Category Archives: Referenda

Vote to be heard!

Chis Stamey and Yo la Tengo, “Vote” (click to listen or download)

Check the Wisconsin League of Woman Voters for all your voting information, including your rights, your polling place, the candidate answers, referendum information, and same day registration.

VOTE TO BE HEARD!

Thomas J. Mertz

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Thoughts on the late MMSD budget recommendations

The Dolly Mixture — “Spend Your Wishes” (click to listen or download).

With all the appropriate attention given this weekend to the opportunity to re-engage in collective bargaining  (if you haven’t weighed in the Board, there is still time:  board@madison.k12.wi.us) another and very important item on the Madison Metropolitan Board of Education’s agendas for Monday, September 24 2012 has slipped somewhat under the radar.  I’m talking about the Administrative Recommendations related to the unanticipated state aid, involving $8.1 M in taxing/spending.    Matt DeFour has a story up at the State Journal, but I haven’t heard much from anyone else on this (except some chatter that I solicited on my Facebook page).

First some general observations then to the specifics of the recommendations.

General Observations

The timeline is too tight.

The district has till the end of October to finalize their 2012-13 budget; the recommendations were made public Friday (9/21)  and the Board is being asked to give “preliminary approval” to these recommendations  on Monday.  An earlier document said the recommendations would be presented to a committee on September 17.  They were not (see about the 90 minute mark and note Ed Hughes asks if they will be asked to act on 9/24 and is told “no,” but never-the-less they are being asked to act…hmm).  I understand that these are somewhat special circumstances, but think the spirit of the statutorily mandated open budget process with required timely public disclosures and formal opportunities for public comment should be honored as much as possible.  A preliminary approval on Monday would be about as far from that as you could get.  Use the time available to give careful consideration and to allow the public to give consideration also.

The Board Member Amendments and other things considered during the regular budget process — including unfunded portions of the Achievement Gaps Plans — do not seem to have been given special consideration.

You could argue that these have been considered and rejected (back in July Ed Hughes made a related case here and here more recently), but I would counter that those rejections were based in part on tax levy considerations that have changed.  I would further argue that revisiting things is more respectful of the spirit of an open budget process than is bringing in “new” items this late in the game.  They also probably could be dealt with relatively fast.  I have a particular fondness for the amendment Maya Cole put forth on Library staffing and think it should come back; others may want to reconsider parts of the Gaps Plans or other things.  I think these should be the starting point.

Five votes are needed to do anything.

Once the Preliminary Budget is passed, changes need a super majority.

The pie hasn’t grown any larger, only the mix of where the ingredients are coming from has changed.

The Revenue Limit for MMSD  — what I’m calling “the pie” —  is the same as it had been in June, but more state aid means less local property taxes.  All the potential revenues contemplated in the Recommendations have been there since the start of the budget process.  It was a choice not to use them.   Many factors — including “efficiencies” (good and bad), significant cuts in state aid,  and the 2008 referendum have made the levy limits almost irrelevant in Madison budget talks recently.  This is not the case in most districts, may not be the case in MMSD in the future, and in terms of state policy Rev Caps remain a big problem.

The calculations around minimizing tax levies seem to be changing, but I’m not sure how.

As noted above and (indirectly in the documents from the district), the Preliminary Budget for 2012-13 (like the 2010-11 and the 2011-12 budgets) was arrived at by giving great weight to the size of the tax levy, and (as I’ve argued here and elsewhere) perhaps not enough weight to the needs of the students (and no consideration of the way the levy credits shape the impact of the  levy on taxpayers).  The administrative recommendations return to the days of “taxing to the max.”  This doesn’t seem to be a change in the principles used, but rather a one time move, based on the fact that a levy higher than anything possible at this point has already been found acceptable.  It should also be noted that the administration isn’t presenting options for taxing to the max, the default for saying no to the recommended expenditures is to reduce taxes (as a general thing, not just budgets, I really think the role of the administration is to present a range of options and their analyses of these options).   What is clear from the recommendations (contingency allocations, IRTs, Assistant Principals  — and other things like the hiring of a Chief of Staff and the reorganization of the Equity/Parent Involvement Department — is that some of the efficiencies enacted in pursuit of lower taxes during the Nerad years have not been good for the district.  There is a lesson here.

Budgets are about choices; Choosing the items recommended by the administration means not choosing other things.

Basic, but a reminder is is always good.  The Rev Caps do limit the size of the pie and you can only get so many slices out of it.   If you are funding iPads, you aren’t funding Librarians with that money (or raises, or repairs, or software, or social workers, or smaller classes, paying off loans, or tax relief….).  Current choices also shape or limit future choices, money committed to an ongoing expense this year won’t be there next year for anything, including the staff raises that almost all Board Members seem interested in exploring.  $8.1 million in choices to be made.

