Category Archives: referendum

Statement from CAST on the MMSD Budget

LOGO

The school referendum approved overwhelmingly by Madison Metropolitan School District voters in November 2008 was based on a “Partnership Plan” that promised to maintain educational quality, initiate a community-wide strategic planning process, and mitigate the impact on property tax-payers in a variety of ways.

While the school district remains committed to the principles of this Partnership Plan, with the uncertain economy many things have changed since November. Most significantly, the recently enacted state budget has left MMSD facing what now looks like a $9 million reduction in state aid as well as requiring an almost $3 million reduction in expenditures for the 2009-10 school year.

As the MMSD Board of Education seeks ways to address the shortfalls created by the state budget, Community and Schools Together (CAST) believes it is important that the community recognize that this problem was created by state officials, not local decisions. The reductions in revenues and in funding for targeted programs (via categorical aids) will impact every district in the state. Madison is one of about 100 districts that have had their general state aid cut by 15%, but almost all districts are experiencing significant reductions in state support and will be contemplating higher than anticipated property tax increases.

These cuts come after 16 years of inadequate funding, annual cuts in most districts as well as reductions of the state’s portion of education costs in recent years. This recent state budget moves us further away from the sustainable, equitable and adequate educational investments that are needed to keep Madison and Wisconsin strong and competitive.

It is also important that the community understand that the tax and revenue projections in the Partnership Plan and those used in the preliminary district budget passed in May were good projections made in good faith based on the best available information. That preliminary budget strengthened education and held property tax mil rate increase to 1¢ (far below the 11¢ increase anticipated prior to the referendum).

In the coming months the Board of Education must find ways to meet the shortfalls created by the state budget. There are no good choices.

These choices involve some combination re-budgeting and re-allocating, potential new cuts, use of the district’s recently growing fund balance, temporarily employing targeted stimulus monies, or increasing the local tax levy. CAST urges the Board to retain their commitment to quality education and community involvement. We also ask the community to take advantage of opportunities to let all our state and local elected officials know that Madison values education.

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Community and Schools Together (CAST) is a grass roots organization dedicated to securing sustainable, adequate and equitable public education investments in Madison and Wisconsin.

Click here for a PDF version of this statement.

Thomas J. Mertz

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The Wrong Direction – Quotes of the Day

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“I’m certainly concerned from the perspective that we passed a referendum in Madison that I think was predicated on the state doing its share,” says Matt Calvert, whose children will attend O’Keeffe Middle School and Marquette Elementary this fall. “Until we have financial reform, something that will keep up with needs, it seems like now things are going the other direction.”

…[TJ] Mertz believes this budget, regardless of its final form, “moves us further from what the goals of that reform should be in a number of ways.” And he believes impending cuts will mean tough times for school districts across the state.

From Lynn Welch, “Madison schools brace for state budget,” in the Isthmus

(OK, I know it isn’t the best thing to use yourself as a source for a “Quote of the Day, ” but I liked the way what Matt and I were saying fit together.  read the whole story.)

Thomas J. Mertz

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Voices of Dissent — The Wisconsin State Budget

By Milton Glaser, for more information click the image.

By Milton Glaser, for more information click the image.

A couple more voices of dissent on the Wisconsin State Budget deal (joining those previously noted, Ed Garvey, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families and me).

Dustin Beilke had this to say on the Isthmus/Daily Page:

How unfortunate, then, that so many of the thoughts running through my mind during the 4 hours and 43 minutes I spent plodding along the course had to do with the state budget and the recent announcement that state leaders were agreeing to more state employee layoffs and “furloughs,” and across-the-board spending cuts. These reductions will mean less aid to the poor and the elderly, larger classes and fewer course offerings for public school children, less financial aid for college students whose parents aren’t rich, fewer books in libraries-a lower quality of life for all of us, a dimmer future for the youngest among us, and desperation for those losing their jobs or their last shreds of dignity.

The small handful of commentators who still track state government mostly praised the governor and the Joint Finance Committee for making these “tough choices.”

I disagree. The tough choice would have been the one that most commentators no longer even seem to consider: raising taxes. Among the state’s editorialists, columnists, bloggers and radio commentators Ed Garvey is the only one I found making this obvious suggestion (The Republicans in the Legislature are saying the Democrats are raising taxes even though they aren’t, but I don’t think that counts.)

Other states are increasing taxes during these times when the circumstances so obviously demand it. The New York Times editorial page is encouraging states to do the right thing rather than further denigrate our economy and our future with draconian cuts and layoffs.

The logic behind cutting budgets during an economic downturn like the one we are in is faulty at best. It says that taxpayers cannot afford higher taxes when they are already losing their jobs and having their homes repossessed. But the unemployed do not pay income taxes. And when one level of government shortchanges us, like the state, the burden falls to another level of government or upon our most vulnerable fellow citizens.

But economic logic is not what takes tax increases off the table. It is the political logic that says it is harder to raise campaign money and win re-election if your opponent can say you raised taxes. It is mostly wrong: Incumbents almost always win no matter what they do. But the campaign professionals who generate the political logic don’t specialize in taking risks and are not in the business of serving the public interest.

John Smart’s post on Fighting Bob is about the education cuts in the budget.

Spare our schools

The new state budget realities might lend credence to the notion of cutting funding for our public schools, but as a former school board members I am here to say that is exactly the wrong answer. We must fully support our schools as the surest method to grow the economy out of this economic hole.

Who could possibly think that we can solve our nation’s very serious economic problems with a less-than-well educated work force?

Please, Governor Doyle and legislators, don’t cut school aids, not even by a single dollar. Please allow local revenue limits to increase as much as possible under the law. Please don’t hamstring school boards by repealing the QEO. Please don’t change the rules for contract arbitration. And please do not throw the fiscal responsibility for our schools out to
referendum and onto the backs of local property-taxpayers.

I know, I know – the first comment will be, “So – where will the money come from?” Well, there are ways and there are means.

A recent study showed that a 1 percent increase in the state sales tax would, if dedicated to education, basically solve all of our problems. That would bring us to 6 percent, at the same level as Michigan, and still lower than Illinois and Minnesota. Another suggestion is to reduce the list of tax-exempted products and services, thus bringing in more revenue and making the system more fair at the same time.

