Category Archives: Take Action

Keep Russ Feingold in the Senate!

There are thousands of reasons to keep Russ Feingold in the Senate.  Hundreds of these have to do with him being one of the few voices of sanity who has gone against the Washington consensus on top down Education Policy based on underfunded sham accountability and “market forces.”

Read what he had to say about NCLB reauthorization (excerpt):

“NCLB has hamstrung state and local decision-making by establishing a federal accountability system that measures and punishes our students and our schools based on, among other things, annual high-stakes standardized testing,” Feingold said. “This is the wrong approach, and the groundswell of opposition to the NCLB – from parents, educators, and administrators alike – shows just how flawed it is.”

Check the rest of his positions and actions on his Education page.

Then go to his campaign site and sign on to help help re-elect Russ. If you can’t fit volunteering into your schedule, hit the phone and email and Facebook and whatever else to contact everyone you know in Wisconsin and remind them how important it is to keep Russ Feingold in the Senate.

For inspiration, here is one more commercial from 1992 (amazing how little the issues have changed).

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under Accountability, Arne Duncan, Best Practices, education, Elections, National News, nclb, No Child Left Behind, Take Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is an update on 4K sites.

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas J. Mertz

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More on West and High School Reforms

Photo from MICHELLE STOCKER – The Capital Times.

The Clash, “Gates Of The West” (click to listen or download)

All  reports  –  in the media and personal — are that the sit-in at West today was very positive.  I was unable to attend, but am glad that students are demonstrating their concerns and getting some attention. [I just got a robo call about our son being absent t tale part in the sit-in…OK]

Reports posted from Gayle Worland in the Wisconsin State Journal, on WISC-TV and a backgrounder from Susan Troller on the Cap Times “Chalkboard.”

Also this video from last night on WISC-TV:

Looking ahead, this Executive Summary from the Madison Metropolitan School District administration gives some more information about the “High School Curricular Reform, Dual Pathways to Post-Secondary Success” and what’s next.  No time today for an extensive analysis, just noting what comes next and encouraging you to read yourself.

Here is what the new document says about next steps (not quite what the other document outlines):

A flier from the rally also mentions a Open Meeting, Monday October 18 at 5:00 PM.

On Facebook, Board Member Arlene Silveira posted:

The plan presented this week is not the Board’s plan. We received the plan the same day the teachers received the plan. The plan was developed by Administration, which is how something like this works. The plan is scheduled to be reviewed by the Board on November 1. This is a review meeting, not a voting meeting. Final review/vote by the Board is scheduled for late November. Now the Board should be reviewing the plan, asking questions and talking/listening to constituents, like students. All feedback is good (if respectful). At the meeting where the Board votes, we can approve/reject the plan as is, modify the plan or approve/reject parts of the plan. We still have a lot of questions and information-collecting to do. Keep your feedback coming as it does help us to understand how this plan would affect each of you. Questions/comments:

This is a tight time-line, especially for the Student Senate meeting.   To expect anyone, especially busy students to have considered input based on minimal information this quickly it asking a lot.

With that in mind, I want to offer some more background things (lots linked in this post, some repeats).

The best place to start is still the High School Initiatives documents.

I’m having a lot of concerns about the emphasis on standards.  As  noted before, we are stuck with the Common Core Standards and adding the ACT College Readiness Standards (click the links to read more — we are adding many things from the ACT and will be writing big checks for the privilege).  I don’t like standards-based reform much.

Here are some things on Standards in general:

Monty Neil, “Standards Unlikely to Improve Education.

Diane Ravitch, “Standards are within our reach.

Deborah Meier, “Standards and a Peculiarly ‘American’ Problem.

And also these quotes from Deborah Meier elsewhere seem applicable:

If we agreed all the time on most things, we’d never need democracy. But if I want schools that encourage disagreement, it follows that I, too, must compromise. E.g. If I want schools to include the same mix of kids that make up our body politic, then that imposes on someone else’s ideal of public education. If, as Juan Gonzalez argued, schools are the backbone of communities, then neighborhood schools need to be preserved! Ditto for tracking by ability. Can we outlaw schools for “the gifted” to preserve heterogeneity? Can everyone have what is best for themselves while still having the best for the common good?