The Recommendations (mostly in order with comments and initial — mostly tentative — opinions)

Requirements (headings from the Recommendations)

Property Tax Relief (state revenue limits), $3,700,000

This is  required by the Rev Caps.  As noted above, the default to more tax relief is problematic.  It should also be noted that this is listed as being the same for the following year, when we really have no idea at all what the Rev Caps or the state aid will be.

WRS Increase, $1,200,000

Not really required, but seems like a good idea.

Short Term for Long Term Good/Closing Gaps

Second Year of Achievement Gap Plan, $3,700,000 (in 2013-14)

If I read this correctly, this recommendation is to hold off taxing this amount this year, in order to fund Achievement Gap(s) Plan (AGP)  initiatives next year.  Again, this assumes some things about what the state will do with the next budget.  It also kind of assumes that after a year the initial results or other considerations  will warrant continuing or expanding initiatives.  Last it sort of commits the Board to this.  I say “sort of” because the there really isn’t a separate pot of money (or revenue authority) being created and come 2013-14 Budget the Board (in office at that time…three seats up in April 2013) can do whatever they want with a majority vote.

My feeling has always been that if there are things that there are good reason to believe will have a significant positive impact on a significant number of students,  and we have the revenue authority to fund these, we should, now, not later (I know the “significants” raise other questions).   This late in the game, finding good ways to spend $3.7oo,000 may be hard, but I think it is worth a try.  If ideas are lacking at this time, the levy could be approved and a process could be put in place to generate and vet initiatives for the Spring semester (or the Summer).   This of course could create lots of confusion and uncertainty, so maybe the best thing to do would be to pay off some loans early and/or fund maintenance/capital improvements this year with the authority.  Those would free up money in future budgets.

4K from DPI Grant, $624,186 (in 2013-14)

This is another set aside for the next budget.  Some related things here.  Similar comments as above, except that the “need” for the funded items in 2013-14 is more certain.

Technology – iPads, $1,580,000 and (under “Closing Gaps“) iPad Coach, $74,927 (and $77,924 2013-14 and what looks like an ongoing expenditure)

Side note — this looks like an assumption of the generic teacher FTE allocation cost increasing by $2997 or 4% next year).

I don’t like these recommendations.

Larry Cuban (who has written extensively and insightful on technology and education) has asked “”What is the pressing or important problem to which an iPad is the solution?”   I don’t think the answer from the administration justifies the expenditure:

Provide one to one use of iPads for teachers. Using iPads can make the work of teaching more effective, more efficient, and more rewarding. Our teachers will have one of the best tools to improve instruction, communicate with students and colleagues, develop or adopt digital learning tools and manage their classroom. If we recognize the teaching staff can benefit in these ways using this technology we make a bold statement to our staff and our community. (emphasis added)

I tend to be skeptical of both “bold statements” and handheld technologies in education.  A couple of teacher friends saw some good in this, the one that was more convincing to me was a gym teacher who saw a means to do attendance and assessments while still engaged with students.

That seems like a good use, but the question remains are there enough “pressing or important problems” to justify buying this many more iPads?  I was told the district has 1,500 now; all I could find was this purchase of 586 in January 2012 and the  Technology Acquisition Plan to purchase 900 in 2011 (this document is the fullest explanation of the vision for iPads in the district there is also an iPad page for the District, and the MMSD 2009-2013 Information (Library Media) & Technology Plan: Draft).

I’m not 100% sure how many the District has now or who has them.  At $500 per,  the recommended purchase would bring the total to at least  3,500 and maybe to 4,500.  There are about 2,700 teachers (including social workers, counselors, psychologists).   So while I have come to see a place for iPads, I don’t see a place for that many and think the allocation procedure described in plan to purchase 900 should work to get the iPads in the hands of those who will make good use.

Some other people have weighed in with me on the iPads, bringing up issues of support 9that go beyond coaching), choice of hardware (iPads are not the only or necessarily the best tablets, only the ones that make the boldest statement), obsolescence,  the top-down nature of this initiative, and pulling teachers away from active engagement during class time.  All good points that reinforce my inclination to urge a “not now” vote.

Interim Chief of Staff Funding, $100,000

The recommendation says the money is currently coming from Title I.  That isn’t what was said at the time it was approved.  I think Steve Hartley brings many good things to the position and is an asset, but I still don’t like the way this went down and the funding confusion only adds to this.  Back on the levy, fine.  I’ll add that as the Superintendent search and hire goes forward, in the light of this and the whole rereorganization of the Nerad reorganization, there should be an attempt at clarity of Doyle organization, expenses and positions, especially at the “Cabinet Level.”

Technology – Wireless $650,000

All reports are that the current wi fi is overloaded.  This seems like a good capital expenditure.

