Category Archives: Pope-Roberts/Breske Resolution

Elephant in the Room


Maya Cole, Madison School Board member, wrote an op-ed for the Cap Times that provided an excellent piece of analysis on the current state of play at the Capital; the tired old dance routine between the governor and the legislature over how to finance our schools. But this budget season, the sound track has been suddenly revved up due to the stimulus money on the horizon.

The predictable talk of paying for education plays to the citizenry. Don’t raise taxes and do more with less — it’s the same old dichotomy. Lately there’s new irony, as suggested by Gov. Jim Doyle, that school boards should go to the table with “more creative ways” to bargain and without the QEO (qualified economic offer).

As Cole rightly pointed out, this “more with less” canard is trotted out in other guises such as a “creative teacher compensation package.” This meme of, “get more creative,” is meant to be compensation for the often referred to “three legged stool” of the Wisconsin school finance system: 2/3 funding from state revenues (1/3 from local and federal sources), the QEO to limit teacher contract costs and the revenue caps to limit local property taxes. She also astutely noted that the current system originated as a short term plan 16 years ago, and asks, when will it be revised?

Several years hence, the elephant in the room (school finance reform) stands on stage taunting school boards across the state. The Wisconsin Association of School Boards, a member of the coalition of the School Finance Network, has one approach — it’s not in the script this year. We are asked by the governor to accept a watered down plan and continue to be mired in the same old strategies.

What really should keep lawmakers up at night is the dependent nature of these one time (maybe two) short term “fixes,” a “solution” in which Doyle hopes that school districts will remain under the revenue caps while spending federal dollars (TJ Mertz investigated the Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s newest numbers here). Cole instead called for a clear departure from the current process of having property owners paying the lion’s share of the costs for schools.

We must be bold and put our spending and revenue practices on the table. Districts across the state have been cutting budgets for over 10 years. Property owners have shouldered the costs to pay for schools. When we add in the confluence of federal mandates (unfunded), demographic shifts, and the dwindling manufacturing in the state, it’s clear we’re in the third act.

Doyle should take his own advice. A budget dependent on one-time federal money for education and transfers to plug holes in budget gaps is shortsighted at best

The Assembly Education Committee will hold a hearing on Tuesday, April 21 1:00 PM at Room 413 North in the Capitol to discuss the School Finance Network education funding reform proposal.

Don’t forget too that on Wednesday April 1, 2009, 6:00 PM at Wright Middle School — the Madison School District will be hosting a “Legislative Informational Community Session” to “provide updates on school funding and state budget issues that affect the MMSD” and “discuss and share strategies on how the community can get involved in advocating for our schools.” More information on the MMSD Legislative Agenda can be found here.

Robert Godfrey

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Filed under AMPS, School Finance, Budget, Take Action, Accountability, Pope-Roberts/Breske Resolution, Gimme Some Truth, finance, "education finance"

“Do It Again?” Another Referendum for Salem


The Kinks, “Do It Again” (click to listen or download)

On Thursday, the Salem Board of Education voted to try again for an operating referendumOperating referenda for the district failed in June 2008, September 2008 and February of 2009.  The September referendum lost by a fairly large margin, but the June and February votes were 269 to 235 and 654 to 694.

Those working for the referenda must feel like Sisyphus forever rolling the stone up the hill, but never getting to the top, or Tantalus, with sustenance always just out of reach.  Unlike those mythological figures, the school supporters and the children of Salem have done nothing to deserve their cruel fate.

Their decision to go to referenda again indicates that they are unwilling to accept the devastating cuts in store for their schools.  I can’t blame them.

Whether this one passes or not, an inordinate amount of time and energy will have been spent trying to secure adequate funding for the district.  This is time that should have been spent educating the students.  That’s what happens when you live in a state with a broken system for funding education.  Sign on with the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools and the School Finance Network to work to fix this.

Back to Salem.  Advocates continue to make a strong case, reminding all that strong schools are essential for healthy communities.

Proponents of the board have said that increase is needed to save programs and staff, to provide opportunities for children, and ultimately to protect property values in the community. If the school system goes into decline, they argue, the whole community will ultimately be affected.

“I’m scared too, we took a huge pay cut in my family. My wife was out of work,” said Scottie Washington. But he believes families will leave the community and home values will decline if programs are cut. “If this referendum doesn’t pass this is going to be a ghost town,” he said.

The ask this time will be for a three-year non recurring referendum at $1.16 million a year.  The vote will be at a special election on April 28.  This looks like the same measure that was voted down in February.

I haven’t seen a new presentation of potential cuts yes, but the ones form the earlier campaign are probably still in play.

clcik on image for pdf

click on image for pdf

There is much more Salem referendum related material here, including the slideshow embedded below.