There are other revenue plans under consideration in Madison, such as treating capital gains as income – and the combined reporting proposal (an attempt to close the “Las Vegas Loophole” that allows interstate corporations to avoid paying taxes on profits made in Wisconsin by lumping them in with profits made in other states) and, of course, a long overdue increase in the beer tax to $10 per barrel.

If you are not familiar with the Institute for
Wisconsin’s Future
, I encourage you to check them out. The IWF was established in 1994 to research our economic policies and make suggestions and corrections. It is a non-profit, non-partisan organization, and is “rooted in the belief that an educated, engaged citizenry is key to improving individual outcomes.”

Take a look at their suggestions, which are well analyzed and supported by thorough vetting.

Although I failed in my recent bid to be elected to the board of the new Chequamegon School District in Glidden and Park Falls, that doesn’t mean that I am no longer concerned about our schools and our kids.

Everyone who knows me knows that. I am contacting my state legislators and the governor’s office asking them to support our schools. Will you do so, too? The future of our state depends on it.

You can register your own dissent by contacting elected officials, writing letters to the editor (details here) and joining the Walk on the Child’s Side on June 16.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Budget, Contracts, education, Elections, finance, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, Referenda, referendum, School Finance, Take Action

Not a Gift Horse; Not Satisfied — The MMSD Budget

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Look me in the eye
Then, tell me that I’m satisfied
Was you satisfied?
Look me in the eye
Then, tell me that I’m satisfied
Hey, are you satisfied?

The Replacements, “Unsatisfied” (click to listen or download).

The Madison Metropolitan School District budget is not a gift horse, it is the product of a state-mandated process by which our elected and appointed school officials — with required input from taxpayers and other community members — arrive at taxing and spending decisions that fulfill their fiduciary duties to provide the best education possible for our children, while being good stewards of the funds in their charge. This year, those mandates and duties are being expanded to include some pledges that were made during this past November’s successful referendum campaign.

It is indeed proper to look very thoroughly into the mouth of this budget, to look at how well it meets it’s mandates, fulfills it’s duties and honors the pledges that were made previously. When I do that, I’m relatively pleased, but I’m not satisfied.

Without dissatisfaction there is complacency and little motivation for improvement. When you aren’t satisfied, you keep dreaming and reaching.

The Partnership Plan and a Broken Promise

As part of the basic proposal of the Partnership Plan, the Board and administration asked the voters to approve a recurring referendum, one that provided less revenue than would be needed to meet the annual budget gaps created by Wisconsin’s broken state school finance system. In return, they promised to find both efficiencies and non- or minimally harmful cuts, to make up the $1 million of the $3 million difference in the budget shortfall. At the time that the Partnership Plan was proposed, the projected budget gap unmet by referendum authorization was about $3 million. By this Spring, other factors had raised this number to $3.9 million. At the same time, a new bus contract saved close to $800,000, so we are back to about $3 million. As part of the Partnership Plan, $2 million in Fund Balance spending (referred to as Fund 10) was promised to “address the remaining” budget gap. Money from the Fund 80 Fund Balance was pledged to minimize tax increases. Initiating a strategic planning project was also part of the mix. This included the creation of the Fund 41, known as the Capital Expansion Fund, that was meant to increase state aid via amortization. It was presented as part of this plan, but since it made sense with or without a referendum, I never thought it belonged; the same might be said for the strategic planning.

All of these concepts, except one, were intact in the initial budget proposal from the administration. The pledge of $2 million from the Fund Balance in the 2009-10 budget was missing. Some further changes in the budget came about due to things like new inter-district transfer estimates. Normal stuff. But quite curiously, the $2 million in Fund Balance money to be used on the education of our children was totally abandoned.

You can interpret this pledge made during the referendum in at least three or four ways. You could believe that the pledge was made to reduce the projected budget gap by $2 million from the Fund Balance.

You could consider it a pledge to limit “same service cuts” up to $2 million in Fund Balance spending. You could consider it a pledge to spend the $2 million, whatever projections and budgeting indicated a “same service” budget would be. You could say that the pledge was maintain the quality of education to the degree made possible by up to $2 million in Fund Balance spending.

By all of these interpretations, excerpt perhaps the last, the pledge was broken. I say perhaps, because the district administration has said that they were able to maintain the quality of education without the money from the Fund Balance; by their own calculations they were not able to meet “cost to continue” without it, but I’m not 100% satisfied this is true (more on this below under “Is the Quality of Education Being Maintained”).

At this point, I want to note that there are good fiscal reasons to maintain or grow a Fund Balance. But it must be further noted that those reasons also existed when the Partnership Plan was proposed. And in the context of that plan, one would have thought that a higher standard would have to be met in order to champion a fiscal position that could trump the pledges made earlier in a referendum campaign.

The Partnership Plan represented an attempt to balance the desires of those of us who would have liked a bigger and better referendum and those who wanted something smaller or no referendum at all.

At the time I thought the compromise tilted too far toward the “small/no” position. The proposal to not use the Fund Balance money tilts it even further in that direction and breaks the trust. Broken trust is difficult to repair. I supported the referendum and worked to pass it. I solicited the endorsements and volunteer efforts of others. The $2 million in Fund Balance spending had a large influence in my commitment; without that pledge I would have supported the referendum from the sidelines.

Last week the Board and administration moved to restore some of that pledge, in a manner that seems to reflect, at least partially, the “spend the $2 million, whatever projections and budgeting indicate about “same service” interpretation.

Some of the Promise to be Restored: “Class and Half Specials,” and “Ready, Set, Go” Conference

At the April 3, 2009 Madison Board of Education meeting they “moved forward” a budget amendment which will put an end to the failed experiment in class and half specials (Art, Music, Phys. Ed.) in nine schools, beginning in the 2009-10 school year (some background here, video of the meeting here, this amendment budget Q & As here). the $1.2 million needed for this fix will come from a combination of the Fund Balance ($500,000) and anticipated revenues from TIF closures ($700,00). This is a very good thing. I’m very glad they are doing this, but I’m not satisfied.

