, in part because of the lack of large, looming cuts and all of the unknowns, especially the $10 million in revenue authority.

The simple answer is to advocate for the things you care most about and that you think will do the most good.   That’s always good advice.

Here are my asks, in no particular order.

Start with the things discussed above.

Support: Use of some Fund Balance money for maintenance and education; creation of “Family (Parent) Engagement Coordinator, Elementary” position (maybe in a differnt department); and if the $10 million is available, using some of this for improving or expanding educational offerings, or revising upward compensation packages (especially for lower paid staff).

Wait and See:  TAG allocations.

Oppose: Use of any additional unanticipated revenues to add to the Fund Balance; creation of a “Director of African American Achievement” (unless other positions are created simultaneously); it is a done deal, but the increased allocation for testing and analysis should be noted.

There are also some other things that have been on my mind, that might be possible if the $10 million is available.

  • Bilingual Social Worker positions (as the Latino Parent Group and Union de Trabajadores Inmigrantes have been advocating for at least a couple of years).
  • Class Size: The move to 18 in SAGE classes is not a positive development and in non-SAGE early grade classes numbers of 25 and above are too big.  Rolling bck the SAGE class sizes and setting a hard upper limit of 21 or 22 in K-3 classes would be good (remember that in Florida class sizes in kindergarten through 3d grade are Constitutionally limited to 18 students (22 4th through 8th and 25 in High School).
  • Mobility:  Last I checked, almost 40% of African American MMSD High Schools were in their first year at their school (I believe that for 9th graders this means that they didn’t come from one of the feeders).  Other mobility calculations are similarly alarming (raw numbers here).  If we want to get at achievement, I think we need to deal more directly and pro-actively with mobility.    I don’t have any ideas, but I’m sure others do and that funding would be needed.
  • Madison Prep is not a done deal and some mention should be made about supporting all the students in our schools instead of spending higher amounts per student on a non-Instrumentality, non-Union Charter School of dubious potential.

Last, I’m going to cut and paste some items from last year.   These are still good ideas.

  • I’ve proposed two budget amendments, one on information for decision making and the other on Equity.
    • Budget $250,000 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 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.
    • You can read more about these on the MadisonAmps blog.
  • Create a fund for Strategic Plan Initiatives that can be approved by the Board throughout the year.
  • Create a fund for Equity Initiatives that can be approved by the Board throughout the year.
  • Fund much-needed Facilities Maintenance.
  • Rescind the decision to seek pay freezes for some of the lowest paid employees.

See you Thursday?  See you Sunday?  My guess is there won’t be big crowds, so short waits and a fully awake Board.

Thomas J.  Mertz


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Senate Bill 95 Testimony

Sisyphus 1, by Davor, click on image for more.

The Lyres, “Don’t Give It up Now” (click to listen or download).

Thank you for this opportunity to testify on Senate Bill 95.

Due to time limitations  — both the time allotted here and the very, very short time between the release of the Bill on Friday and the scheduling of this hearing for today  — I will be confining myself to only two of the topics covered in this wide ranging measure.  Those are the dilution of the Student Achievement Guaranty in Education (SAGE) and the use of student standardized test scores  as a determinant of educator employment conditions.  I will note that I believe every section of this Bill should be thoroughly sifted and winnowed.

Before directly addressing the proposals on SAGE and the use of student standardized test scores, I’d like to say a few things about the broader trend in educational thinking and policy in Wisconsin.

Not too long ago Senator Olson chaired a Special Committee on Review of State School Aid Formula.  I sat though most of the meetings of that committee.  Although little came of it, there was a sense of optimism and ambition in the work of that committee, a sense that we can and should do better.    This spirit was captured in the title of the presentation by Professor Alan Odden “Moving From Good to Great in Wisconsin:  Funding Schools Adequately and Doubling Student Performance,” (paper of the same title here) .  It should be added that Doctor Sarah Archibald, who is anow dvising Senator Olson, was part of that work.