Warts and all. “Smartness” of the kind we seem lately to revere—the kind that gets you into the Ivy League—is not the purpose of the public’s support for public education. Imagine if our standards were set, not on Harvard, but on our concern for the common good?

I fear that by allowing the ACT to define “College Readiness” and then buying products from the ACT to prepare students to take tests from the ACT to demonstrate that readiness, we lose sight of that common good.

On the ACT standards, I found this document to be worth a read:  “A systematic comparison of the American Diploma Project English language arts college readiness standards with those of the ACT, College Board, and Standards for Success.”

See the previous post for things on AP.

An old blog post from “HC English Teachers” that in a positive manner describes the Hersey High reforms — a model for what MMSD is doing –  from an outsider perspective is also interesting.  I keep going back to the fact that Hersey is a 7% or 8% poverty school and West is 35%.  This reminded me of the differences and the conditions for successful reform:

There was a perfect storm that allowed CV to put the program into place… intra-district rivalries, falling ACT scores, an activist superintendent, a principal who was looking for answers. None of those things exist here.

I think there are even more conditions needed, but fear that many are lacking  (or under developed) in Madison.

What is lacking most is a desire for change and confidence that change will bring real improvements.  I’ll add that some of this lack of desire is based on a lack of acknowledgment that West is failing many students.  It doesn’t help there was no mention of achievement gaps in the first document (there is in the second).  Here is one graphic of a gap at West.

It is also based on a denial that the most advanced classes at West are segregated in many ways.   I think it is worth noting that only 18 African American students, representing 31% of African American 12th graders, took the ACT last year.  I don’t want to give up the inclusiveness of the 9th and 10th grade core classes (and am not sure there is need to), but some change is called for to address persistent gaps and  segregation at the highest levels.

I’ve kind of morphed into the subject of grouping.  I’m going to be lazy and share two things from the Equity Task Force (1 & 2).  The first in a chapter by Adam Gamoran and the second is a statement from the National School Psychologists.  In the intro to the first for the Task Force I wrote:

At the crudest level it is about equity because it is about resource allocations.  Choosing among approaches (or pursuing multiple approaches) will mean dedicating staff, curricular materials, facilities, training and other resources in a manner that will make these unavailable for other uses.  We all understand this.  Looking at our working definition of equity I see other ways that equity is in play.  I don’t have the exact language but my memory is that the three key components are access and opportunity, educational excellence for all, and social responsibility.  On access and opportunity the research is clear that without open enrollments, recruitment of historically underserved populations and structures of support, any ability grouping will result in racial, economic and other segregation.  Even in heterogeneous classrooms using differentiated instruction, an approach that many believe provides wider opportunity and access to advanced instruction, special efforts are often needed to make sure that minorities and others are not overlooked.

Whatever direction we go in, a statement on this should be considered (sorry, that was my position and I am trying to make this as objective as I can).  The real conflicts are about a perceived  tension between excellence and social justice.  Some of this is due to differing ideas about the definitions of both educational excellence and the social mission of public education.  I could go on about each of these for pages, but I will try to be brief.  The research about which approaches produce which academic results for which students are far from conclusive (see the Gamoran).  What muddies the water further is that some believe that excellence is achieved by getting the most students scoring in the highest range, some look to get the fewest students scoring in the lowest range, some look to have the highest scoring students scoring higher and higher….  All of these and more are legitimate definitions and noble goals.

The research seems to indicate that an approach that absolutely maximizes one of these will be less than optimal according to other definitions.  Note the words maximum and less than optimal.  It isn’t that the various approaches necessarily have a negative effect on one metric or  another, it is that that one approach might do better according to one measure and another according to a different measure.  There are choices to be made.