At that meeting the Board also “moved forward” an amendment to restore the “Ready, Set, Go” conferences. The discussion of how to pay for that was not concluded. The initial proposal from Lucy Mathiak to “find the money” by cutting expenses paid for via purchasing cards was ill-conceived. Budgeting should not be done by looking at how things are paid for (p-cards, purchase orders, etc.,), but rather what is needed and what is affordable. Still I am very glad that it appears “Ready Set Go” conferences will be back, but I’m not satisfied. [As of this writing, I cannot find copy of this amendment on the district web site.]

Some people might say that it is proper to say “good work” and “thank you” and leave it at that. I don’t agree. I’m not satisfied.

I strongly support this use of the money to address the Specials mess (and to fund “Ready, Set Go” conferences if it comes to that) and further believe that this budget should include $1.5 million more in Fund Balance spending. This spending could be used to avoid cuts, restore previously cut programs or practices, expand current programs or practices, or initiate new things (see this post and this list for what has been lost over the years).

Is the Quality of Education Being Maintained?

If the definition of maintain is a lack of dramatic, direct cuts to programs and policies, the answer is certainly yes. It is clear that the combination of the successful referendum and adept management have produced a budget that will maintain the same general breadth and quality of education. This deserves respect and applause.

However, the budget does contain some significant cuts from “same service” calculations. Some of these may constitute erosion. Although there are reductions in unallocated positions in elementary and secondary education, these don’t bother me much because of the reduced enrollment projections and the fact that many unallocated positions are maintained. The ones that do bother me are in Education Services (Special Education and English Language Learners – ELL). I’m also not satisfied the “cost to continue” calculation for Vocational Education “Other Expenses” is not a cut in disguise.

By the district budgeting, there is a reduction of 31 positions and $1.8 million dollars in the Education Services budget. That’s a big hit, especially for a department that has taken some big hits in the recent past. One of these positions and $132,000 is through getting rid of a temporary administrative post. That still leaves 30 “unallocated” positions and almost $1.7 million (unallocated means that these are not part of the initial staffing estimates). The administration says “this has no effect on existing programs and services.” I’m not so sure, I’m not satisfied that this will be the case.

To be fair, even with the reductions, the department will gain a net 11.3 FTE. At the budget press conference, there was talk of looking at the initial “cost to continue” request and finding that it was too large and that the reductions in the budget preserved “same service.” I’d like to know more, but a reduction of 30 positions does concern me.

I looked at some old budget material and found that in 2005-6, all of the unallocated special education positions were used (this came in response to a question about cutting 10 positions in 2006-7). In 2005-6 the ratio between Special Education staff FTE and Special Education students was 4.42/1. In 2008-9 that ratio 4.89/1. If the student count remains the same next year, it will be 4.78/1.

I also looked at staffing ratios in ELL. In 2005-6 it was 16.26/1; 2006-7, 17.93/1; 2007-8, 20.51/1; 2008-0, 18.38/1. Again, assuming a constant number of students, the 2009-10 ratio will be 18.50/1. We also know that in 2009-10 the district will have to add one FTE specialist in Arabic and another in French.

Maybe same service in Educational Services, maybe “more with less,” and maybe also a department where we could add something back, as we did with “Class and Half” and “Ready, Set, Go.” At very least, we need more of an explanation than was given in the budget document (none), or at the press conference (little), would be nice.

The possible cut in Vocational Education, “Other Expenses,” is different. On page 93, here you can see that although non staffing expenses for Vocational Education was $481,000 this year and about the same previous years, the “cost to continue” figure for 2009-10 is $299,000. Is this a $182,000 cut? I don’t know, I’ve asked the appropriate people and still don’t know. There may be other anomalies like this that I haven’t noticed.

I don’t know how I feel about the “maintain quality” issue in general. I’m not satisfied either way and when I think about the $2 million that was pledged to do real “same service,” “cost to continue” maintenance of quality, I think that some consideration should be given to chopping that 30 FTE’s down to 15.

Some Concerns about Process

I said at the top that the budget proccess is state mandated. In Chapter 65.90 it is spelled out. One important idea is that the budget must be presented to the public 15 days in advance and that there must be a public hearing before the budget is passed. At subsequent times, the budget may be altered by a super-majority, 5 votes in the case of Madison, and no hearing is required.

As I understand it, public participation is considered to be so important that it is required. The hearing on the MMSD budget is 6:00 PM, May 6 at the Doyle Building (and may be continued on May 10).

65.90 also describes what must be in the budget presented prior to the hearing. It read in part:

(2) Such budget shall list all existing indebtedness and all anticipated revenue from all sources during the ensuing year and shall likewise list all proposed appropriations for each department, activity and reserve account during the said ensuing year. Such budget shall also show actual revenues and expenditures for the preceding year, actual revenues and expenditures for not less than the first 6 months of the current year and estimated revenues and expenditures for the balance of the current year. Such budget shall also show for informational purposes by fund all anticipated unexpended or unappropriated balances, and surpluses.

For some reasons that I understand and for others that I don’t, the MMSD budget does not list all “anticipated revenues” nor “all anticipated unexpended or unappropriated balances, and surpluses.”

As a side note, I also didn’t like the “non binding” budget votes on April 30.

The biggest anticipated revenues are Title I and IDEA monies from the stimulus package. The Federal Department of Education issued estimates of distributions in March, well prior to the publication of the preliminary MMSD budget (remember that this entire budget is predicated on estimates of what the State will do with their budget, what property values will be, how many students we will have, how contract will be settled, etc.,). Madison will get $11.7 million over two years, with, I believe, a bit under half coming in the 2009-10 fiscal year. That’s over $5 million in anticipated revenues that are not part of the budget.

There are good reasons for this. First, it takes time to work this into the budget and figure how to use the money wisely. Second there will be further clarification on the strings attached in the coming weeks (although once the Budget is set and if the “maintain quality” assertions are true, “Supplement not Supplant” issues become moot, it will be by definition supplementary…maybe that’s the point). What is lost is the chance to see the entire budget picture, to see how things fit together within the mandated process. Perhaps a delay to have time to put the pieces together prior to beginning the public process would have been better.

The $700,000 in TIF money is also an anticipated revenue that was not part of the initial preliminary budget (although from what I can gather the district was only made aware of this after the preliminary budget was issued).