Almost no one is seeking greatness any more.  At best people are seeking to push the limits of “doing more with less;” at worst there is an unspoken acceptance that the children of today and tomorrow will not have the the breadth and quality of educational opportunities that their older brothers and sisters were provided.    Things like physical education for all children are now  apparently luxury we cannot afford and so you have before you a Bill which eliminates that requirement.   Maybe this one policy change isn’t the most important, but it wouldn’t be before you if academic subjects, arts education, technical education, agricultural education and in fact the entire curriculum weren’t threatened in districts around the state.   How sad that it has come to eliminating physical education requirements in order to at least partially fund other educational offering.

There are better ways.  The Special Committee Senator Olson chaired heard about some of them, others have have been put forth since then.  I happen to believe that revenue reform needs to be part of the answer, but the recent revised revenue projections provide a way halt the decline without altering the tax structure.  Joint Finance leadership has indicated they won’t consider this.  Perhaps they could be convinced otherwise, perhaps members of this committee could remind them of the responsibility of  each generation to give the next the tools to create a better future.

The proposed “flexibility” for SAGE is like the Phys Ed proposal, in that it is a step backward, only it is worse.  SAGE  is Wisconsin’s only state program targeted for children in poverty and this is crucial,  legally, educationaly and as a matter of social justice.

In the Vincent v. Voight  decision the Wisconsin Supreme Court noted that “Poverty undisputedly leads to distinct learning problems” and identified addressing these problems as part of the test of the constitutionality of a school finance system.

Odden and Archibald  — like every other proposal for reforming education finance in Wisconsin  —  followed this lead,  proposing 30%+ additional resources for free and reduced lunch students .  In a similar manner the School Finance Network  proposed a broader and genuinely more flexible poverty categorical aid to improve educational equity and outcomes.   Allowing districts to partially opt out, improves nothing.  It simply denies more children in poverty the benefits of a a successful program.

SAGE isn’t perfect, but the results have been good.   The research by the Value Added Research Center is worth reviewing to get at the details, but the results have been convincing enough that Odden and Archibald included it in their strategies for doubling achievement,  recommending that “schools be resourced for class sizes of 15 for grades K-3 and 25 for grades 4-12.”

Even scholars who are generally skeptical about the efficiency of class size reductions recognize that the effects are more pronounced for children in poverty.  One of the prime functions of our public schools is to break the cycle of inequality by providing opportunities.  We haven’t come close to doing this.  Instead of limiting access to these opportunities, as SB 95 does, we should be looking to expand access by fully funding.

Since education reform proposals originating in Florida seem to be popular with some these days, I’ll close this section  by noting that state class sizes in kindergarten through 3d grade are Constitutionally limited to 18 students (22 4th through 8th and 25 in High School).  If every young student in Florida can have the benefits of a class limited to 18, I would hope that Wisconsin could at very least not make it easier to take these benefits away from our economically disadvantaged students.

On the expanding the use of standardized tests in relation to teacher employment I’ll be brief.

First, the test that is in place is the WKCE and consensus is that the WKCE is deeply flawed as a measure of student learning, much less teacher effectiveness (something it is not designed to measure) .  It is my understanding that the earliest we will have a new assessment is 2014, which means that the earliest we would have multiple years of data to work with is 2016.  So even if you accept that these new assessments will be  appropriate tools to measure student learning and teacher effectiveness — which I do not — for at least the next 5 years SB 95 ties educator employment conditions  to WKCE results.  How can this be a good idea?

More generally, I’ll again turn to Professor Odden (I don’t believe Doctor Archibald was part of this project).  He wrote: “Merit plans in education have conceptual, strategic, technical, and political shortcomings” and advised against trying them till other options– such as knowledge and skills based systems had been exhausted.  Conceptual because of the collaborative nature of teaching and learning.  Strategic because they target the extremes instead of seeking to improve teaching across the board.  Technically because of the impossibility of designing a plan that equitably covers all teachers in all subjects in all grades in all schools….. And politically, because most educators will oppose them, creating hostility that undermines organizational unity.

I could elaborate on this list and add to it.   Almost every scholar who does not have a vested interest in standardized tests and their application is skeptical of their application to the evaluation of teachers.   This skepticism includes value added analysis.  Scholars across the spectrum,  including  the The Economic Policy Institute, The National Academies, Math for America, The Brown Center at Brookings, the Rand Corporation,  and even The American Enterprise Institute have cautioned against or rejected the use of standardized test based value added models for high stakes decision making.