Closing Gaps

2.0 Teacher Leaders,  $149,854 (for 2013-14, $155,848)

Here’s the explanation:

The AGP recommended 1 Elementary Teacher Leader for on-going support of Elementary Instructional Resource Teachers (supporting the implementation of Mondo) and 1 Secondary Teacher Leader as a member of the School Support Team for high schools to increase fidelity of literacy across the content areas/disciplinary literacy and English. We are recommending the restoration of these positions as critical to the literacy focus for our students.

You want to give initiatives a good shot at working and I mostly support this.  My only problem is with the designation for Mondo.  Last year Mondo was piloted and the results weren’t good (and here) yet the Board voted to expand. Now it looks like additional funding and a two-year commitment is being asked for.   This looks like doubling down on doubling down.  There should be a do-or-die moment for Mondo as part of the next budget cycle.

Assistant Principal and Clerical,  $156,940 (and $163,218 in 2013-14).

More leftovers from Nerad’s penny wise and pound foolish reorganizations.  This looks OK.  One note, the explanation indicates hat 550 pupils is now the tipping point for adding Assistant Principals.  I believe it used to be 500.  When did this change?  Was the Board aware?  This is like class size, a creeping erosion of quality done quietly.   It also should be noted that these expenditures were never part of the AGP and should be assumed to be ongoing expenditures.

Math Teachers .93, $69,682 (and $72,469 for 2013-14)

This seems to be to support Sch0ols of Hope (btw — when are we going to see a real evaluation and cost out of Schools of Hope?).   The job description is strange, especially the last line:

.93 FTE Teacher Allocation: The HS math interventionist will work with math staff to identify appropriate students, provide PD and assistance to the tutor coordinator and tutors, analyze assessments via Renaissance Learning (we already are using this but not to its full potential) and communicate with math teachers. A big plus is that the Math Interventionist will be able to generate a roster of students in IC, this has been a huge barrier for the community partners.

Generating a roster hasn’t been possible and we need a highly skilled interventionist to do this?  Still, I support (but I do want that cost out and evaluation, if student and staff time are being spent with Schools of Hope and it isn’t helping much, that is important to know).  Assumed to be ongoing.

Security Assistant (3), $132,731 ($138,187 for 2013-14)

There were no additional allocations for Security Assistants in any of the iterations of the AGP, so how this ended up being listed as part of Closing Gaps is a mystery.  It is also indicative of something I’ve observed before with MMSD and (in the world at large) and that is treating social problems as policing problems.  In fact, if you read the explanation it comes out something like, “Our Principals are too busy doing educational work to deal with discipline issues, so let’s throw some paraprofessional security assistants into the mix.”  I’d be much happier if the recommendation was to throw more social workers and psychologists into the mix.  I fairness, there are some references to size of schools and mix of programs as a justification, but I’d like to know more in detail  about what the needs are and how the security assistants are expected to help.  Without that, I say spend some of the set asides and get the social workers.  Assume to be ongoing.

High School REAL Grant Coordinators (nothing in 2012-13, $155,848 in 20114).

These have been grant funded and the grants are going away.  I don’t object to the allocations at this time, but do think that this presents an opportunity to reassess the work and job descriptions before extending via other funding.  Assumed to be ongoing.

Secondary Unallocated 5.0, $374,635 (and $389,620 in 2013-14)

I strongly support this and perhaps an increase in Elementary Unallocated (the recommendation isn’t clear on the needs there, but lacking any good data from the district anecdotal reports of bigger class sizes in the last few years incline me to believe there may be a need) .  The cuts to these have limited the flexibility, created closed sections and larger classes.  They should not have been cut as deeply as they were and restoring is a good idea.  Assumed to be ongoing.

PBS Coaches, (nothing in 2012-13 and $498,714 in 2013-14)

Positive Behavior Support is a very good idea and a good program.  It should be funded for every school. Assumed to be ongoing.

Seed to Table $74,927 (and $77,924 in 2013-14)

This was presented at a Committee meeting recently.  It seems like a good program.  Assumed to be ongoing.

Final Thoughts

As I said, most of these opinions on the individual items are tentative.  There simply has not been time for anyone to reach firm, grounded conclusions.

The process is another matter.  I’m firm and grounded in my opinion that both the Board and the public should be given more time before decisions are requested.  I’m firm and grounded in my opinion that more options should be presented, including things suggested but not funded during the Preliminary Budget work.  Last, I’m firm and grounded in my opinion that leaving levy authority unused under these circumstances is a mistake and at very least ask that Board consider early loan payments. maintenance needs and capital improvements as possible one-time expenditures, rather than under-levying.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Class Size: “Getting Mighty Crowded”

Video from the 2006 MMSD school referendum campaign.

Below is a slightly edited version of an email that I sent last night to the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education.