The Budget issued also does not contain a clear statement of the projected status of the Fund Balances, whether at the close of the 2008-9 fiscal year or the close of the 2009-10 fiscal year (the latter may be pieced together from the line-by-lines, I believe). As I noted above, there are many factors that could influence all parts of the budget and that certainly includes the bottom line of Fund Balances.

That said, although I am not sure about the legal requirements, I know that this information is required by principles of good governance and due diligence. I’ll add that this information is very much part of the Budget process in districts around the state and was included in budgets Erik Kass prepared in Waukesha.

Without this information, the Board and the Public cannot know how they are managing their assets. They don’t know if they are squandering their savings and risking lower bond ratings and higher interest rates. They don’t know if they are making progress saving for that big purchase (4K anyone?). They don’t know if there is money sitting there doing little or nothing while needs and desires go unmet. The bottom line, the projected Fund Balances should be part of the discussion.

Green Bay, where Superintendent Dan Nerad was in charge, before coming to Madison, avoided many of these difficulties by doing the formal budget process and hearing in the Fall, right before the levy is certified. In Madison we do it in the Spring and then make adjustments to the levy (and other things) in the Fall.

Not 100% satisfied with the process.

Some Other Budget Observations

There are many things in the budget I like, for example two more Social Worker/Psychologists and one more Nurse, are good moves, but I’m not satisfied.

MMSD will be spending about $26,000 to test all 1st graders in order to identify Gifted and Talented students. I don’t like more testing and it isn’t clear what will be done once they are identified. Not satisfied that this is a good idea.

If my calculations, based on the projected decrease in state SAGE aid are correct, next year MMSD will have about 100 fewer SAGE aid eligible students in SAGE funded reduced class size classrooms. Not satisfied with this at all.

The set asides to begin implementation of the Fine Arts Task Force work, the Math Task Force work and the Strategic Planning are fine, although I have my doubts that there is little useful policy recommendations in the Math Task Force Report that will ultimately be implemented.

Closing Thoughts

Dissatisfaction reveals a faith that improvement is possible and is a first step in working toward that improvement. Some may see this as too negative and others may see it as nit picking. That this takes place within a general context of happiness that there are no glaring harmful cuts in this budget should not be lost; that there are only what some may see as nits to pick is in itself evidence that educational quality is not being seriously threatened in the budget.

The opportunity to scrutinize is built into the process, the uncertainty and lack of satisfaction that came as a result of this scrutiny can be healthy, especially if it leads to certainty and improvement.

I don’t expect anything major to change prior to the budget being passed, but I’m still glad I took a close look in that horse’s mouth and reported some of what I saw; I’m glad to communicate that at least some aren’t satisfied.

Thomas J. Mertz

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School Finance Network Assembly Hearing, Tuesday April 21, Be There!

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The hearing is on the School Finance Network plan, but it is more generally an important opportunity to show support for comprehensive school finance reform.  The lawmakers need to know we care.  Be there if you can!

Details here and below.  The Basics: Tuesday April 21 at 1:00 PM at the Wisconsin State Capitol in room 413 north.

School Finance Network Reform Plan Subject of April 21st Hearing at the Capitol

Statewide coalition of more than 100,000 members announces support for changes to public school funding

Members of the Assembly Education Committee have scheduled a hearing for April 21st at 1 p.m., to consider the School Finance Network’s funding reform plan.

The meeting will be held at the Wisconsin State Capitol in room 413 north, and is open to the public. In addition to members of the SFN coalition, parents, students, educators, and taxpayers from around the state will speak.

The School Finance Network is a statewide coalition of educational, religious, and community-oriented organizations, committed to strengthening the funding system for our public schools.

The School Finance Network plan details how public school districts statewide would benefit through changes that help children with special needs, disabilities and from low income families. It also includes updates to the funding formula for rural districts and those with declining enrollment. The plan also helps maintain classes that help young people to learn skills that can benefit their communities.

The School Finance Network is made up of the following groups: AFT–Wisconsin, the Fair Aid Coalition, the School Administrators Alliance, the South-eastern Wisconsin Schools Alliance, the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, and the Wisconsin PTA

What: Assembly Education Committee hearing on the School Finance Network plan.

When: April 21st at 1 p.m.

Where: Wisconsin State Capitol, Room 413 North.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Another District Heading for Dissolution? Give Paris One More Chance

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Jonathan Richman, “Give Paris One More Chance” (click to listen or download).

Last year it was Wausaukee and Milwaukee, before that Florence; now the Paris District is talking and voting on dissolution (and here).

You can’t say this is a surprise.  The whole way Wisconsin funds education has been accurately called a “going out of business” plan (video here); Prior to the overwhelming defeat of a referendum on April 7, Administrator Roger Gahart warned that a no vote could lead to dissolving the district.

Here is how the situation was explained.

A combination of factors have led Paris into financial difficulty.

The district is considered property-rich under state funding formulas, and has had declines in student enrollment, both factors leading to a steady reduction in state aid. At the same time, state law limits the amount of money districts can collect under the revenue cap, and its expenses have grown faster than revenues.

Paris has cut its budget over the past year, eliminating some staff positions and reducing costs. But the district, with just one classroom per grade level, has little room left to cut…

The dissolution vote is only the first step of  a long process that most often does not end in a dissolution.

Paris is a very small K-8 district, serving less than 200 students.  A case can be made that consolidating with another district would be  best.  Certainly economics should play a role in this decision, yet when you look closely  it is clear that dissolution/consolidation won’t fix many of the problems.

There will be some economies of scale, but the recent cuts in Paris indicate that this potential is limited.

• Reductions in staff for 2008-2009 school year saved $100,240.
• Reductions in staff for 2009-2010 school year projected to be $60,000 to $70,000.
• Total current expenses reduced $121,966 from Fall Budget report.
• 26.5% reduction in supply expenses from 2007-2008 school year to 2008-2009.
• 52% reduction in supply expenses from
2008-2009 school year to 2009-2010.
• Improved energy conservation and building maintenance practices.
• Taking advantage of used, refurbished, and donated materials and equipment.