Here is where the social justice issues can come into play.  For many a diverse classroom intrinsically has a nonacademic but none-the-less educational benefit for all students.  Beyond this, the choices (if you accept that it is impossible for a single approach to maximize excellence across the range of definitions) are choices about the academic component of the social mission of the schools.  Is the social mission best fulfilled by catering to the extreme high achievers?  Is the most important social mission to lift students from the bottom to the middle; from the middle to the top…?  I think we can do very well on all these measures; I don’t think anyone believes we can maximize them all simultaneously.  I hope this has helped you see and grapple with the choices we face.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week and a phrase keeps popping into my head.  Let me close with this, the motto or ideal of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (circa 1890):  “Lifting as We Climb.”

There are choices to be made and the last thing I want to say is about the choices.

The students, the parents, the teachers, The Board of Education and a surprising variety of people who have been contacting me are all looking for more information.  This is great; informed decisions are the right way to go.

As of now we have two choices — the status quo and the Dual Pathways draft — and there has been very little information about the latter offered, some rose-tinted glasses views of the former and nothing about the possibilities of something in-between.  Among the information that is needed is a clear understanding of a variety of options and what these options will mean in terms of budget, student schedules, potential benefits and acknowledged losses (including possibly some electives and the good things about English 9 & 10 and the Social Studies classes).

I know that’s a lot to ask, but I think it is possible and I think it is the way to move forward.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Moving Wisconsin Forward Rally — Saturday, 10/16/2010

Click on image for pdf.

If and only if you aren’t out working to elect pro-education candidates (or taking a break from doing that), I hope to see you there (me, I’ll be on a break from campaign work).

More info here.

Thomas J.  Mertz

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Filed under "education finance", Budget, education, Elections, Local News, School Finance, Take Action

The Mess with West (Updated)

The Raunch Hands “Mess Around” (click to listen or download)

[Update: I just got emailed this letter as a West parent.  Crisis communication is happening.  Not much new here, but some clarity.]

The first steps with the  “High School Curricular Reform, Dual Pathways to Post-Secondary Success” are a mess, a big mess of the administration’s own making.

Before I delve into the mess and the proposal, I think it is important to say that despite huge and inexcusable problems with the process, many unanswered questions and some real things of concern; there are some good things in the proposal.  One part near the heart of the plan in particular is something I’ve been pushing for years:  open access to advanced classes and programs with supports. In the language of the proposal:

Pathways open to all students. Students are originally identified by Advanced Placement requirements and other suggested guidelines such as EXPLORE /PLAN scores, GPA, past MS/HS performance and MS/HS Recommendation. however, all students would be able to enroll. Students not meeting suggested guidelines but wanting to enroll would receive additional supports (tutoring, skill development classes, AVID, etc.) to ensure success. (emphasis added and I would like to see it added in the implementation).

Right now there are great and at times irrational barriers in place.  These need to go.   I hope this does not get lost as the mess is cleaned up.

This is in four sections:  The Mess; What Next?; The Plan: Unanswered Questions and Causes for Concern; and Final Thought.

The Mess

The exact size and shape of the mess — like so much else with this — aren’t clear.  You can gauge for yourself by visiting the Facebook pages “Save Our Future- Madison West High” and “Walk-Out Against MMSD High School Reform.”   I heard reports that 200 or more students met at lunch yesterday and likely the number will be greater today.  The fact that students care and want to do something is great.  I’m sure that Administrators and Board Members have also heard from parents and teachers.

Then there is this video:

It is great to hear the passion and desire to be part of the process; it is sad to realize that they feel they have been shut out.

As far as I can tell the proximate cause of the student reaction at West was confused and incomplete information relayed by teachers.  The ultimate cause is that this has been drafted and communicated in what seems to be a rushed and top-down manner.

Note the “seems to be.”  Much of this has been in the works  — at least indirectly — for a long time and there have been some opportunities for input and collaboration along the way (see the High School Initiatives presentation from earlier this year).