It should be noted that the major issue in Salem is and has been class size.  Smaller class sizes is one of the “best practices” that almost everyone agrees helps all children learn and almost every agrees is particularly important for children from poor or difficult backgrounds.  When we know what works, we should make sure that the resources are there to do what works.

I admire the tenacity of the Salem Board and wish them the best.  Let’s follow their example at the state level and “get’r done” on school funding reform (again, join WAES, join SFN).

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under Uncategorized, School Finance, Best Practices, Budget, Local News, Referenda, Elections, Take Action, Pope-Roberts/Breske Resolution, education, finance, "education finance", referendum

School Finance Network Releases Funding Reform Proposals


The School Finance Network (SFN), a coalition of nine organizations “committed to strengthening our system of public school funding,” will be presenting their plan to the public and the media today and Wednesday (2/3 and 2/4).  Their website is up.

Locally, there will be a press conference with Madison School Board Member Beth Moss and State Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts at today at 12:30 p.m., Glacier Edge Elementary School, Verona.

SFN has been at work on this for a long time.  They have produced a very good set of proposals.  Check it out, get involved, take action.

CAST is working with SFN coalition members and others to make sure that school funding is addressed in a positive way this legislative session.  Contact CAST:

More here from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and an earlier statement from Rep. Pope-Roberts here.

Thomas J.  Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Best Practices, Budget, education, finance, Local News, Pope-Roberts/Breske Resolution, School Finance, Take Action

Referenda Results – We Are Not alone #24

Of the 12 referendum questions on the ballot yesterday —  8 operating and  4 to issue debt, — 8 passed (5 operating and 3 debt).  Of the operating referenda that passed, all were nonrecurring.  That means that when the authority expires, these districts will be headed “off the cliff.”  Thankfully, Madison had the wisdom to facilitate long-term planning with a recurring referendum.

One by one, in reverse alphabetical order.

A “big” win in Weston (after a close loss in April) — 482 to 308 — on a three-year non recurring in amounts for $210, 000 to $575,000.  This means that for the next three years Weston will survive and be able to ““keep the books and equipment in the budget year after year.” Got that — in order for a school district to have books, they need the approval of the voters at a referendum. Are you listening Governor Doyle? Are you listening State Legislators? Are you listening voters as you look toward your November ballots?  Click the links and try to get the ears of our elected officials.

Shawano got approval to go ahead with the $24.9 Million construction of an Early Childhood – Grade 2 facility and upgrades and additions to other buildings by a vote of 2,186 to 1,842.  “The children of Shawano won tonight,” said Lincoln Elementary principal Troy Edwards.

Bad news from Salem, where $1.16 Million recurring referendum went down 677 to 286.  Time for more cuts.

Board members will be forced to cut staff, said board vice president Larry Kamin. The layoff notices will go out in February…

Officials have said as many as seven full-time teachers could be cut, increasing class sizes above state-recommended minimums. Combined-grade classes could also become a reality, officials said.

Salem serves about 1,100 students.  The equivalent loss for Madison would be about 153 teachers.

Tiny Rubicon’s non recurring $150,000 a year measure passed 132 to 91.  See this previous post for a list of past cuts and what was at stake.

The news for Rhinelander was not so good.  Voters there defeated both the request to issue $23.35 Million in debt to renovate, add to and improve existing buildings and build a new facility (3,180 to 3,135) and a recurring referendum in the amount of $225,000 for operations ($3,204 to 3,105).  This was a scaled back version of a referendum that failed in April.  Prior to the vote The Rhinelander Daily News editorialized:

We believe this community needs to reinvest in our schools so that today’s students get an education that fits today’s world; so students get an education that provides them with options and opportunities. We need an educational system that students can take pride in and that the community can grow around.

and characterized the vote as “an opportunity to do great things, for the schools and the community.”

It is now a missed opportunity.  How many other opportunities have been missed in our state because voters don’t fully understand that providing quality education requires successful referenda?  How many opportunities have been missed because Boards of Education are reluctant to even ask the voters (or, as in case of Madison, are reluctant to ask for the funding required to maintain our present level or restore valued programs and services that have been cut in the past)?   How many have been missed because our elected officials lack the will to enact a way of funding schools that is based on educational needs? Way too many.

Neillsville voters understood what was at stake and approved five-year non recurring authority at $300,000 a year by a vote of 557 to 481.

A 959 to 866 victory in Montello means they can take a step back from the edge of do-or-die finances.  Failure of the two-year non recurring $950,000 measure would likely have set them on the road to dissolution.  This breathless video report from WISC-TV tells part of the story and doesn’t even tell that part very well.