Subject: Class Size
To: board@madison.k12.wi.us
Date: Thursday, August 30, 2012, 7:58 PM

I’m just back from the open house and thought you should know that 5th grade class sizes at Randall are at 28 this year.  Maybe other grades also, the last few years 2nd, 3d, & 4th [at Franklin and Randall] have mostly been at 26 & 27.

The best teachers in the world are better in classrooms with 22,23,24…not 26, 27, 28…  This is no secret.

If you are tempted to say that Randall is a low needs/low poverty school, so this is OK, I’ll remind you of that there were 86 low income and 30+ Ell last year and like Johnny Winston said “it isn’t easy being a poor kid at a rich school.”  I’ll also say that all kids deserve better than 28 per class.

Here is what I think is the most recent public info on class size in MMSD (from this post):
…The first was  an October 3, 2011 discussion of class size, cut short in order to waste more time on Madison Prep, that featured a confusing and incomplete presentation of data.  Despite promises made, in the intervening 10 months  the better data has not come before the Board, nor has the Board returned to the topic.  For what they are worth and those interested, the Middle School info is here (not too bad, but no trend info) and the Elementary info is here  (really useless).  There is nothing worth mentioning on High Schools.  For the hardcore, there was also what looks to be an outdated practices document given to the La Follette Area study committee, note that it says that the non-Sage grades 3-5 limit is 27 (it also still has SAGE classes at 15/1, over a year after MMSD went to 18/1).

As some of you know, I believe that the Board should be more informed and pro-active on class size, and that given the financial implications, this should be part of the budget process.

TJM

No responses yet, but it hasn’t been very long since I sent it.  If I get any responses, I will ask for permission to post the here.

For more on class size, see ClassSizeMatters.org.

Thomas J.  Mertz

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Education, Taxes, and MMSD Board Goals

Graph from the Wisconsin State Journal, click image for accompanying story.

I was struck by the relationship between two things in recent Wisconsin State Journal stories.  The first of these is the graph above illustrating the cuts of over 150  Special Education staff positions (from Matt DeFour’s report on the new MMSD Middle School Mental Health initiative).    The second was this quote from Board President James Howard in Defour’s story on greater than anticipated cuts in state aid to the Madison Metropolitan School District:

School Board President James Howard said the board’s goal has been to not raise property taxes and, “I think that’s still our position.”

The short version of my reaction is that if your goal is hold the line on taxes, then I guess you are just fine with cutting programs and services, even those that serve the most vulnerable as Special Education does.  I’m not OK with that prioritization and am not OK with a Board and Board President who are.  The longer version  — including an analysis of how the 2008 referendum fits with this — follows.

[Note, as I was finishing this Board Member Ed Hughes put up a post indicating that he is more open to a property tax increase than president Howard and offering readers an opportunity to weigh in via a pollu.  When you are done here, read that post and vote).

Where to start?  I’ll begin with the obvious truth there are things that MMSD schools should be doing, ways they could be helping students, but are not and that these things cost money.   As a consequence of inadequate funding (among other things), MMSD is failing provide appropriate educational opportunities and services  for some students and excellent opportunities and services for many.  In other words, budget cuts impact education.  If you don’t believe the above, you should probably stop reading now.

The cuts to Special Education staff are one example (note I was cognizant of the 2006 cross-categorical teacher drop due to a change in case load allocations for “Speech and Language Only” students, the cuts to SEAs are somewhat surprising to me).  It is also worth noting that the approved Preliminary 2011-12 Budget appears to cut a further $3,231,626 from Education Services, the department in charge of Special Education, ELL and more (this figure may have changed slightly due to amendments, I’m using the initial Budget because the “approved Preliminary….” isn’t on line).  If any of these cuts come from Special Education, the district may be in danger of losing Federal Funding due to the Maintenance of Effort requirements  of IDEA which as explained in this memo from DPI  do not recognize “savings from reduced staff benefits as exceptions.”

Special Education is just one area where more resources would help; there are many others.  It should also not be forgotten that this preliminary — no new taxes —  budget was balanced by cutting staff compensation, as  Board Member Ed Hughes has said “underpaying our most important employees… a false economy.”

Now on to Board Goals.  I looked at in vain at the statues governing Boards of Education, at the MMSD Policies, at the District Philosophy, at the Mission Statement, at the Strategic Plan for any reference that could support not raising property taxes as a goal superior to providing the best possible education for the students in their charge.

You can look too, you won’t find it.  What you will find is much that calls for the Board to (in the phrase from the Strategic Plan) “vigorously pursue the resources necessary to achieve our mission,” the mission being:

…to cultivate the potential in every student to thrive as a global citizen by inspiring a love of learning and civic engagement, by challenging and supporting every student to achieve academic excellence, and by embracing the full richness and diversity of our community.