Instituting a standardized test based teacher evaluations will require devoting more resources — time and money — to tests, testing and the analysis of these tests.  A recent decision in Charlotte-Mecklenburg North Carolina captures the absurd state of education policy-making.  The Charlotte Observer reports:

Next week CMS will launch trial versions of 52 new tests, including an exam for kids as young as kindergarteners who must be tested one-on-one. The tests will be used to evaluate teachers, as the budget shrinks and officials prepare to lay off faculty.

52 new tests, so they can figure out which teachers to lay off in order to do the least harm.

In closing I offer a quote from a School Superintendent in Pennsylvania, where similar “mandate relief “legislation is under consideration:

“This does not promote education, it simply promotes laying off more educators,… these so-called mandate reliefs are just more smoke and mirrors.”

Much of SB 95 is about presenting the illusion of helping schools and students and distracting from the reality that our state is abandoning our commitment to providing every student a quality education.    It is time to leave the the smoke and mirrors and get back to working for greatness.

Thomas J. Mertz

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“Flexibility” = Decline = Ugly

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.

Here is the latest iteration from the Chairs of the Assembly and Senate Education Committees (it is being fast tracked and will be the subject of a hearing in the Assembly Education Committee on Monday May 16).:

TO: Legislative Colleagues

FROM: Representative Steve Kestell & Senator Luther Olsen

DATE: May 12, 2011

RE: Co Sponsorship – K-12 Mandate Relief Legislation

We are introducing legislation to provide public schools more flexibility and mandate relief in several areas: 

  • In the semester in which a student is a participant in a high school sport, that sport can count as the student’s phy ed credit.
  • Explicitly authorizes a school district to contract for a variety of services, including orientation and mobility training, educational interpreters, audiologists, speech therapists, pupil transition services, and any services approved by the state superintendent of public instruction; and makes the costs of such a contract eligible for special education aid.
  • Under current law DPI must prorate state aid payments to school districts for transportation costs if the amount appropriated does not cover all eligible costs. Under this bill, if funds remain after DPI pays all approved claims, DPI must distribute the balance to school districts on a prorated basis.
  • Current law allows a school district to use up to 25 percent of the moneys it receives from the common school fund in a fiscal year to purchase school library computers and related software. This bill eliminates the 25 percent limit.
  • This bill allows a school board to use the results of standardized examinations to evaluate teachers without the presence of the conditions described in current law.  Under current law, the results of standardized examinations may not be used to discharge, suspend, or formally discipline a teacher or as the reason for the nonrenewal of a teacher’s contract.  This bill provides that the results of standardized examinations may not be used as the sole reason to discharge, suspend, or formally discipline a teacher or as the sole reason for the nonrenewal of a teacher’s contract. 
  • This bill eliminates the requirement that no more than 200 teaching days be scheduled in the regular day school period in any school year for Milwaukee Public Schools. 
  • This bill permits SAGE flexibility for a school board that has entered into or renewed a SAGE contract to choose not to comply with the class size limitation requirements in one or more grades covered by the contract in one or more schools in the school district and in one or more years of the contract term.  Offering this flexibility will help maintain SAGE in schools that might otherwise be forced to drop out of the program for financial reasons. 
  • This bill authorizes a school board to refuse to enroll a pupil during the term of the pupil’s expulsion from a public school in another state if the grounds for the pupil’s expulsion would have been grounds for expulsion in this state.  
  • This bill permits a school district to use such law enforcement records as the sole basis for taking action against a pupil under the district’s athletic code. 
  • This bill provides that, in years in which a November general election is held, the school levy certification date is moved from November 6 to November 10.

An LRB copy of the legislation will follow.

The deadline for co-sponsorship is TOMORROW Friday, May 13 at Noon. Please contact Representative Kestell’s office at 6-8530 or Senator Olsen’s office at 6-0751 to be added as a co-sponsor, or reply to this e-mail to sign onto the bill.

Some of these are OK — allowing  a longer school year in Milwaukee, some transportation adjustments, even the school levy certification date change appears to be about a real issue with scheduling referenda.  Others are ugly.

Number 1 appears to be a way to limit the need for Phys Ed classes and teachers.  Number 2 brings the privatization mania into the public schools.  Number 4, like the ARRA shifts from investments in people and books to investments in technology.