I don’t know which is worse, breezy or breathless.  The details of school funding are complex (see here for an accessable introduction), but one fact is simple: Each year, without referenda,  the (nearly) mandated costs increase faster than the allowed revenues.  How hard would it be to convey that information every time referenda are the topic?  Apparently too hard for most local members of the fourth estate.  In addition to omitting that basic and essential information, the video report neglects to clearly state that when the non recurring authority runs out, Montello will likely be back on the edge and mis-characterizes consolidation as a panacea.  By most accounts, consolidation buys a year or two away from crisis while the erosion created by our “going-out-of-business” way Wisconsin funds education continues to eat away at the future of our children and our state.

The referendum in Mineral Point also went down.  The vote on the five-year non recurring referendum was 599-328.  For a guide to the damage this no vote will lead to, see here.

The story in Deerfield is much more encouraging.  The six-year non recurring referendum passed 422 to 265.  as I’ve noted repeatedly, the community involvement process in Deerfield was exemplary.

“We had a very active group of citizens that came together eight months ago and spent eight months looking at all the needs of the district. They were vital in terms of putting this plan together. They came to the board with the referendum plan and the board backed that plan unanimously,” [Superintendent Michelle] Jensen said.

Small class sizes will be kept, technology upgraded, plumbing HVAC and electrical work will be done and there will be a new track (replacing one built 30 years ago).  These are basic things that a district should be able to do without having to hold a referendum.

Colby will get the greenbacks for green schools they requested.  The vote on that debt measure was 696 to 287.  Another vote to refinance retirement obligations also passed, 738 to 228.  The Marshfield News Herald reports:

“These referendum questions are focused on a win for everybody, and I think that’s why they were successful,” said Colby Superintendent Terry Downen. “We certainly hope to save programs as a result of softening the blow of increasing costs by having these additional savings in place.”

[Neillsville Superintendent John] Gaier said if the state’s school funding formula remains unchanged, every district in Wisconsin, including Neillsville, will continue asking taxpayers for more money.

Madison media, pay attention.  Notice how simple it was to give some of the bigger picture by  including that quote from Superintendent Gaier.

Congratulations to all the winners, my most sincere empathy to the losers and to all, let’s fix the system that requires these referenda, let’s “Get’er done.”

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under Uncategorized, AMPS, Budget, Local News, We Are Not Alone, Referenda, Elections, Take Action, Pope-Roberts/Breske Resolution, Gimme Some Truth, education, finance, "education finance", referendum

Wausaukee Vote Tuesday – Do or Die?


On Tuesday, August 18, 2008 the voters of the Wausaukee school district will for the third time in six months vote on an operating referendum. The first two failed. This time a failed referendum will likely mean the end of the Wausaukee school district.

Advocates for school finance reform in Wisconsin often refer to the current system of funding education as a “going-out-of-business plan.” Opponents may deride this as hyperbole, but it is literally true. Wausaukee is in critical condition, many other districts are in intensive care. Even districts in no immediate danger of dissolution annually suffer through divisive program and service cuts or the pain and strain of referenda, sapping the health from the hearts of our communities.

The Peshitgo Times has again done a great job reporting on all the dissolution, referendum and budget news in Wausaukee. Most of what follows is from their most recent report.

On the dissolution front, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elizabeth Burmaster has appointed the Boundary Appeal Board members who will decide the fate of the district. Starting in August and ending in November, the Board will hold four hearings and review information on transportation, facilities, finances and more.

If the Boundary Appeals Board decides the school should be closed, the ruling will become effective Sept. 1, 2009. Students, assets and debts of the district, along with the properties that support the school, will be allocated to neighboring school districts. Those assigned districts will be allowed, without referendum, to raise their tax levies enough to offset the costs created by the influx of new students.

The Board will continue their work regardless of the outcome of the referendum, but a successful referendum will make dissolution unlikely.

The district has a very good fact sheet posted. Here is how the Times explains the vote:

Tuesday’s referendum asks Wausaukee School District voters to allow the board to levy $675,000 over the state levy limits in school purpose property taxes each year for the next 10 years. If approved, the increase will cost the owner of a $100,000 property approximately $102 in additional taxes for each of the next three years. After three years the school building debt will be paid off, which will result in a savings of approximately $102 on a $100,000 property, bringing the levy back down to current levels. There appears to be no way to estimate tax increases that could be caused if the district is dissolved and reallocated.

Like many in the state, district officials and others in the community are also working to fix the state finance system so that others don’t have to go through this. District Administrator Jan Dooley, along with officials from neighboring districts recently met with representatives of Marinette County Association for Business and Industry to discuss school funding. On October 6 and 7, in conjunction with the Northwoods Summit Dooley will join other educators and business people to talk about the need for school finance reform. As Dooley noted, this is something that everyone needs to get involved in: “As the school goes, so goes the community.”