The last couple of MMSD budgets have each left about $10 million in revenue authority unused; the approved Preliminary Budget leaves (I believe) about $9 million (again, no final preliminary is on line, so I’m estimating).  It would not have taken, and does not now take much vigor to access these resources.  It may take  a little courage.

I realize that much has changed in the last few years — widespread economic hardship, cuts in state aid by both Democratic and Republican state governments, much slower than anticipated growth in property values, , the opportunity to cut staff compensation under the threat of union busting, dramatic cuts to the revenue limit base  — but despite all of these changes, if you go back to the principles and the details of Partnership Plan used to sell the 2008 Operating Referendum (which passed overwhelmingly) I think you can find plenty of justification for increasing property taxes in order to achieve the mission of the district.  Maybe not to the fully allowed limit (maybe) , but certainly beyond the level the Board President has stated as a goal.

That referendum is the primary reason why even with the FitzWalker mandated 5.5% cut in allowed revenue, Madison has the ability to maintain and even expand opportunities.   In more ways than one, that’s what over 68% of the voters agreed to.  They did not vote to freeze property taxes, they voted to raise them.

The strongest Partnership Plan based case for using the entire $10 million in referendum granted authority this year and every year is that that plan anticipated only a three year total of $9 million in cuts from cost to continue budgets, a total that was about doubled in the combined actual budgets of the first two years.

To me that is compelling, but some Board Members and others will point out the plan anticipated higher state aid and growth in property values than have been realized, and that these factors — along with general economic conditions — justify cutting at a higher level,  I don’t agree, but for the sake of argument I’m willing to stipulate that rather than relying on the “cuts from cost-to-continue ” metric,  we should also look at the total property tax burden.

Looking at the total levy instead of the total cuts is one way to deal with the diminished state aid and the lack of growth in property wealth to produce a conservative estimate of the tax burden agreed to by voters who ratified the Partnership Plan .  However if you are going to elevate  property taxes over other considerations in this manner it is only right to fully account for changes in property taxes and that includes dealing with the School Levy Credits.

As explained by Andy Reschovsky, the Levy Credits are categorized by the state as school aid but in fact function as property tax relief misdirected toward wealthier districts and property owners.  Shifting the almost $900 million a year allocated to the Levy Credits into general state school aids is a centerpiece of State Superintendent Tony Evers Fair Funding for the Future proposal.

Since 2006 the Levy Credits has almost doubled.  For the most part this has been ignored by School Boards in their Levy and Budget deliberations.  I think that was because districts almost always taxed to the max under revenue limits, so there was little reason to look at how the Credits impacted the net taxes of property owners.  One place where this would have made sense was in the otherwise detailed discussions of referendum related tax increases, but  — despite my advice at the time — MMSD did not include the Levy Credits in their presentations for  2008 referendum.

Since 2009-10 MMSD has ceased taxing to the max and has begun making minimizing tax burdens the top or near top consideration, the “goal.”  That means that the Levy Credits need to be part of the discussion, because as Reshovsky explains MMSD taxpayers benefit greatly from the Credits:

Using Madison as an exam-ple, in 2009, the average gross school mill rate was 9.79. The city’s school levy credit allocation resulted in a 1.76 mill rate reduction. Tax bills were then calculated using the net school mill rate of 8.03. Thus, the School levy credit resulted in a $352 tax saving for the owner of property worth $200,000 (.00176 times $200,000), and a tax saving of $880 for the owner of a $500,000 property.

For the purposes of this comparison of the levies anticipated in the Partnership Plan and  the actual/preliminary levies for the period covering the 2009-10 through 2011-12 budgets,  what is most important is that while cutting general school aids for the years 2009-10 and 2010-11, the Democrats increased the Levy Credits and that the Republicans in power have maintained these increases.  At the time voters approved the 2008 referendum, the Levy Credits for MMSD totaled 37,198,954.  For 2009-10 this increased to 40,934,795 and for 2010-11 they were 40,304,862.  I haven’t seen estimates for 2011-12, but the total funding for the Levy Credits is unchanged and it seems safe to assume that the share going to MMSD taxpayers will be about the same.

The table below uses  projected property tax totals from the Partnership Plan, the actual levies for the first two years and the levy from the approved preliminary budget for 2011-12.  To account for the Levy Credits  I’ve subtracted the Levy Credit increases over 2008 (3,735,841 for 2009-10 and 3,105,908 for 2010-11) from the levy totals (using the 2010-11 figure for 2011-12).

According to these figures,  MMSD could levy an additional $7,174,422 and still be within a  conservative interpretation of the tax increases the voters  approved with the 2008 referendum.  I think they should use at least this amount of their levy authority to advance their mission.

In the will of the voters as expressed in the referendum vote, I find no evidence that the community shares  Board President Howard’s stated goal to not raise property taxes and here and elsewhere I find much that supports reasonable tax increases.