I think number 7 is the biggest betrayal here and the most telling example of the acceptance of decline.  The SAGE class size reduction targeted to early grade children in poverty is just about the only source of state education funds that recognizes and addresses economic inequality.  It has been underfunded for years, placing a burden on local districts to make up the difference.  Last session the Democrats — in the name of flexibility — raised the class size limits.  Now the Republicans want to add more “flexibility” allowing districts to ration class size reductions year-to-year and grade-to-grade.   Now we are saying to poor children that we can’t do for you what we know is right, what we did for your older brothers and sisters.  Can we at least get a “sorry’?

Of course the biggest betrayals and sources of decline overall are the pending Biennial Budget’s  reduction of state school aid by $843 Million in combination with a hard 0% growth  cap on the power of school boards to generate revenues.

Like with SAGE, this backwards trend began with the Democrats.  It was Governor Jim Doyle who in his first term dumped the 2/3 state support guarantee.   It was Democrats who in the last Biennial Budget cut general school aids by about $300 Million.  And all of this against a backdrop of 17 years of bi-partisan refusal to fix a broken school funding system which even when “fully funded” required annual cuts to programs and services in most districts.

The thing about going backwards is that simply getting back to the starting point becomes harder and harder and returning to a forward direction almost impossible.    After the last Biennial Budget UW Public Budgets Scholar Andrew Reschovsky did some calculations  on how much it would take to return state school aid to the growth levels of the previous decade. If Wisconsin wanted to completely offset the cuts done in 2009-11 it would require $1,552.4 Million in additional state aid; to simply return to the old trend line without making up for the cuts would take $664.4 Million in additional state aid.

Suck in reverse.  Decline is the new new normal; almost nobody is talking about getting back to where we were and even fewer are trying to move the state forward (the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools — WAES —  is just about the only consistent voice reminding people of the possibility of a truly better way).

We’ve heard a lot from Governor Walker and the Republicans about how we need to cut budgets in order to not burden our children with public debts and deficits (they absolutely refuse to consider revenue reforms which could address these).    But their supposed concern for the  next generation doesn’t extend to providing them the same level  of educational opportunities that their older brothers and sisters had.   This, like “flexibility” is a betrayal.  They don’t care about our children’s future; they care about dismantling the public sector.

Walker is also big on “tools” except when it comes to giving our children the tools they need to be prosperous and successful.

Just this week, they have made it clear that their program goes beyond “no new taxes” when  despite pleas from WAES, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards State Superintendent Tony Evers and others, they refused to consider the use of any of the projected revenue increases to diminish cuts to education (and here).  They seem to be happily stuck in reverse, in decline.

There is one piece here that I need to touch on before closing and that’s number 5, the expanded use of standardized tests for teacher evaluation, discipline, suspension, nonrenewal,  and dismissal.    I’ve written about what’s wrong with this many times before (see here  and and the video here posted by Robert Godfrey).  There is so much more to say, but for now I’ll just quote a recent column from  John Ewing, president of Math for America (read the whole thing!).

Making policy decisions on the basis of value-added models has the potential to do even more harm than browbeating teachers. If we decide whether alternative certification is better than regular certification, whether nationally board certified teachers are better than randomly selected ones, whether small schools are better than large, or whether a new curriculum is better than an old by using a flawed measure of success, we almost surely will end up making bad decisions that affect education for decades to come.

That last line about sums it up with this whole “flexibility” package: “bad decisions that affect education for decades to come.”  Stuck with ugly.

Thomas J. Mertz.


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Save the Dates

Wednesday April 20, 10:30 AM, “A Better Way”  School Funding Alternatives Press Conference

Parents, Religious and Education Leaders Call for Balanced Approach in Budgeting for Public Education.
MADISON, Wis. – A broad coalition of parents, student advocates, religious leaders and educators has come together to call on the Wisconsin Legislature to take a more balanced approach to the state budget process.
To make their voices heard, the group’s members will hold a press conference that will detail how the budget will impact people from a wide variety of perspectives. The event will be held in the Senate Parlor of the State Capitol Building. WHAT: Press conference featuring parents, students, teachers and advocates, who will speak about how the state budget will impact them and their local schools and students. The event will also outline options the Legislature and governor should consider before making massive cuts to education.