For those who think that the school funding has not hurt the quality of education in our state, some numbers in Wausaukee might serve as a reality check.

During the 2007-2008 school year the union support staff was reduced by 3.5 full time equivalent positions. Teaching staff for the 2008-2009 school year will be reduced from last year by 8.245 full time equivalent positions. The 38.875 FTE teaching positions is down from slightly over 56 positions in 2000-2001. In addition, teachers have accepted a two-year wage freeze and agreed to pay 10 percent of their health insurance costs. New hires will pay 20 percent of their insurance costs.

That’s a 17.5% reduction in teachers in one year and a 30% decrease since 2000-2001! Also note that even with pay freezes, health care cost reductions and other concessions that very few unions or individuals would agree to (and none are legally obligated to make) , the district still cannot balance their books without a referendum.

The cut that probably will resonate most with Madisonians is the elimination of the SAGE class size reductions. I’ve written before about SAGE as an underfunded program and the choices this forces districts — including Madison — to make. In Wausaukee they decided that they could not afford to keep their partially funded small classes for the early grades. DPI has extended the deadline in case they reconsider, but that does not appear likely.

The board decided to end the program because added cost exceeded the amount of added state aid, Dooley said, but that could change if there would be a large influx of students eligible for free and reduced lunches when school opens in fall. However, restoring the program even if that happened would mean they would either need to double up on some of their special classes or hire additional staff, and they could end up with three teachers to be laid off the following year. Despite the potential problems, she declared, “I want to walk with this.”

Research on the benefits of small classes for the early grades has met the test time and time again. If you want “research-based,” “data-driven” best practices, this is about as good as it gets. Unfortunately, the way the SAGE program and school finance in Wisconsin are set up this is increasingly becoming a practice that districts cannot afford to implement or keep. Sad. Shameful.

More on Wausaukee here.

I hope that the referendum on Tuesday passes, that the district remains intact and that our elected officials are paying attention to what is happening with our schools in Wausaukee and around the state.

Thomas J. Mertz

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“Ain’t No Miracle Worker”

The Brogues, “I Ain’t No Miracle Worker” (click to listen).

There is a lot of excitement about Dan Nerad taking the reins as Superintendent of MMSD. I share this excitement. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him three or four times, have read numerous articles about him and his work, have talked to people who know him from Green Bay and have researched what he has accomplished in his career. All this leads me to believe that Dan Nerad is a very high quality district leader who will fit well in Madison and contribute greatly to the improvement of our schools.

Still. I worry that expectations are unreasonably high and that we may be setting Nerad and ourselves up for a fall. Over and over again I have heard and read people saying “when Dan Nerad gets here” either preceded or followed by some hope or promise of a positive change. There will be changes and I think that (from my perspective) they will be mostly positive. So what’s the problem? Here is a list:

  • It doesn’t recognize all the good work of the recent past. Not Just Art Rainwater’s contributions, but the contributions of our Board members, our staff and teachers and our community. Looking to Nerad to for huge improvements can make it seem like MMSD has been stagnant or failing. It hasn’t. For some nice overviews and reflections on Art Rainwater and his time with MMSD, see the current MMSD Today.
  • We shouldn’t forget that educational improvement is incremental. Perhaps the best history of educational reform is David Tyack and Larry Cuban’s Tinkering Toward Utopia. In their prologue they write:

Although policy talk about reform has had a utopian ring, actual reforms have typically been gradual and incremental — tinkering with the system. It may be fashionable to decry such change as piecemeal and inadequate, but over long periods of time such revisions of practices adapted to local contexts can substantially improve schools. Rather than seeing the hybridizing of reform ideas as a fault, we suggest it can be a virtue. Tinkering is one way of preserving what is valuable and reworking what is not.

The point in the last sentence is related to my concerns about belittling what has been accomplished in our schools. Tyack develops this further in one of my favorite essays “A Conservationist Ethic in Education Reform.”