So while this doesn’t come out of nowhere,  it has also been rushed out in a manner and form that leave much to be desired.  Extensive changes of this sort need to be considered  and revised in an open, inclusive, deliberate process.  To do otherwise misses opportunities for improvement and creates distrust instead of buy-in from those most affected.

At least one Board Member is saying that “the proposed curricular changes are not related to the DPI complaint re. failure to comply with state law on TAG programming.”  You can parse that statement carefully and maybe say it is true because things have been in the works prior to the TAG complaint, but it is equally true that the the timing and failed roll out were a reaction to the complaint.  To deny or not acknowledge the relationship to the TAG complaint in how this was “finalized” and presented (not conceived) only exacerbates the distrust that is perhaps the biggest mess of all.

You don’t have to take my word on this being rushed and incomplete, just look at some of the early items in the plan that have dates attached:  “Plan communicated to all stakeholders in September” with a variety of information to be compiled in September to support the communications.  This communication didn’t happen in September and if the supporting information has been prepared, it has not been shared.   If it has been prepared and not shared there is much more wrong here than a rushed time-line, there is a basic lack of understanding of communications principles.

There may also be a basic misunderstanding of policy formation principles at work.    Part of that communication item for September reads:

Develop data-based rationale for reforming the MMSD high school curriculum providing both an accelerated pathway and a preparatory pathway.

I’m going to be nice and assume that the intent here was to say “Develop a presentation of the data-based rationale…,” because otherwise our self-styled “data -driven” district is making policies and then creating “data-based ratuonale(s)” after the fact.  Let’s chalk this up to the rush job.

What Next ?

Hard to say what will come next.  There may or may not be a protest walkout at West on Friday.  There may or not be a crisis communication strategy from the administration [there is, see the update at the top].  There may or may not be an attempt to go beyond crisis communication and initiate a more open and extensive collaborative process (I’d like that).

The Board of Education will see this on an agenda in some form I have heard (not confirmed) that this will be the first week of November.  What form isn’t clear.  They may be asked to approve the proposal or they may may simply receive or reject a report.  I hope it is the former.

I also want to note that how this comes before the Board matters not only in terms of democratic governance, but because the new Communication Plan protocols require certain things — such as equity and budget analyses —  with some Administrative proposals.   These are not part of  the materials circulating.

My guess is that whatever happens in the coming weeks, at least part of the time-line is out-the-window.   Supporting work will be ongoing, but I’d be surprised if the scheduled significant changes to Language Arts and Mathematics are fully implemented in 2011-12.  I’ve been surprised before.

In the meantime, effective involvement is crucial.  Let the Board know your concerns (  Let Superintendent Nerad know too (  Before voicing an opinion, it is good to do some study and get your facts straight and concerns clear.  Keep and eye on the Board agendas (and this space) to see when it comes up and in what form.  At every juncture, ask for a chance to be part of the process.  If asking doesn’t work, demand.

The Plan:  Unanswered Questions and Causes for Concern

From reviewing the proposal itself, a read of postings elsewhere, conversations and emails —  with and from students, teachers, parents, Board of Education Members and administrators  — some issues have stood out as things that I believe need further attention.  What I’m offering here isn’t comprehensive or thorough, but introductory.

Before proceeding I want to again emphasize that the commitment to open access  with supports is a huge and positive step (and note that it may be possible that this could be accomplished without the radical changes being proposed).

Pathways, Tracking and Ability Grouping:

I have supported the inclusive model for English 9 & 10 and 9th & 1oth grade Social Studies.  I have also thought that real embedded honors would have improved the model.  Some of the positive aspects of this will be lost if the new proposal is implemented.  There will be two “pathways” and this will almost certainly mean an increase in segregation by race, language and income.  I don’t like this.

Despite this inclusive portion of the existing  West program,  you’d be a fool to believe that segregation and something like tracking aren’t already part of the West reality.  I’ll go further and say that I sincerely doubt that in the foreseeable future these will be eliminated.

So the questions become ones about the extent and nature of the segregation or groupings.