The district mentioned as possible new homes for the Paris students are Kenosha Unified, Bristol, Union Grove or Brighton.  They all have there problems.

Kenosha is dealing with the aftermath of an ill-advised investment strategy (inspired by the need to do something to try to deal with the broken state finance system), the budget pressures were a major issue in the recent School Board elections, they are phasing out the Music Department and not too long ago faced protests against “excessive budget cuts.”

I can’t find anything on the Bristol or Brighton budgets.  Not much on Union Grove either, except an incumbent Board Member seeking re-eletion saying “school funding” is “the most important issue facing the board.”

If dissolution/consolidation is only a partial and temporary fix, the School Finance Network (SFN) has a proposal that will help all districts in Wisconsin achieve sustainable funding for excellent education.  There will be a hearing on the SFN plan on Tuesday April 21 at 1:00 PM at the Wisconsin State Capitol in room 413 north (more details here).  It is important that there be a good crowd supporting comprehensive reform.  Be there!

Meanwhile, contact your elected officials, the media and get involved (see here for “how to’).

Thomas J. Mertz

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April 7, 2009 Referenda Results

From Modern Mechanix (click image for more)

From Modern Mechanix (click image for more)

The results are in.  Good news with Tony Evers, Shirley Abrahamson and Arlene Siveira.  Very mixed results on the school referend in Wisconsin.  Not as bad as February, but many children’s educations will suffer as a result of the losses.

Information on the measures can be found in this previous post and the full report from DPI is here.

First the Non Recurring Operating Referenda where 10 passed and 14 failed.

DISTRICT

Referenda Type

Yes Votes

No Votes

RESULTS

Birchwood (0441)

NR – 2009 – 2011

360

386

Failed

Horicon (2576)

NR – 2009

505

822

Failed

Kiel Area (2828)

NR – 2009 – 2016

887

928

Failed

Loyal (3206)

NR – 2009 – 2012

439

514

Failed

Manawa (3276)

NR – 2009 – 2014

590

937

Failed

Oakfield (4025)

NR – 2010 – 2014

308

344

Failed

Oshkosh Area (4179)

NR – 2009 – 2014

6,872

6,930

Failed

Reedsburg (4753)

NR – 2009 – 2012

999

2,240

Failed

Ripon (4872)

NR – 2009 – 2012

854

1,112

Failed

Wheatland J1 (6412)

NR – 2009 – 2013

363

417

Failed

Albany (0063)

NR – 2009 – 2013

459

333

Passed

Benton (0427)

NR – 2009 – 2012

407

291

Passed

Bowler (0623)

NR – 2009 – 2012

223

216

Passed

Elcho (1582)

NR – 2009 – 2012

800

632

Passed

Herman #22 (2523)

NR – 2009 – 2014

142

137

Passed

Maple Dale-Indian Hill (1897)

NR – 2009 – 2019

809

632

Passed

Mineral Point (3633)

NR – 2009 – 2011

896

592

Passed

Northland Pines (1526)

NR – 2009 – 2012

1,963

1,767

Passed

Oshkosh Area (4179)

NR – 2009 – 2014

7,212

6,624

Passed

Phelps (4330)

NR – 2009 – 2012

378

144

Passed

Phelps (4330)

NR – 2009 – 2012

360

161

Passed

Ripon (4872)

NR – 2009 – 2015

1,077

898

Passed

Washington (6069)

NR – 2009

242

236

Passed

Wisconsin Heights (0469)

NR – 2009 – 2011

1,225

598

Passed

Lots of close votes (6 on Washington Island referendum!) and unfortunately, unless there is comprehensive reform (see below), even the districts where the referenda passed will soon be asking again or heading off the cliff.  Many of the ones that failed will return to the voters, sooner rather than later.

The results for Recurring Operating Referenda were not as good.  7 failed and only 2 passed.

DISTRICT

Referenda Type

Yes Votes

No Votes

RESULTS

Medford Area (3409)

RR – 2010

1,220

2,428

Failed

Merrill Area (3500)

RR – 2009

1,836

3,153

Failed

Middleton-Cross Plains (3549)

RR – 2009

4,963

5,726

Failed

Paris J1 (4235)

RR – 2009

165

512

Failed

Reedsburg (4753)

RR – 2009

1,349

1,907

Failed

Riverdale (3850)

RR – 2009

559

883

Failed

Siren (5376)

RR – 2009

234

418

Failed

North Lakeland (0616)

RR – 2009

839

732

Passed

Reedsville (4760)

RR – 2009

863

554

Passed

The votes don’t look to have been as close. Recurring referenda make much more sense in terms of planning, but for some reason the anti-forces have been very successful demagoguing the concept.

Last the Issue Debt Referenda (building, remodling, upgrading HVAC…).

DISTRICT

Referenda Type

Yes Votes

No Votes

RESULTS

Medford Area (3409)

Issue Debt

1,191

2,505

Failed

Middleton-Cross Plains (3549)

Issue Debt

4,766

5,677

Failed

Middleton-Cross Plains (3549)

Issue Debt

5,008

5,425

Failed

Oshkosh Area (4179)

Issue Debt

3,761

10,124

Failed

West Bend (6307)

Issue Debt

5,632

6,317

Failed

Albany (0063)

Issue Debt

539

257

Passed

Cudahy (1253)

Issue Debt

1,085

1,000

Passed

Elk Mound Area (1645)

Issue Debt

648

413

Passed

Maple Dale-Indian Hill (1897)

Issue Debt

972

465

Passed

Reedsville (4760)

Issue Debt

795

624

Passed

Ripon (4872)

Issue Debt

1,372

616

Passed

West Bend (6307)

Issue Debt

5,971

5,897

Passed

5 yes and 7 no, with mixed results in West Bend.

More votes in Salem and Cuba City later this month and elsewhere — especially where referenda failed —  the axe will continue to fall and AMPS will cover as many of the cuts as we can.

Now the” take action” boilerplate (literally cut-and-paste this time).

This growing reliance on regular referenda is perhaps the clearest evidence that the way our state funds education is broken.  Too much time and energy is being misdirected at securing basic funding instead of educating, too many communities are being split over these votes instead of united to give their children the opportunities to create a better future.

It is well past time to fix it.