  • No policy, reform, set of policies or reforms will make everyone happy. Uncontested school board races and an apparent conflict and controversy avoidance strategy by the Board of Education may have lulled some into thinking that divisions are a thing of the past in Madison school politics. They aren’t. I recognize that most people involved share many values and even have much agreement about how best to put those values into action, but also know from personal experience that there are passionate disagreements among people of good will when it comes to education. Whatever Dan Nerad does or does not do, tries or does not try, some vocal segments of our community will object that it is too much or too little or just plain wrong. The divisions that have been hidden will become apparent again at some point. I believe that Dan Nerad is skilled at working toward consensus, finding common ground and building coalitions. This will serve him (and our community) well, but it won’t satisfy everyone.
  • The challenges Madison’s schools face are great, too great for any individual to address alone. The issues raised by demographic changes are well documented; the insane choices created by the state school finance system are well known; the pressures from testing and other ill-devised mandates of NCLB are readily apparent. I don’t believe these are intractable, but I do recognize that there are no simple answers and that sustained hard work and cooperation from all associated with the district and all segments of our community are necessary if we are to be successful in meeting these challenges. Dan Nerad cannot do this without help from many quarters. Much has been written about his openness, outreach and cooperative spirit, but if some members of the Board of Education continue to be blasé about or dismissive of public engagement, little improvement is possible. The community has to step up too. Schools of Hope (as well as other Urban League programs) and the Foundation for Madison Public Schools are great; Mayor Cieslewicz, Alder Satya Rhodes-Conway and others are actively working to expand school/city/community initiatives; MMSD has wide-ranging partnerships with the University of Wisconsin School of Education and other local research and higher education institutions; PTOs, PTAs and PTGs are doing wonderful things; Thousands of volunteers help our schools on a regular basis; Our legislative delegationespecially Rep. Sondy Pope Roberts — are leaders in the fight for school finance reform; ABC Madison and Get TUFF have been educating and agitating for state school funding changes; Communities and Schools Together and Mad-City Grumps are preparing for the next referendum campaign; countless other individuals and groups are contributing to the betterment of our schools… (apologies if I left out your favorite). An impressive list, but it isn’t enough. We all can and must do more.

So let’s work together to welcome Dan Nerad, expand the good our schools are doing, fix the state finance system, pass a referendum…have realistic expectations about what a change in the superintendency will bring and do our best to help Dan Nerad exceed those expectations.

In this spirit (or maybe just because I like it), here is video from the last referendum campaign.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under Uncategorized, AMPS, School Finance, Best Practices, Budget, Local News, Referenda, Take Action, No Child Left Behind, Pope-Roberts/Breske Resolution, education, finance, "education finance", nclb, referendum

Quotes of the Day – “Power Concedes Nothing…”

The Chi-Lites, “(For God’s Sake) You’ve Got to Give More Power to the People” (Click to listen).

From Jackie Cody, Oneida County, Wisconsin.

The school funding formula must be changed to offer a long-term solution to the funding of the K-12 public schools in Wisconsin. The elected school officials must take their fight to the state legislators and the governor…

Neither our legislators nor our governor has had the political will or courage to change the formula. They have gotten away with forcing districts to make hard choices over whether to sacrifice maintenance, cut programs, lay off teachers, and eliminate or contract out custodial, maintenance and food preparation, while districts try to live on the fumes of state aid.

Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and never will.” The school funding situation has reached the point where I believe Frederick Douglass’ quote is a message we must take to heart.

Legislators and the governor must hear our demand to change the formula and must stop sacrificing this state’s future…which is its children!

It is time for ALL to join together and board the bus and head to Madison! Our children deserve nothing less than this from us.

On the eve of Madison’s Juneteenth Celebration (10:00 AM, June 14, Penn Park) it is an appropriate pleasure to offer a couple additional Frederick Douglass Quotes.

A little learning, indeed, may be a dangerous thing, but the want of learning is a calamity to any people.

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.

My advice to those who want to join in agitating for school finance reform is to contact the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools. We need your help!.

Thomas J. Mertz

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SAGE Thoughts


The Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) contracts for MMSD schools will be on the agenda at Monday’s (3-10-2008) Special Board of Education Workshop meeting.  I have mixed feelings about the SAGE program because of the choices it forces school district to make.

A serious overhaul of the school funding system is needed and one of the things that should be addressed are the problems with SAGE.  Most of the proposals I’ve seen (Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, School Finance Network, Alan Odden…) would minimize or eliminate some of the issues discussed below.

I am all in favor of targeting resources (or the money to pay for resources) to children in poverty and schools with high concentrations of children in poverty.  I also think all four parts of the SAGE program are great:

Program Elements

SAGE promotes academic achievement through the implementation of four school improvement strategies:

  • class sizes of no more than 15:1 in grades K-3;
  • increased collaboration between schools and their communities;
  • implementation of a rigorous curriculum; and
  • improved professional development and staff-evaluation practices.

SAGE does this by providing districts with $2,000 per student in poverty at SAGE schools (next year it will be $2,500, the first increase since the program started over a decade ago).  I even like the fact that there are some strings associated with the money, that it has to be used in certain ways.  In this fiscal climate legislators and tax payers want to know that their money will be spent wisely and the preponderance of research (and here) indicates that the areas SAGE money can be spent are productive best practices.