Willis D. Hawley makes a useful distinction between tracking and “ability grouping” (read Pathways) based on student movement among the tracks (or programs) and warns that “Ability grouping often turns into tracking.”  This, along with the demographics of the pathways would need close monitoring and if there is great segregation with little or no movement, actions should be taken to remedy.

The existence of “embedded honors in the Preparatory Pathway is supposed to facilitate movement.  I have serious doubts about that.

Doubts based in part on the fact that the access to the Accelerated Pathway is supposed to be open.  This also needs to be monitored and special attention needs to be paid to informal ways that students are discouraged from challenging themselves and the availability of appropriate supports for success.

Standards, “College Readiness” and AP:

I don’t think much of standards as key to successful education reform.  Unfortunately, we are stuck with them — Wisconsin signed on to the Common Core Standards before they were even complete (this says much about how education policy at all levels has been taken over by well-funded rhetoric).  The proposed reform in MMSD and at West adds the ACT  “College Readiness” to the mix.

In general I don’t like the wholesale adoption of any standards, whether from an advocacy group (like the Common Core or for that matter the NACG Standards incorporated in the TAG Plan) or from an organization like the ACT or the College Board (AP), with supporting things for sale (an issue with the Common Core too).  MMSD – and other districts — should pick, chose and adapt what is appropriate for local circumstances.

Advanced Placement is a little different.  There are real concerns about a “cookie cutter” approach stifling creativity and breadth in teaching and learning.  These and other issues have led some districts — including Scarsdale, NY —   to abandon AP.  There is a growing consensus that the rapid expansion of AP is problematic (for balance see here).  Was any of this part of drafting of this plan?

In defense of expanded AP, it does provide an external measure of achievement and it does give students a head start on college.  Like so much else, some good and some not so good.

Trade Offs: Electives, Budget and Schedules:

Because of budget and schedule constraints this proposal cannot be implemented without other things being cut.  You can’t add support services without either increasing expenditures or eliminating something else.   Teachers and students only have time for so many classes, if they are taking new AP classes, they won’t be taking existing offerings.  So far there has been no clear statement of what these other things might be.

The rumors were that electives in some form were due to be cut.  I have this response from a senior administrator:

This is not true.  We are adding Advanced Placement courses in the four content areas.  They will be open access courses and may be taken or an elective may be taken. For example Advanced Placement offers only two English courses.  We require 4 years of English.  This leaves room for elective choices

How much room, both in terms of budget and schedules remains to be seen.  I think it is clear that many favored electives will be retained.

I’m not going to give my full Wisconsin and MMSD school funding rap, but I will ask those new to this to visit Penny for Kids, sign the petition, share it with friends, join the Facebook group…get involved.

Where Did This Come From?

As noted above, this has been in the works as part of a series of High School Initiatives.  The immediate model for much of it is Hersey High School in Arlington Heights Illinois.  Arlington Heights is not Madison and Hersey is not West.  One statistic stands out — Hersey has a poverty rate of 7% or 8%, West’s is 35%.  A quick review of the Evaluation and Policy Research page at Hersey shows that while the concerns and issues overlap, they are also very different.  The review also showed some very questionable choices in what data is presented and how it is presented.  Maybe more on this later.

Final Thought:

At the top,  I called this mess inexcusable.  I see this as a failure of leadership.  Couldn’t they anticipate this reaction?  Didn’t they read Susan Troller’s “branding” piece?  Don’t they now that successful reform requires buy-in?  This looks rushed and reactive, not considered and confident.  I know lots of very good work has gone into this, but that work is in danger of being lost due to some key failures.

With this in mind, I renew my call for the evaluation of Superintendent Dan Nerad to be made public.  Part of restoring confidence has to be sharing with the public what the Board of Education thinks is is going well and what the Board thinks could use improvement.  I know at this moment many in the West community have some definite ideas about these matters (positive and negative…I see successes as well as failures).