  • WHEN: Wednesday, April 20, 2011, 10:30 a.m.
  • WHERE: Senate Parlor, State Capitol Building, Madison
  • WHO: The event will feature a number of speakers, including:

• MC: Julie Underwood is dean of the University of Wisconsin-
Madison School of Education

• Nancy Holmlund is president of WISDOM, a network of 145
congregations representing 17 denominations across Wisconsin that
work together to promote fairness and the common good

• Beth LaBell is a parent and member of the Paris Vote YES
Committee, a group that promotes the Paris School District

• Terri Raatz is mom to three little boys, the oldest of whom, Patrick, is
seven years old and has autism

• Jasmine Alinder is the founder of I Love My Public Schools, a group
of concerned Wisconsin parents who are fighting for the rights of
children to have a quality public education

• Danielle Barbian is a senior at Hamilton High School in Sussex and
president of the Wisconsin Association of School Councils

• Kim Hoffman is a music teacher at Stone Bank Elementary School in
Waukesha County and member of the Wisconsin National Guard

WHY: The proposed state budget includes over $1.7 billion in cuts to education over the next two years, while increasing spending over $600 million for corporate tax breaks and transportation projects. The result will mean program cuts, fewer opportunities for students and increased class sizes.

“Road Map to a Better Way” from The Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES).

Thursday April 21,  Noon — On the Airwaves — WORT 89.9 FM.

I’ll be on A Public Affair with Allen Ruff discussing “the state of public education, the assault upon it and what we can do.”  Listen and call in:  256-2001.

Thursday, April 28, 6:45-8:45West High Roundtables Conversation

Thursday, April 28, 6:45-8:45, in the West High Cafenasium

Calling All Parents, Students, Teachers!

Excerpt from the April 2011 PTSO Regent Reporter article:

Our school, like every other school across our state, will
likely be confronted with some major changes in the near future.  The
events of this school year at West have shown us the importance and
the power of joining together and sharing our voices, so that we can
all be heard.

Now, in the face of potentially drastic cutbacks, it is more crucial
than ever that we identify the issues, concerns and decisions that we
need to explore as a community, and then establish the lines of
communication through which we can all effectively contribute to the
decision-making process, which helps to ensure inclusive input of all
affected stakeholders.

These issues will be the focus of our West Roundtables gathering,
scheduled for Thursday, April 28th, 6:45 p.m. in the Cafenasium.

We can be best prepared to protect the interest of our school by being
informed of the concerns and needs of all, and we can only accomplish
this if we have a system in place that facilitates a free exchange of

Please save the date Thursday, April 28th, to attend this important

Sponsored by West’s PTSO & the West Cares Group

[Spanish Language version]

Thomas J. Mertz

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My Letter on Senate Bill 22

Members of the Senate Education Committee

My name is Thomas J. Mertz.  I have been active in Madison and statewide working for adequate educational funding and equitable educational policies.  Like many I see much in Senate Bill 22 that will exacerbate the underfunding of the district schools which will continue to be the source of educational opportunities for the overwhelming majority of Wisconsin’s students, and much that will create greater inequities in access to opportunities.  The future of our children and our state depend on investments in education.  That this is happening after 17 years under a deeply flawed school funding system and at a time when districts face unprecedented cuts in both state funding and local revenue authority is particularly alarming.

However this is not where I want to focus attention here.  I am also a historian of education.  It is from this perspective, as well as the perspectives of a parent, citizen and activist that I urge you to reject those aspects of Senate Bill 22 which undermine Wisconsin’s long traditions of non-partisan local control

Our state Constitution states “The supervision of public instruction shall be vested in a state superintendent and such other officers as the legislature shall direct.”  Our supreme court has ruled that other officers created by the legislature may not be given powers equal to or greater than the superintendent.    The Constitution also specifies that the Superintendent be elected “at the same time and in the same manner as members of the supreme court.”  This clause and statutes related to the election of the Superintendent and Boards of Education, as well as those covering  those wonderful exercises in direct democracy,  School Meetings, are part of a long and careful tradition of separating the governance of education from partisan politics.  In 1885, In an an attempt to further  separate the political sphere of  school governance,  Wisconsin went so far as to grant women a limited suffrage, confined to “school matters.”