The two of the biggest problems with SAGE are that 1) There are a limited number of SAGE contracts, meaning there is a cap on the number of schools (and children) that can benefit from the program (MMSD has 20 contracts);  and 2) SAGE does not direct extra resources to poor children in non-SAGE schools (it isn’t easy being a poor child in a rich school).  I’ll add a number 3, that SAGE does nothing for children after third grade).   As a result of these —  and the fact that SAGE funding is insufficient (it is an under-funded “mandate”) — the SAGE program promotes economic segregation in our schools.

Economic segregation was among the considerations in the recent West-side attendance area boundary discussions.  The Equity Task Force has weighed in with guidelines to minimize economic segregation.  I am an unapologetic believer in promoting integration as a key element of the social mission of public education.   However, the case for  economic integration does not rest solely on these ideals, significant research has demonstrated that poor children tend to achieve more in schools with an economic balance (and here and here and here…. Note that  —  like everything else in education research — there are no absolutes and that there are schools with very high poverty proportions where achievement is also high and schools with low poverty where achievement is not so high).   These finding are reflected in the local data below (see also the “Classmates Count” study).


Graphic taken from “Effect of Concentration of Poverty in School on Reading Scores (MMSD).”

The problems come in because unless there are high concentrations of poverty in individual schools, meeting the SAGE program requirements demands great expenditures from general operating budgets, budgets that are already stretched to near the breaking point.

For simplification, I am only going to do the math for approximate classroom teacher wages and benefits costs (this means that expenses having to do with community collaboration, curriculum, staff development, evaluation, specials teachers, facilities and supplies are not included).  A full time equivalent teacher costs MMSD about $76,000/year in wages in benefits.   There are 28 schools in MMSD serving K-3 (not counting the hand-full of students listed at Lincoln; there will be 29 schools next year).  Among those schools the average number of kindergartners is 72, to make the math easier (and more dramatic), let’s use a school with 63 kindergarten students (these are  crude estimates because the the way the numbers break down with 21/1 and 15/1 are crucial and the use of multi grade classrooms opens up some other possibilities for maximizing SAGE dollars).   At a 21/1 pupil/teacher ratio this would mean the school would require 3 kindergarten teachers and classrooms.

63/21 = 3.0.

At a 15/1 ratio the school would require 5 kindergarten teachers and classrooms.

63/15 = 4.2 (round up to 5…SAGE requires 15/1 or less).

At $76,000 per teacher the difference in cost is $152,000.  Using next year’s SAGE funding ($2,500/student in poverty) it would take about 61 students in poverty to make SAGE to pay for itself.

152,000/2,500 = 60.8 (round up to 61).

Out of a class of 63, this means a poverty proportion of 96.8% is required for SAGE class size reduction to be “fully funded.”  No K-3 schools in Madison are currently at or above this level.  The closer you get to that 96.8% the less general operating money is needed.   Here is a chart for percentage of kindergarten students in poverty and local implementation costs (the unfunded portion) based on the assumptions and calculations above:


40% $89,000
50% $73,250
60% $57,500
70% $41,750
80% $26,000

This creates a dilemma.  Maximizing SAGE dollars pulls toward concentrating poor children; best practices pushes toward balancing poverty at the school level.

SAGE also creates a related dilemma in the allocation of contracts between big schools with low poverty and small schools with higher poverty numbers.  Using the contract in a big school can bring in more SAGE dollars, but will also require more local dollars also.  Using the contract in a small school will mean fewer total students will benefit and may mean fewer students in poverty benefit.  I’m going to use Gompers and Chavez to illustrate this (see here).

Gompers (2007 figures)

154 K-3 students, 60% low income, about 93 SAGE funded students,

at $2,500/student = $232,500 in SAGE dollars.

Cost differential for 15/1 ratio (four more classrooms) = about $228,000.

Chavez (2007 figures)

482 K-3 students, 27% low income, about 130 SAGE funded students,

at $250,00/student = $325,000 in SAGE dollars.

Cost differential for 15/ratio (12 more classrooms) = about $912,000.

So fully implementing (K-3) a SAGE contract at Chavez instead of Gompers would bring in more money,  serve more students and more students in poverty, but at an additional cost to the district of about $684,000 per year.  Tough choices.

In Madison these choice are made even more difficult by the fact that we have about seven schools between 23% and 33%  poverty level, but only enough SAGE contracts for two or three these schools.  These schools vary greatly in size, and the exact percentages cannot be known till after the third Friday counts in September, further complicating the issue and making the equity based choices even more elusive.

In the past Madison has worked around some of these issues via implementing various levels of SAGE (K-1, K-3, whole school…) and using local funds to reduce class size in non-SAGE schools.  Madison has also won praise for leveraging federal, state and local monies to maximize the impact of all the dollars (see: Resource Distribution in the Implementation of Class Size Reduction Policy: Looking Inside the Black Box of District Practice, MMSD is “Maxwell”). Last year was the first year the district moved away from locally based class size reductions.  Without a successful referendum in November 2008, it won’t be the last.