Thomas J. Mertz


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October 7, Rally to Defend Public Education

Thursday, October 7 · 12:30pm – 1:30pm in Library Mall on the UW Campus there will be a rally to defend public education.  This is part of a national effort to combat reduced governmental investments in education at all levels, from pre-kindergarten through grad school.

As the press release says:

Rally organizers call for making public education a top funding priority in Wisconsin, so that every child has access to a high-quality public education from kindergarten through college. Since an educated population spurs the economy and benefits all state residents, they also call for reforming the tax system so that everyone pays their fair share, including the wealthy and large corporations operating in Wisconsin. Increasing access to higher education for underrepresented groups and ensuring fair and competitive pay for academic workers are also top priorities.

Here is the list of speakers:

  • Ben Manski, Coordinator, Democratizing Education Network
  • Mike Bell, UW-Madison faculty member (Sociology)
  • Thomas J. Mertz, Board Member, Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools
  • Mindy Preston, UW-Madison undergraduate student (Computer Sciences; Classical Humanities)
  • Kevin Gibbons, UW-Madison graduate student (Environmental Studies); Co-President of the Teaching  Assistants’    Association
  • Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, UW-Madison graduate student (Sociology); member of the International  Socialist   Organization
  • Mark Thomas, Steward, AFSCME Local #171

I’ll be speaking on K-12 and pushing Penny for Kids.  I could use some help collecting signatures on the Penny petition.  Contact me if you are willing and able.

Strong public education is the best means we have of moving toward a better future.  Join us to make sure that message comes through loud and clear.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Housing, Homelessness and Education

Video of the People’s Affordable Housing Vision Press Conference, 10/4/2010.

Yesterday the People’s Affordable Vision proposals were introduced at the above press conference.  There is much more on Forward Lookout, here and here.  These are all good and important proposals.

Also yesterday, I was made aware of the work a couple of friends of mine are undertaking to improve conditions and opportunities for homeless students.  I’ll be posting more about this work as it develops.

The Madison Metropolitan School District’s Transition Education Program (TEP) has been called  “outstanding” and has won at least one award.   We should be proud of the work  our district does, but I’m not sure we can ever do enough in seeking to help students who are homeless.    I have heard that there are currently about 400 homeless students served by the MMSD TEP program.  I’d guess that there are many more who’s housing is less than secure.

Each year the FDA publishes data on “Food Insecurity.”  It should surprise no one and shame all that Food Insecurity is rising, especially among the young.  Food Insecurity is linked to the poverty based achievement gap, directly via health issues and malnutrition, and indirectly because children who don’t know if their school lunch will be their only meal have more to worry about than diagramming sentences or memorizing math facts.

I don’t think there is a national “Housing Insecurity” index, although the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families does a great job tracking many statistics on the well-being of children and advocating for policies that will help (check their Vote for Kids campaign).  They report that

• In 2008, 16,241 people, including 4,744 children, used
emergency shelter in Wisconsin homeless shelters.
• For the 2007/2008 school year, 9,331 homeless students
were served by Wisconsin public schools.

And observe:

Stable housing plays a crucial role in children’s well-being. Kids who grow up in unstable housing situations tend to do worse in school, have more behavioral problems, and suffer poorer health than their peers.

When talking about services to the homeless or housing programs we often use the term “safety net.”  When thinking about homeless children I think it needs to be a safety blanket, because  some might slip through a net.

Sign on in support of the People’s Housing Vision (petition site), Vote for Kids and stay tuned for ways to get involved with,  ideas, programs and policies to  improve the lives and opportunities of homeless kids.

Thomas J. Mertz


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Hearing on Edgewater TIF (yes, this is about schools)

See below for hearing information, background and talking points on the Edgewater TIF.  This directly impacts the schools by diverting property taxes.

Joint Review Board Hearing and the Edgewater Project

On Thursday, August 12, 2010 the TIF Joint Review Board will be holding a public hearing on amending Tax Incremental Finance District (TID) 32 in order to provide over $18 million in property tax based financing for the proposed luxury hotel plaza. The Board meets at 5:00 PM, 215 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. Room 260 (Madison Municipal Building). Speakers will have three minutes to testify. A vote is anticipated in September.