Get involved in the effort by attending the April 21, 2009 Assembly Education Committee hearing on the School Finance Network proposal (info here), and joining the School Finance Network and the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (it is just fine to do all of the above, I have or will).

Thomas J. Mertz

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44 School Referenda On April 7!

From the Cleveland Municipal School District Visions of Democracy project, click on the image for more.

From the Cleveland Municipal School District Visions of Democracy project, click on the image for more.

Today,  April 7, 2009 voters in 30 Wisconsin school districts will decide 44 referenda questions.  April 21 brings a 31st in Cuba City.  On April 28 a 32st district, Salem, will vote on a referendum for the fourth time in less than a year.

Salem is an extreme case, but at least 10 of the districts seeking operating funds have had failed operating referenda in the last two years and five seeking operating funds are districts facing the “off the cliff” loss of funds scenario that hits when a non-recurring referendum runs out.

There are a total of 32 operating referenda, 9 recurring and 23 non recurring (including 3 of the 5 districts on the edge of the cliff because previous non-recurring referenda are expiring); the remaining 12 votes are to issue debt for building, maintenance, refurbishing and upgrading projects. Before listing and linking,  some context and a call to action.

[Note:  Wisconsin Heights was missed in the original post.  It has been added below, but the rest has not been updated.]

Not counting the April 2009 votes, since April 1, 2007 there have been 252 referenda in Wisconsin; since April 1, 2005 there have been 481.

This growing reliance on regular referenda is perhaps the clearest evidence that the way our state funds education is broken.  Too much time and energy is being misdirected at securing basic funding instead of educating, too many communities are being split over these votes instead of united to give their children the opportunities to create a better future.

It is well past time to fix it.

Get involved in the effort by attending the April 21, 2009 Assembly Education Committee hearing on the School Finance Network proposal (info on both here), and joining the School Finance Network and the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (it is just fine to do all of the above, I have or will).

The official details of all the referenda are here; Below are links to more information on the ballot measures (search AMPS for more on many)

Operating, Non-Recurring:

Wisconsin Heights:  Newsletter.

Wheatland J1: District Site; District Press Release, News Story “Wheatland Center to vote on revenue cap referendum.”

Washington Island District Referendum Info.

Ripon District Referendum Page; PolicyOptions.org, Brief (good stuff)

Phelps District Referendum Page.

Oshkosh Area District Referendum Page; News Stories, “Details emerge on Oshkosh school district’s three question referendum in April,” “Teachers organization underwriting majority of referendum ‘Yes’ vote push.”

Oakfield District Site; “What makes Oakfield special?’

Northland Pines Referendum Page.

North Lakeland District Site; News Stories, “North Lakeland voters to consider referendum Tuesday,” “Vought, committee make case for proposed new levy referendum.”

Mineral Point District Referendum Page.

Middleton-Cross Plains District “Community Conversation;” Referendum Page; Ellen Lindgren: “Middleton’s Kromrey School should be replaced.”

Maple Dale-Indian HillDistrict Site; News Story, “Maple Dale-Indian Hill School Board votes for referendum.”

Manawa District Referendum Page; Editorial: “Manawa referendum helps protect schools.”

Loyal District Site; News Story, “School District of Loyal Asks Taxpayers to Reach Into Pockets.”

Kiel Area District Referendum Page; Letters to the Editor.

Horicon District Site; News Story, “Horicon to pursue school referendum.”

Herman District Referendum Page.

Elcho District Referendum Page, News Stories, “Elcho school district leaders push for referendum” (with video), “Elcho heads to referendum.”

Bowler District Site; News Story, “Bowler school district leaders asking taxpayers for referendum.”

Birchwood District Site.

Benton District Site; Fact Sheet; PowerPoint.

Albany District Referendum Page; News Story: “Albany voters face two school referendums.

Operating, Recurring:

Siren:  District Site; News Story “Siren looks at school referendum.”

Riverdale District Referendum Page

Reedsville District Referendum Page; News Stories, “Reedsville public schools facing financial crisis,” “Reedsville schools’ future up to voters.”

Reedsburg District Referendum Page; News Story, “District will leave no stone unturned.”

Paris J1: District Fact Sheet; News Story: “Will Paris deal with budget shortfall or dissolve the district?

Merrill Area District Referendum Page; News Stories, “Leaders like Merrill referendum’s chances,” “Merrill will try again for school aid.”

Medford AreaDistrict Site; Building the Medford Community.

Issue Debt

West Bend District Referendum Page.

Ripon District Referendum Page; PolicyOptions.org, Brief (good stuff).

Oshkosh Area District Referendum Page; News Stories, “Details emerge on Oshkosh school district’s three question referendum in April,” “Teachers organization underwriting majority of referendum ‘Yes’ vote push.”

Middleton-Cross Plains District “Community Conversation;” Referendum Page; Ellen Lindgren: “Middleton’s Kromrey School should be replaced.”

Medford AreaDistrict Site; Building the Medford Community.

Maple Dale-Indian HillDistrict Site; News Story, “Maple Dale-Indian Hill School Board votes for referendum.”

Elk Mound Area District Referendum Page, News Video; Blog post “Referendums are a tough sell,” News Story,” Elk Mound Board OKs spending referendum.”

Cudahy District Referendum Page, News Story.,” Roof work tops Cudahy referendum spending list.”

Turnout will be low in most places.  So many futures riding on so few votes.

I wish them all the best.

Vote Yes for Schools!

Thomas J. Mertz

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Joint Finance Budget Hearings

Andy Warhol, "Dollar Signs"

Andy Warhol, "Dollar Signs"

The Parliaments, “(I Just Wanna) Testify” (click to listen or download)

The public testimony phase of the Joint Committee On Finance‘s (JFC) budget process has begun.  There were official hearings last week in Sparta, West Allis and Eau Claire, as well as a listening session in Ashland. This week the committee will be in Racine on Monday, March 30;  Appleton, Wednesday April 1; and Cambridge on Friday, April 3 (click here for details).

The way it works is, first the Governor proposes a budget, then the JFC hears from agency heads and the public and proposes changes (or not), each house of the legislature takes up the options and than it is a three-way back-and forth, till there is budget that both houses agree on and the Governor signs (the Governor gets one final swipe with his now-limited partial veto).  Much of this is explained in this 2007 memo.