The creation of a politically appointed Charter School Authorizing Board and Executive Director, with powers and responsibilities rivaling those of the State Superintendent is a heedless and needless break from these traditions.   Schools are inherently political, yet Wisconsin’s Superintendents and Board of Education have an admirable record of finding common ground and advancing the common good.  Handing control of K-12 schools to people chosen by party leaders introduces a great potential that in decision-making, other than the common good will  become primary.

This Board also represents a break from the tradition of local control of education.  It opens the door for “sponsors” and the “operators” they contract with to set up networks of schools with limited state oversight and answerable primarily to distant entities.  It cannot be forgotten that the resources at the disposal of these entities will be resources not available to the local and locally elected school board.

Schools and school districts define communities; the charter networks enabled by SB 22 threaten local decision-making and the already precarious financial viability of districts.  In urban, suburban, small town and rural Wisconsin he health and economic prospects of communities are tied to the strength of our schools.

Schools are also defined by their communities.  Through their locally elected Boards of Education and in school meetings, citizens are collectively involved in choosing programs and personnel, in setting priorities and debating budgets, in building facilities and — these days much too often —  closing schools.

These ties will be gone with networks of charter schools authorized by a partisan state board and operated by out-of-state corporations.

There are many other aspects of SB 22 that I would like to discuss, but I’ll close by reminding you that in Wisconsin we have some very good public schools and some that need improvement.  We also have some very good charter schools and some that need improvement.   Local control of charter authorizing is working.  The best evidence is that charters are generally no better than district schools and often not as good.   They are not in and of themselves “the answer” to our educational problems and in many ways are a distraction from improving the education for the 90%+ of students who will continue in district schools.  Don’t let enthusiasm for “choice” and ill-defined “innovation” seduce you into abandoning our traditions, our communities and our schools.

Thomas J. Mertz

For more information, see Public Schools for the Public Good and the Facebook Group, “Stop the Charter School Bill.”


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WAES: “Governor’s budget plan for education gets a bad grade on basic mathematics”

Click the graphic for more information on WAES.

From the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES)

Governor’s budget plan for education
gets a bad grade on basic mathematics

As long as the cost of education does not increase, the tools Governor Scott Walker “gave” districts to offset his devastating cuts to school aids might work, theoretically, for some communities. In the real world, however─where costs increase and children need opportunities to succeed, the coming years look pretty bleak.

That was the assessment following Tuesday’s credentialed media only press event behind locked doors where the Governor rolled out his version of the 2011-13 budget for public education. Not everyone was as optimistic as Walker.

Superintendent of Schools Tony Evers called the budget “a crushing challenge,” while the School Finance Network said the budget is “shortsighted and counterproductive” and “the simple fact is that (it) will result in cuts to programs and services and increases in class sizes.”

In general, the Governor’s budget that cuts aid and reduces districts’ revenue authority doesn’t take into account 18 years of cuts to programs and services and basic inflationary cost increases. WAES maintains that sooner or later, the result of the cuts─small, large, and cumulative─will be or already has jeopardized the future of Wisconsin’s children and communities.

Wisconsin’s School Administrator’s Alliance (SAA) said its members are united in their opposition to Governor Walker’s agenda of privatizing public education.” “According to John Forester, the group’s director of government relations, “The school aid cuts in the Governor’s proposed budget plan are of a magnitude not seen since the Great Depression.”

Find out what you can do to stop these devastating aid cuts to our public schools at

Read more:

Thomas J. Mertz

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The Other Shoe, or Will You Be Marching in March?

There is so much good stuff out there on what has been happening in Madison and around the state this week that I really don’t have too much to add.  I will point toward the CAST Statement I helped draft, Rep Mark Pocan’s “Scott Walker’s Top Ten Lies” for a good fact check and Alder Brian Solomon’s  “Madison, WI: A Prelude for Economic Justice” for some questions and context.  I’ve been energized and filled with hope by the the rallies and protests this week, but like Brian I have concerns about the limits of the agenda being put forward.

That is why I want to try to focus attention on what comes next, the other shoe waiting to drop, Governor Walker’s Biennial Budget.  It is going to be a giant shoe and we need to be ready to catch it and throw that one back too.