In closing, there are some questions surrounding what options a district has in transferring SAGE contracts.  Last year the administration analysed choices based on the assumption that contracts could be moved (and here). Recently, the Board of Education was advised that “neither the statutes nor the administrative rules expressly prohibit the transfer of a contract.”  The DPI guidelines from February of 2007 state:

Transfer of contracts has been allowed when SAGE schools have been closed, consolidated, or moved to new buildings to ensure the benefits of the program could follow the students to their new location.

  • Within the term of a five-year SAGE contract the contract may be moved by the district from an existing school to a different school more in need of the program only with the consent of the recognized representatives of both the staff and parents of the school giving up the contract
  • At the end of a five-year contract the district board may transfer a SAGE contract from one school to another the SAGE requirements will immediately apply to the school to which the contract is transferred.

I don’t know what decisions the Board might make on Monday.  With a matter this complicated and with budgetary and equity consequences for the entire district, I believe that in the absence of guidelines or policy directly addressing the issues, these discussions and decisions should take place as part of the budget process and not as a separate item.  I also wish the Board the best with these very difficult issues.  Last, I hope that the community understands that there are no easy or clear choices and that the Board must weigh many factors and options with an eye on what is best for the district as a whole.

Thomas J. Mertz

[Note post edited at 5:42 PM, 3-09-08 to correct mathematical error. The new version uses  a school with 63 kindergarten students as an illustration, the first version used a school with 72.  Because of MMSD policies and the way the numbers work out the cost differences for a school with between 63 and 91 students in a grade would not be as dramatic (only one more teacher required).  The district cannot know if a particular school will hit a sweet spot (64, 65, 66,..) or a sour spot (62, 63, 91, 92…).]

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Filed under Uncategorized, School Finance, Best Practices, Budget, Local News, Referenda, Equity, Pope-Roberts/Breske Resolution, education, finance, "education finance"



State Senator Kathleen Vinehout offered some of the most compelling testimony I’ve ever witnessed this past November before the Wisconsin Senate Education Committee hearing on the Pope-Roberts/Breske School Finance Reform Resolution. Her no nonsense, “get er’ done” plaint to the committee, was direct, compelling and simple. Unfortunately, no one in a “leadership” position is prepared to listen, let alone act on her simple plea. (See her testimony at the bottom)

Senator Vinehout offered three fundamental problems with the school funding system that have to be fixed.

1. There’s a fundamental disconnect between what drives school district revenues and what drives school district costs. She gives an example; when 3 students leave from a class of 20, we cut nearly 15%, but the cost of teaching a class of 17 is almost the same as teaching a class of 20.

2. The school funding formula assumes that every student costs the same regardless of background, capability or language skills.

3. The school formula assumes that every school has the same cost structure regardless of whether it has 300 or 3,000 students and regardless of whether it covers 15 square miles or 150 square miles.

These three things work together to provide severe financial problems, particularly for those school districts I represent, the small rural communities that are dealing with declining enrollment and increasing property values.

She goes on to cite some places in her district that suffer disproportionately because they are penalized for having higher than average equalized property values but more than 40% of the student body are from lower middle class households and more than 50% of the community is low income. But under the current formula, those communities are considered wealthy, when in fact they are far from it.

Rural schools are losing ground and they’re facing two choices. They must either spend more out of local resources to provide basic education programs or be satisfied with limited educational opportunities. And the reality is that many of these school districts are so poor, that the first option is not available to them. And sacrificing educational quality should not be a choice.

Vinehout says that not only must Wisconsin be committed to the 2/3rds funding of our schools, but it must also address the long term equity problems with the school funding formula.

School funding reform has to be a priority. We need to put aside our partisan differences and we need to work together to find a plan that puts forth real reform.

-She lays out 4 essential elements for real reform:

1. We have to reduce our reliance on property tax.
2. We have to recognize that some students cost more to educate than others.
3. We have to recognize that school districts in different situations face different costs.
4. And finally, the results have to based on an adequacy study or real costs in specific circumstances.

. . . the information is out there [on how to do this], what’s missing is a commitment to finish the final assignment. We need to make that commitment as a legislature. We cannot afford to let our schools go down. Good schools prepare our children for productive lives, they make for a vibrant economy, they support vibrant communities . . . we can do a better job.

Glen Grothman, arguably the most regressive member of our state legislature, attempted a rhetorical broadside to Senator Vinehout, one that he had leveled earlier in the hearing. Suggesting that Wisconsin was one of the highest spenders on education in the country, he added further that since our income was lower than average “that would seem rather generous.” But it’s false. Based on income, Wisconsin ranks closer to the mode for all states at 17th. A number of our regional neighbors, for example, Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana (all not exactly swimming in wealth) spend more on education than we do.