Thomas J. Mertz

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State Superintendent Tony Evers’ Framework for School Funding Reform

Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers has released a “framework for school funding reform” called “Fair Funding for Our Future” (press release here, DPI page here).  I’m glad that Evers is showing some leadership and it looks like it may be a good framework, but with so few details it is hard to tell.

The one thing I like best is the stated goal of   “a fresh look at school funding and to ensure[ing]that candidates for elected office address school finance in real and substantial terms in their campaigns this fall.”  Evers clearly understands the need for reform and that if legislators and the Gubernatorial candidates don’t make commitments during their campaigns there is no chance that they will take positive action once in office (he probably also understands that even with campaign commitments  there is no guarantee).

The lack of detail works fine for this purpose (lots of detail would work too).  Still, I do think it is worth spending a little time looking at what is and isn’t there and how filling in the specifics could move this in good and bad directions.

Here are the bullet points (there is very little but bullet points):

Creates a Fair and Sustainable School Funding System that:

  • Prioritizes funding for ALL students.
    Provide a minimum level of state aid for every student in Wisconsin, regardless of where they live.
  • Accounts for family income and poverty.
    Use student poverty – not just property value – as a factor in a portion of state aid to schools.
  • Provides predictable growth in state support for schools.
    Increase state school aids and local revenue limits by a predictable percentage each year.
  • Supports rural schools.
    Expand sparsity aid and transportation funding.

Brings Transparency and Accountability for Results to School Funding by:

  • Ensuring state education dollars are spent educating children.
    Allocate the nearly $900 million School Levy Tax Credit into general school aids – a move that does not increase net property taxes statewide, but ensures that significant state financial assistance goes to kids and classrooms.
  • Investing in innovation and programs that show results.
    Consolidate and target categorical aids in ways that encourage innovation and focus on increasing student achievement, turning around struggling schools, and improving graduation outcomes.
  • Protecting Wisconsin students and taxpayers.
    Ensure that no school district faces a drastic reduction in state school aid in any given year.

Before looking at these each in turn it is important to remember that all these moving parts interact and that this is especially important if the total investments are not increased or are increased only minimally.  If the same sized pie is being sliced differently there will likely be winners and losers.    The levy credit move kind of increases the state’s contribution to the pie (or at least moves the state’s contribution from tax relief to education) but doesn’t increase the size of the total funding pie.

Prioritizes funding for ALL students.
Provide a minimum level of state aid for every student in Wisconsin, regardless of where they live.

The first sounds good but is pretty meaningless; the second really depends on what the minimum is.  Under the current system there is a $1,000 per pupil  minimum called Primary Equalization aid.

Accounts for family income and poverty.
Use student poverty – not just property value – as a factor in a portion of state aid to schools.

This could be a big change, depending on the weights given to income and property wealth and depending on whether “family income” for the district as a whole is used or “student poverty” is the measure.  [ Added 8:50 AM, 6-25-10From the press conference reports it is clear that student poverty would be used.  I’m keeping the discussion of using district income because it helps illustrate the complexity of assessing changes to the system] Madison is a high property wealth, high income district with high student poverty.  Last session there was  proposed legislation to move to a solely district income based equalization formula, which  according to this LFB analysis would have resulted in an over  60% 68% loss in aid for MMSD.  In contrast, one based on on student poverty should help MMSD significantly (I haven’t seen anyone run the numbers).

Just a little background on this.  For years the big push to incorporate income in equalization has come from high property wealth districts with many vacation homes but relatively low incomes among year round residents (sometimes called the Lake Districts).  Others, including the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools and the School Finance Network have concentrated more on including student poverty either in a foundation formula or as a categorical aid.    Further complicating things is the possibility that in some of the Lake Districts, the relatively low incomes might not translate fully into high student poverty as measured by free and reduced lunch counts (and the under-counting of poverty by that measure, especially with secondary students,  is always a factor too).   Many moving parts.

Provides predictable growth in state support for schools.
Increase state school aids and local revenue limits by a predictable percentage each year.

Predictable is good.  But like the 2/3 state funding commitment (however calculated — see the levy credit stuff below), what the legislature  gives, the legislature can take away.

I’m also intrigued by the “predictable percentage each year” phrasing.  Any growth based on income measures, educational costs, cost-of-living…wouldn’t be predictable.  This instead sounds like a call for a guaranteed minimum percent.  If that’s the case, what the percent is and how it relates to costs are the big questions.

Supports rural schools.
Expand sparsity aid and transportation funding.

As a superintendent I know in a struggling, small rural district has been quoting lately “show me the money.”  Inadequate sparsity aid (such as that in place the last few years) only relives a little pressure.  Without some real fixes we will see districts dissolve in the next couple of years.  Taken as a whole, the reforms Evers proposes may stop that from happening, or they may not (too few details, too many moving parts to tell).  I hope they do.