Throughout this, Walker has made it clear that the so-called Budget Repair bill is only a prelude to the Biennial Budget.  The GOP talking points have been that destroying public worker unions is a way to give local governmental units (counties, municipalities and school districts)  the tools to deal with the budget cuts that radical slashes to state aid, shared revenue and unprecedented limits on local control of revenues — all anticipated in the Biennial Budget —  will bring.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the way to actually help local governmental units and the people of Wisconsin is to provide sufficient revenues.  For more, see the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future/Wisconsin Council on Children and Families Catalog of Tax Reform Options for Wisconsin and of course Penny for Kids.

Scott Walker and the GOP don’t want you to know what is in the budget bill, they especially don’t want this information out there while the people are in control of the Capitol and paying attention.  So, instead of releasing the Budget on Tuesday February 22 as scheduled, they have moved it to March 1.  Whether in the Capitol or elsewhere, we all need to be paying attention and we all need to mobilize on this too.

There have been some hints and leaks about what will be in the Budget and it ain’t good.

What do we know from all this?

  • Anticipated $900 Million in cuts to State School Aids.
  • Unstated, but large cuts to shared revenue
  • Talk of a hard cap in property tax increases equal only to growth in property wealth (se the video above),  taking away the ability of local governing units to mitigate the cuts in state aid.
  • Rumors of new refusals of federal aid, including Title I, a longstanding program targeted at the education of children in poverty.
  • Hard times ahead for Counties, Municipalities and School Districts and all those who depend on them for services.

Geez — Title I.  This is beyond insane.  For me this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  Everything else  — tax cuts, aid cuts, revenue limits, union busting…– is maddening and insane, but refusing Title I is so stupid and so offensive that as Marvin Gaye said “It makes me wanna Holler, ” and scream and organize.


I know I’ll be marching in March and probably April, May and beyond (even though I should be campaigning for the District 13 seat on the Madison Common Council instead).

Who else will be organizing and marching isn’t clear at this point,  but I’d guess if you contact/join the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, The Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, Progressive Dane, The Wisconsin Wave Madison Area Urban Ministry, and the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, you’ll be in the loop and know when to lace up your marching boots.

Save the date.

Thomas J.  (TJ) Mertz


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On the Agenda, MMSD the week of October 25, 2010

Note: For awhile, I’m going to be illustrating the “On the Agenda” posts with various graphs documenting achievement gaps in MMSD as revealed by the admittedly flawed and limited WSAS/WKCE results. I think regular reminders may do some good.

A busy week for the Madison Metropolitan School District, with the biggest item being the finalization of the 2010-11 budget and tax levy.  This is somewhat anti-climactic,  with most of the action coming in the Spring and only relatively minor changes now on the table.

The budget will be voted on at the 5:00 PM Monday meeting (Doyle auditorium).  I’ll be at work at that time, but there will be public appearances and it would be good to give one more reminder that people in Madison support public education and are willing to support it via increased property tax levies when the state doesn’t do its part.   Speak now or forever hold your peace.  More on the changes below.

This will be followed at 7:00 PM by the regular Board of Education meeting.

On Tuesday at Noon in Doyle rm 103, the Ad Hoc Hiring and Diversity Committee meets.  Other MMSD meetings for the week are: MMSD Wellness Committee (Tuesday, 3:00 PM, Doyle rm 103);  Common Council/Board of Education Liaison Committee (Tuesday, 5:30 PM, Doyle rm 103);  and the Madison School & Community Recreation (MSCR) Advisory Committee (Tuesday, 6:30 PM, MSCR/Hoyt building,  rm 21).  Agendas for all of the above are here.

The short version of the budget story is that MMSD will levy about $10 million less then they allowed for educational programs, at best limiting the improvements to education in Madison; at worst harming the educational opportunities of our children (there is also about $2 million in Fund 80 “underlevy).  The slightly longer version is that the Board — like Boards around the state — caught between a state budget that cut educational investments and property taxpayers who are struggling  sought a happy medium between cuts and tax levies (helped by some real savings due to efficiencies), nobody ended up happy.  The way to start changing this story and get to a happier ending is Penny for Kids.