Her response to Senator Grothman was one that has stayed with me for these past couple of months. It’s the kind of response, in both it’s passion and simplicity, a directness that quickened my pulse, a retort that I wish we would see a lot more of from our elected leaders, starting with our Governor and our Senate and Assembly leadership, a riposte that boldly stands up to all the special moneyed interests in this state who are determined to balkanize and weaken our public school system.

The purpose of the bill that we’re looking at today, is what I call, a get-er’-done bill. It doesn’t solve the problem. It says we need to get the problem solved. The first step is to make the commitment to get together to look at the research and say we are going to solve that. . . and were saying let’s talk about this plan, let’s have those hearings, let’s have those discussions, let’s decide as a state if we want to make the commitment to increase the amount of money or if we want to make the commitment to change the formula, we can do this. I’m not going to sit here and say what the solution is . . . we have a problem and we need to solve it. Let’s get our sleeve’s rolled up and get to work.

I’m sorry to write this, but I don’t feel we have the leadership in our state to “get er’ done” for the 2009 budget. I know plenty of folks will take issue with this, but I don’t see any hope for our deeply challenged schools for the 2011 budget cycle either, unless there is the political will to take on a fundamental re-thinking of the way we fund our state government. Property tax reform must happen; but the political capital that will be needed to be burned for such an effort on the part of our leadership – in both parties – is far too much for them to contemplate. Frankly, I think another Progressive Era-type movement will have to take hold before any real action will take place to reform our state’s funding priorities. And that seems too far off into the future for my liking and for the future of the many hundred’s of thousands of our state’s children.

Robert Godfrey

Video from Wisconsin Eye — the full November 15 hearing can be accessed here — , excerpts posted via YouTube, playlist of all Senate hearing videos posted previuosly, here (because of length, this video could not be posted on YouTube). h/t to T.J. for putting the video up.

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We are not alone #19


Many, many referenda on the ballot in Wisconsin today.  Due to the TIF windfall, Madison escaped this round.  A large operating referendum is almost certain for November.

With that in mind, here are links and (very few) excerpts on today’s school referenda votes.

Unified tries to sway voters

Marshfield (links to many stories)

Students Support Marshfield Referendum

“”I think there’s a lot of people who don’t understand how big of an impact these extracurriculars have on our school lives. Like, I’m really into drama and band and I write for the school newspaper. All of those are going to be cut if this doesn’t pass.”

Marshfield School District Needs $2 Million Referendum

Support city school referendum to save education options

“My little sister can’t wait until she is in fifth grade and is able to join band, but that might not even happen. Why would they take away the foundation of the question “What do you want to be when you grow up” I loathe the fact that most people don’t even know or care what’s going on! People also, I feel, are being scared away by the thought of a raise in taxes, but the raise is a small price to pay for your/my future. What about the teachers that might be laid off because of this? Do you have any advice/help?”

Local School District Putting Multi-Million Dollar Referendum on the Ballot

“I’m not sitting here saying the football program will be cut,” Sally Sarnstrom said. “But it’s like any system. When you just keep reducing it, it just isn’t as effective.”

‘Dismantling’ would follow referendum’s failure

“Without the referendum, the district likely would cut four staff positions at its elementary schools and eliminate German from the curriculum at Prairie River Middle School next school year, officials said.

Future cuts would include reduced funding for special education and technology and additional teacher positions.

“The appropriate term to use now is dismantling,” Superintendent Sally Sarnstrom said, implying that the district has no room left to downsize. “”

Merrill voters will consider $2.9 million school measure

Spend the money, although it hurts

“The number of staff eliminated is almost staggering since 2001-2002.”

Oconto Falls Outdoor Facilities Referendum

Rio Schools to go to referendum in February

“After squeezing every penny from its 2004 referendum, the Rio Community School Board hopes that its diligence will convince residents to pass another ballot initiative in February.

“There is no room to cut anymore, and we have been very honest with the community about that,” said Doug Shippert, school board member. “In the past we have made cuts with staff and courses, but you can only make so many reductions. And the community knows we have made good fiscal decisions in the past.”

Thorpe referendum info

Thorpe referendum literature from the Future Farmers of America Alumni (this one broke my heart) 

Waterloo referendum newsletter

Arbor Vitae-Woodruff referendum powerpoint

Arbor Vitae-Woodruff Referendum

AV-W board approves referendum

I’ve said it before, this insanity has to stop.  It is long past time to fix the school finance system in this state.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under Uncategorized, School Finance, Best Practices, Budget, We Are Not Alone, Referenda, Elections, Pope-Roberts/Breske Resolution, education, finance, "education finance"

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