These hearings are the only official public opportunity for citizens to have a say in Wisconsin’s  taxing, spending and investment priorities over the next two years.

It is disappointing that the media coverage has been so minimal (see below for some of what has appeared).

Some of this is due to the reality that these hearings are largely a ritualistic dance.  Advocates make their case, legislators smile and nod and look for openings to make their points and then behind closed caucus and office doors the real work is done (Reps. Cory Mason, D-Racine, and Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah have proposed bringing party caucuses under the open meetings laws).  I still think that the hearings are important, if only to keep the voice of the public before the powerful.  The hundreds who testified last week also think it is important.

For advocates of comprehensive school finance reform, the ritual dance requires some awkward steps.  It isn’t easy to simultaneously speak to pressing need a big fix of the broken system and address what is likely to be helpful or harmful in the immediate budget process.

Most  advocates also have an interest in budget matters not directly related to comprehensive school funding reform.   So teachers such as Kelly McMahon and Abby Ryan make strong cases for the Student Achievement Guarantee  in Education (SAGE) program within the context of the general benefits of investing in education but with no direct appeal for comprehensive reform.

John Smart, a Board Member in Park Falls testifying in Ashland didn’t use any fancy terpsichorean moves, he simply reminded the committee members of the failures of our current system and the possibilities offered by the School Finance Network:

My name is John Smart – I am a member of the Park Falls School Board, the Policies & Resolutions Committee of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards [WASB], and the board of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools [WAES].

The Park Falls and Glidden School Districts have voted to consolidate, and the new Chequamegon School District will officially come into existence on July 1st of this year. I am running for the new board as well in the April 7th election, but I don’t know how I will fare! As elected officials yourselves, you will understand that…

We hope to realize some economies of scale by consolidating, but the principle reason for doing so is to provide our students with more opportunities. We will appreciate anything that the legislature can do to assist us in this challenge. You will be seeing many more school district consolidations in the near future, so be prepared.

You are certainly aware that the costs of running an effective school district continue to rise: staff – healthcare – technology – building maintenance – and so much more. You are also aware that referenda have been increasingly unsuccessful in raising the necessary funds. Ours was. Our property-taxpayers are rebelling. The existing school funding formula does not work anymore – if it ever did – and reform is desperately needed.

The WASB and the WAES are both members of the School Finance Network, along with representatives of almost all of the stakeholders in education in Wisconsin, including the PTA. The SFN has proposed a new funding formula, which will be analyzed at a hearing of the Assembly Education Committee on April 21st, and I intend to be there as well.

I urge you to look closely at school funding. We really must do something to resolve this situation before we do damage to one of the best education establishments in the nation. Thank you for your consideration.

WEAC President Mary Bell moved with grace between the immediate and the big picture while also advocating for consideration of the School Finance Network‘s proposals.  Here are excerpts from her testimony in Sparta:

The budget proposal introduced by Gov. Jim Doyle recognizes that we must all make sacrifices in light of Wisconsin’s challenging economic conditions, but that there is no greater promise than the one we make to educate our children for the future. Investing in them reaps dividends for generations to come, and we cannot turn our backs on who we are and what we value – our children’s education. Wisconsin has great schools because the people of our state have been committed to building great schools for generations – even in times of hardship. We urge the legislature to uphold our great tradition by passing the Governor’s budget proposal with funding for schools intact.

I’d like to now speak to some of the specific features of the Governor’s budget proposal that will affect public schools and colleges in Wisconsin….

We support these funding improvements, but urge the legislature not to assume they will solve the serious funding issues of Wisconsin’s public schools. Layoffs and program cuts will still be part of the spring and summer news reports, though certainly not as deep as without this important investment. A thoughtful and comprehensive look at school funding is needed, if not with this budget, then in this legislative session. The School Finance Network proposal is, we believe, worthy of your attention as we, the citizens of Wisconsin engage in that conversation…

Many others testified on education issues, but the news reports are pretty skimpy, so it is hard to tell how they managed the dance.

WAYY reports that in West Eau Claire:

Eau Claire School Superintendent, Dr. Ron Heilmann, was one of several area administrators who spoke on the difficulties facing school districts. Heilmann says revenue limits over the past 16 years are threatening public schools across the state. Eau Claire is one of several districts considering lay-offs for teachers and other staff to cut expenses (see this on AMPS for more on cuts in Eau Claire and elsewhere).

The story on WEAU also mentions Dr. Heilmann’s testimony.

The Leader-Telegram article includes Heilmann and adds some words about others educators:

Many educators addressed the committee, saying limiting revenues as costs continue to grow has created a budgetary imbalance that threatens the quality of services schools can provide. From growing class sizes to fewer programs, schools can’t continue under the current funding system without gutting educational programs, school officials said.

“We’re not making it here, folks,” Eau Claire school board member Brent Wogahn told panel members, who were spread across the full width of the Gantner Concert Hall stage.

After years of school districts trimming budgets, Heilmann said, “The fat is gone … and (budget cuts) are impacting our students in ways that are unacceptable.”

The testimony of  Chippewa Falls School District Business Manager Chad Trowbridge, also in Eau Claire, was covered by Chppewa.com:

Trowbridge said the district had made $2.3 million in cuts since 2000, and was still facing a deficit in 2010-2011.

“We continue to do more with less and we are subjected to the same kind of inflationary pressures as everyone else,” he said.

Trowbridge warned that any state cuts from the two-thirds finding level would result in increased property taxes. He also spoke in opposition to repeal of the Qualified Economic Offer policy that limits teacher salary and benefit increases.

Finally, here is a video on the Sparta hearing  from Channel 3000, Madison.  Not much on school funding, but a great time-lapse sequence that gives the feel of the ritual dance.

As always the WisPolitics Budget Blog is a good source for updates on the budget process, including the JFC hearings (although this time around, the coverage seems a bit thin thus far).

Don’t forget that you too can learn how to do the citizen/lobbyist for school finance reform dance at the MMSD Legislative Advocacy Forum on Wednesday, April 1 at Wright Middle School.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Dane County Board of Education Candidates

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From the Cleveland Municipal School District Visions of Democracy - Digital Gallery. Click on image for more.