Ensuring state education dollars are spent educating children.
Allocate the nearly $900 million School Levy Tax Credit into general school aids – a move that does not increase net property taxes statewide, but ensures that significant state financial assistance goes to kids and classrooms.

For background on this read Professor Andrew Reschovky’s important paper, “A Critical Review of Property Tax Relief in Wisconsin: The School Levy Credit and the First Dollar Credit.”

If you read the press release or look at the charts posted by DPI (such as the one below), this appears to the centerpiece of the Framework.

Note the steep increase in the last two state budgets.  As I’ve said before, this gives lie to the assertions by state lawmakers that it is difficult to change the school funding system; these represent significant changes and were easily accomplished.  Few people noticed (Evers was pretty much silent on this and other school funding matters during the  last budget period).

This was so far off the radar that even districts like Madison that benefited from the change did not include the benefits in their budget discussions or explanations (I tried to get them to and if they had figured in the recent credits of about 1.5% for most taxpayers, this may have given them the courage to not under-levy so extremely).

As policy it is kind of  a no-brainer that money called education aid should go to education and not tax relief, but that hasn’t been the case in Wisconsin because tax credits were counted as part of the 2/3 funding when that % was statutorily required and continue to be counted as such in most calculations (including the maintenance of effort calculations in the ARRA and Race to the Top  paperwork it is worth noting).  So I like the policy change of using “education funding” to fund education.

It is also a no-brainer that state education tax relief should not be skewed to the most wealthy districts or individuals.  This is what the levy credit did.

How this money should be distributed is more complicated.

A good case can be made to reallocate to an expanded Homestead Credit and stop calling it education aid.  I’m not going to make that case here, but it is worth thinking about.

Evers is committed to using this as part of a revamped equalization formula.  I think this is in part because it looks like “free money,” in that it allows him to ask to put more state money into schools without asking for new revenue sources via tax reform or something like Penny for Kids. It is worth noting that with many districts under-levying (like Madison) what looks like a lot more money statewide might not end up being that much more money locally (or any more money at all) if when the impact of losing the tax credits is understood districts react by passing levies well below the authorized amount.  A couple of people also pointed out to me that in districts with higher property wealth (and maybe others) this will make passing referenda harder.

[Added 5:15 PM, 6-24-10] Note that Evers’ plan says  no “net” increase in property taxes.  Higher value property owners and higher value districts will see increases or at least the districts will see levy authority to increase if they choose.  Lower value owners and districts will see decreases.   What this does is increase the Robin Hood factor of equalization.  Good in theory, but the primary, secondary and tertiary aid formulas as they now exist (also in theory) take into account some level tax relief via credits.  The formulas also assume something like 2/3 state funding, so maybe none of this matters because they have essentially been junked anyway).  Whatever matters or doesn’t in theory, this change if done in isolation would necessitate sizable property tax increases in Madison (in 2008-9 the levy credits totaled $1,636 per student for Madison, some of this would be offset by the increase in the equalization pool and one would hope a student poverty factor).

How this and everything else plays out depend on all the pieces and how they fit together.  The biggest piece here is the incorporation of some poverty measure in the equalization calculations.

Investing in innovation and programs that show results.
Consolidate and target categorical aids in ways that encourage innovation and focus on increasing student achievement, turning around struggling schools, and improving graduation outcomes.

Buzz, buzz, buzz.  Buzzwords.  All good, but what these innovations are and how results are assessed matter.

On categorical aids, I’m a bit confused by the desire to consolidate and the related decision to push for poverty as a factor in equalization instead of as a new categorical.  I can appreciate the desire to streamline and simplify, but unless you go to a Foundation plan the Wisconsin school funding system will remain a Rube Goldberg machine.

I prefer a Foundation plan, but if that isn’t going to happen, I think more and better categoricals are the best way to get resources where they are most needed and will do the most good.  I get skeptical about proposals that are based the idea that you can better target by using fewer tools to aim.

Protecting Wisconsin students and taxpayers.
Ensure that no school district faces a drastic reduction in state school aid in any given year.

Sounds good, but again depends on what “drastic” means.  Right now the figure is a 15% cut (btw see Ed Hughes’ post today on why that 15% cap on cuts is important when funding is decreasing).  Obviously there has to be some “hold harmless” for any reform proposal to be viable.  Others I’ve seen are literally “hold harmless,” it worries me that even as a Framework this one is “hold from drastic harm.”

Maybe I worry too much.  As more details are put forward we’ll find out if I’m being chicken little.   I hope I am.  I hope that this all fits together in a way that puts our state back on track.  I know that is what Superintendent Evers wants too.  I certainly share and support that desire and appreciate his efforts.