There are many documents linked off the agenda for the budget meeting ( and more here from the report of the October 11 Operational Support Committee).  The two most enlightening are the Recommended Motions and the Budget Amendments and Tax Levy Adoption.  The first refers to the second.  Here is what it says:

Many of these changes are related to (slightly) higher than (and still inadequate) state aid.   This also resulted in some recommendations for “add backs” from the administration.  An interesting list (and note half is designated for tax relief):

Item #2 is further described as including (among other things)  “resources to address possible high school curriculum revisions.

Other documents directly related to the budget being voted on include an Update (overview),  Salary Savings (and open enrollment offset), Budget Profile by Department, and a Technology Breakdown.

There is also an update on ARRA funds, that if I read it correctly says that 59.92% of this money (over $7 million) has not been allocated to any project!  The clock is ticking…I’m not sure why this money is not being used.  More on ARRA things in the Operations Support Committee Report.

There is also a document with options for 4K funding in 2011-12 and the following years. As expected these include EduJobs money and Fund Equity.

That’s about it for the budget.  I’m only going to highlight a limited number of things from the regular meeting that follows.

Some info on Leadership, Teacher, Parent and Staff Councils (no membership lists).  I don’t know about the rest, but with one parent from every school (selected by the Principal, so you’ll be sure to get those with  “issues”) the Parent Council is so large that it is unwieldy.

There is an update on 4K sites.

Some updates on Key Student Performance Measures (here and here).

Nothing of note on the La Follette Attendance Area Planning (there may be an oral report that tells more).

There are some items from the Ad Hoc 5 Year Budget Committee, including recommended parameters from the Administration.

On the consent agenda is a donation of $28,510 from the Reading Recovery Council of North America to support tuition, texts and travel for teacher training.

Just a once over lightly this week.  Maybe some follow ups later.

Thomas J. Mertz

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On the Agenda, MMSD the Week of October 18, 2010


Note: For awhile, I’m going to be illustrating the “On the Agenda” posts with various graphs documenting achievement gaps in MMSD as revealed by the admittedly flawed and limited WSAS/WKCE results. I think regular reminders may do some good.


Between campaigns, grading mid terms and the happenings at West, I’ve been insanely busy.  I missed last week’s agenda post and am only doing the minimum today.

Four meetings listed for the Madison Metropolitan School District, none involving the High School Reform (no Student Senate listed).

Monday, October 18
5:00 p.m.
Special Board of Education Meeting

1.Public Appearances
2.It is recommended to change the start time of the Regular meeting of the Board of Education to 7 p.m. for the October 25, 2010, meeting only.
3.Four-Year-Old Kindergarten Data Retreat
Doyle Administration Bldg.
545 W. Dayton Street
Madison, WI 53703
McDaniels Auditorium
6:00 p.m.
Ad Hoc Board of Education Meeting—Equity and Decision Making
1. Public Appearances
2.Responses to Board Member Questions and Comments regarding the Equity Plan
3.K-12 Literacy Alignment as it relates to Equity
4.Next Meeting Date/Time/Location and Agenda
Doyle Administration Bldg.
545 W. Dayton Street
Madison, WI 53703
Room 103
7:00 p.m.
Ad Hoc Board of Education Meeting—Five-Year Budget Plan
1. Public Appearances
2.Administrative Recommendations for Five-Year Budget Parameters
3. Overview of MMSD Budget Account Codes
4. Timeline for Development of 5-Year Budget Model
5. Adoption of Goals for Committee
6.Next Meeting Date/Time/Location and Agenda
Doyle Administration Bldg.
Room 103
Tuesday, October 19
8:00 a.m.
MMSD Literacy Advisory Committee
1.Welcome and Agenda Review
2.Update from Focus Group on the Library Media Specialist Survey Responses
3.Article Review—“The Why Behind RTI (Response to Intervention)”
4.Presentation on RTI Framework
5.Develop Definition of the Elements of a Comprehensive Literacy Program
6.Discussion of District Literacy Professional Development at Elementary and Secondary Levels
Thursday, October 21
Doyle Administration Bldg.
4:30 p.m.
Sustainable Schools Initiative Meeting
2.Presentation—Draft vision and Sustainability Planning Process
3.Small Group Discussion—Draft Visions and Sustainability Planning Process
4.Small Group Report Back
5.Next Steps
6.Next Meeting Dates

Nothing linked  — including member lists — for the last two.

Thomas J. Mertz


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