April 7, 2009 will be a big day for school votes in Wisconsin.  There is the State Superintendent race (I’m backing Tony Evers, for reasons that I hope to have a chance to post on at some length), 41 school referenda in 29 school districts are on the ballot (those posts are in the works, see here for a summary of the measures) and around the state voters will elect their representatives to school boards.  The League of Women Voters of Dane County election guide has been published and posted, with answers from many of the candidates and descriptions of local referenda.

I spent some time going through the candidates answers and was struck by the combination of widespread concerns about the ability to provide necessary and desired educational opportunities under the pressures of budget constraints and by how few pointed to the broken state school finance system as the source of this ongoing situation.

The biggest exception is MMSD Board president Arlene Silveira.  This is what she wrote about the “the major issues confronting your school district, and, if elected, how will you deal with them?”

Equitable school funding system. Unless changed, all school districts will be forced to make devastating cuts detrimental to all students. I will initiate community-based advocacy efforts to work toward changing the funding. Enhancement of minority achievement efforts by improving efforts in schools to raise instruction quality; expanding availability of schooling opportunities and working with community to develop policies that enable all children to begin/attend school on a more even playing field. Ensure we are providing students with skills needed to compete in the 21st century, irrespective of their path. Continue efforts focused on redesign of our high schools. (Emphasis added.)

This is one reason I’m supporting Arlene.  Click on her name above to join me.

Her opponent, Donald Gors is more typical in his non specific reference to financial issues and lack of expressed committment to work for change at the state level:

One large looming issue facing Madison’s School District is MONEY!

True, but not very helpful.

The same is true for most other Dane County candidates who discussed the issue (many did not discuss finances at all or had almost nothing to say — these responses have not been included).  Here is what other Dane County candidates said about school finances.

CHUCK POIRIER incumbent, Deefield:

Expenditures continue to raise and outpace funding. The board and administration need to review funding formula and actual costs per student and determine if the tax payers would incur a tax savings or a tax loss by allowing transfer students from outside our community to enroll in the District.

VICTOR GONZALEZ, Edgerton:

The Edgerton School District will soon be replacing a principal and its superintendent; it will also be facing a significant decrease in its high school enrollment and will have to tackle large maintenance expenses with a tight budget.

JEFF ZIEGLER incumbent, Marshall:

Crafting a budget that meets the needs of our students and allows us to continue to improve the education we provide continues to be a significant challenge. This is especially difficult with state imposed revenue controls. The key to meeting this challenge is to make sure that all of the board’s decisions are made with the goal of providing the best educational experience that we can. The Marshall School District has done a good job of implementing needed changes and improving our educational programs during difficult economic times by keeping this key idea in mind.

Ziegler also refers to the importance of “full funding” for “”bilingual education for all children; b) music and art; c) civics; d) 4-year-old kindergarten; e) preparation for the work force.”

LEE WEINSTOCK incumbent, Marshall:

Tight budgets, academic performance and school safety are top issues facing many schools, including Marshall. I have been a good steward of the school district’s finances in my nine years on the board and will continue to make budget decisions in the interest of what is best for the success of students.

JASON McCUTCHIN, Monona Grove:

One of the major issues for this district is the budget shortage that is forecasted for the next couple of years. Because this is an issue that is likely going to be a recurring issue I would like to see the next board take a hard and fast look at this year’s deficit and see how the decisions that are made this year will affect upcoming years. Additionally, we need to be cognizant of any how any cuts will impact our building infrastructure and the quality of our children’s education.

LIONEL NORTON, Monona Grove:

As a nation we are facing tough economic times and the Monona Grove School District is not immune to this. Our biggest challenge in the next couple of years will be to prevent our district from cutting programs and activities that make our district special and from falling further into debt. I will listen without bias to all ideas and suggestions on the best way to achieve this with the least negative impact to our students and teachers. Neighborhood growth continues to be a challenge for our schools; we must proactively address this issue to prevent overcrowding at our schools.

STEVEN C. ZACH incumbent, Oregon:

Annually the Board must adopt a budget that balances the needs of students, fairly compensates employees, maintains facilities and does not burden taxpayers. We have done that during my Board tenure.

TINA HUNTER, Stoughton:

During this time of uncertain budgets and fluctuating enrollments, we need to maintain opportunities. We must find creative options to meet all District goals while also serving our students and community. School consolidations need to happen logically and painlessly. We must make wise decisions regarding staffing, transportation, and boundaries during this time of transitions.

TERRI WATKINS incumbent, Stoughton (this answer is almost as good as Arlene’s):

Increasing student achievement, recruiting and retaining quality staff and maintaining facilities are all priorities in SASD. The current state funding formula creates challenges to these priorities in districts like SASD with declining enrollment. School consolidation, bussing guideline updates, and enrollment-driven staff reductions will help in the short term. It is important to continue our collaborative work to encourage community growth, energy conservation and educate our community on school funding issues and solutions including pressure to bring legislative change that will provide more long-term financial relief. (Emphasis added.)

TERRY W. SHIMEK incumbent, Sun Prairie:

Property taxes are also an issue, especially for those on fixed income. I would support a solution for the fixed income hardship at the state level. Despite rising costs, my goal is stabilize or even reduce the property tax rate.

JOHN E. WHALEN incumbent, Sun Prairie:

The Sun Prairie Area School district has been both blessed and cursed with a rapidly growing student population. We don’t have to deal with the budget problems associated with declining enrollments, but growth has its own budget issues. Growth has required significant investment in infrastructure, and has required the District to work hard to meet the needs of our student population. I am a firm believer that all children are entitled to a quality education. If elected, I will continue to pursue all opportunities that support quality education for all students.

Two other observations.  First, it appears that incumbents are more likely to “get it” that the budget problems begin with the state system.  Second, despite the facts that about 250 referenda have been held in the last two years and about as many can be expected in the next two years, I don’t believe a single candidate directly mentioned referenda.

Don’t forget to come to the MMSD school funding forum on April 1 to learn more about state funding reform efforts and to get involved.

Thomas J. Mertz

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