Some links:

Wisconsin State Journal Story

School Finance Network reaction.

Tom Barrett, Scott Walker, and Mark Neumann responses.

Thomas J. Mertz


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Testify

Eleventh Dream Day, “Testify” (live) — click to listen or download.

Via Progressive Dane (I am Co-Chair and education Task Force Chair, so this is via me too):

6/1 — Call for Action, MMSD School Budget Hearing

At the General membership Meeting last night PD voted support for the call for action below. Although the odds of great changes this school budget cycle are low, it is important that the voices of school supporters — those who think that some of the $13 million slated for property tax relief be used to make out schools better — be heard. As one person who testified earlier put it, the Board of Education needs to be reminded that they were elected to be the “guardians of the schools…not the guardians of the taxpayers.”

Please join me Tuesday. The meeting begins at 5:00, so you can stop by on your way to the Immigration Rally.

Distribute Widely!

Madison School Budget Hearing
Call to Action
June 1, 2010, 5:00 PM
Doyle Administration Building Auditorium

On June 1, the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board of Education will hold their fourth and final hearing on the 2010-11 Budget. After the hearing they will finalize and vote on a preliminary budget (the final budget comes in October, after student counts and state aid are certified). This is your last chance to stand up for schools and education and make your voice heard.

The Talking Points

General

  • Tax increases are better than cuts to school budgets; Invest in Education, Raise My Taxes.
  • School Budgets have been cut for 16 years; it is time to stop this trend.
  • The trend in taxes paid by property owners for schools has been down for the last 15 years; levying to the full authority would return the mil rate to about the 2004-5 level.
  • The 2008 Operating Referendum passed with 69% of the vote.
  • Madison schools are very good, but there is much that needs improvement.
  • For the benefit of all students, the Strategic Plan needs to be implemented, not “narrowed.”
  • The achievement gaps of over 30% points between low income and other students on standardized tests in every subject and in every tested grade are not going to be helped by budget cuts.

It is doubtful that any of the cuts that have already been initially approved will be rescinded, but there are places where some of the savings might be reallocated.

  • Specifics
  • 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.

Background

Due to Wisconsin’s broken school funding system and cuts in state aid to schools, at the start of the budget process maintaining educational offering and quality would have required an estimated $28.2 million increase in locally generated revenue. This comes after over a decade when the trend ahs been reduced school property taxes for homeowners. After examining and voting on over 200 options for cuts and efficiencies, the Board has reduced this amount by about $13.5 million.

In 2008 over 68% of the voters approved a referendum to avoid cuts and bring about improvements. At that time the anticipated budget cuts for 2010-11 without a referenda were $9 million; now they are cutting $13.5 million from the levy despite the successful referendum.

Efficiencies are almost always good and most of the cuts will not have a significant effect on the breadth or quality of educational offerings. In many ways the Board has done a good job under difficult circumstances.

What they haven’t done is looked for ways that they could use some or all of that $13.5 million to improve our schools. Instead it has been designated for property tax relief.

There is much room for improvement. 17 years of cuts due to the state finance system have limited opportunities and support for all students. The achievement gaps remain a source of shame. On the most recent WKCE tests the gaps between low income and non low income students scoring proficient was over 30% in every grade for every subject.. African American and Hispanic students are more likely to drop out than participate in programs for the “talented and gifted.”

A big part of the 2008 referendum was the promise of a strategic plan to improve education in Madison. A plan is in place, but these self-imposed cuts have placed the improvements in jeopardy. Superintendent Dan Nerad recently cited “resource constraints” as the source of a “need” to “narrow the priorities within the [strategic] plan.” They have the resources to make big improvements, but would rather give tax breaks.

If you think, improving education and the futures of our children and community are more important than tax breaks, come to the June 1 hearing and show support or write the Board of Education at board@madison.k12.wi.us.

For more information on the Madison Budget, visit the district Budget Page: http://drupal.madison.k12.wi.us/node/6001

To get involved in fixing things at the state level, join the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (www.excellentschools.org) and sign the Penny for Kids petition (www.apennyforkids.org).

I’d really like for the Board to hear from at least a dozen or two school supporters on June 1.  If they don’t hear from you, they can pretend you don’t exist.

Thomas J. Mertz

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MMSD Budget, an Open Letter

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

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

In this penultimate phase of the budget process I will be proposing two budget amendments for the Board’s consideration (the ultimate phase comes in October when student counts, state aid and the property tax levy are all certified).  I am asking other concerned community members to join me in supporting these, either by testifying at the hearings or contacting the Board (board@madison.k12.wi.us).  The amendments and the thoughts behind them are explained in the open letter to the Board below.

Members of the MMSD Board of Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A little more background and details on each of these.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely

Thomas J. Mertz

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