If this goes through the closure of TID 32 will be delayed, meaning that for six years the benefits from that TIF investment will be used for the Edgewater instead of to fund schools, city and county services and MATC. With the schools and other local governments suffering from decreased state support and families having trouble with property tax increases this is a bad idea.

Below is some background information along with some suggested talking points. The Joint review Board needs to know that their constituents understand the issues and oppose the TID amendment. Please consider attending the hearing, testifying and/or contacting the Board and appointing authorities. It isn’t too late to stop this.

TIF Basics

The idea behind Tax Incremental Financing is that a government body promotes development and funds infrastructure in “blighted” areas by borrowing against anticipated property tax revenues and then designating the growth in revenue due to the development (the increment) to repay these loans and associated costs. Once the loan is repaid and the district is closed, the increment becomes part of the general tax base.

TID 32 and the Edgewater

TID 32, anchored by the University Square redevelopment has been extremely successful. It is generating about $3 million annually in increment and is projected to close in three years.

The increment for the Edgewater project only meets the requirements for a stand alone TIF of $3.3 million. In order to give the project over $18 million in financing (or $15 million more than it can support) it has been proposed to annex the project to TID 32 and use the success of that TID to finance the luxury hotel plaza. This delays the closure of the district and postpones the time when the success of TID 32 will ease the property tax burden on the rest of us. While the TID is open, all increases in assessments and revenues in the district – whether related to the project or not – will be diverted to pay for the luxury hotel plaza, further shifting the tax burden.

Projections indicate that the amended TID would close in nine years, or six more than without the amendment.

The Joint Review Board

Because diverting property taxes to developments via TIFs has an effect on all taxing entities, state law requires that TIFs be approved by a Joint Review Board where these bodies are represented. In considering the creation or amendment of a TID the Board must employ these criteria:

  • Whether the development expected in the TID would occur without the use of TIF (commonly referred to as the ‘but for test’).
  • Whether the economic benefits, as measured by increased employment, business and personal income and property value, are sufficient to compensate for the cost of the improvements.
  • Whether the benefits of the proposed plan outweigh the costs, in taxes on the value increment, to the overlying tax districts.

Although the “benefits” language in the third is somewhat open ended, considerations of the architectural or historic appropriateness of the project are largely outside the charge to the Board.

Of primary concern to the Board is whether temporarily diverting the projected tax revenues to support this project is in the best interest of the taxpayers and bodies they represent — Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), Madison Area Technical College (MATC) and Dane County.

Property Taxes, State Aid, Shared Revenue, the Economy and TIFs

The bulk of the City, the County, the school district and MATC budgets are funded by a combination of state aid (or shared revenue) and property taxes. The recent economic downturn and a continuing state structural deficit – projected at over $2.5 Billion for the next biennium – has shifted more of the responsibility to local property taxes. This has hit the school district particularly hard, with nearly 15% cuts in state aid the last two years and more of the same anticipated.

The economic downturn has also slowed the growth of the property tax base. The aggregate assessments of existing property has fallen slightly and growth due to new development is below previous years. Under these circumstances, increases in property tax revenues to make up for decreases in state aid require existing property tax payers to pay more.

All the taxing entities have sought cuts from same service budgets in order to ease the burden on tax payers. Again, the schools have been hit particularly hard, enacting more than $13 million in budget reductions for the 2010-11 school year.

Timely closure of TID 32 would ease this situation by adding the increment to the tax base; extending the life of TID 32 to fund the luxury hotel plaza would make it worse.

Talking Points

Based on the Above:

  • The Edgewater Project can’t support the TIF.
  • The taxpayers, the schools, MATC, the County and the City would all benefit from an early closure of TID 32.
  • Delaying the closure of TID 32 will result in at least a $15 million property tax increase over the next nine years.
  • The economic situation has already lead to property tax increases and cuts to programs and services; amending TID 32 will exacerbate this at a time when both families and governing bodies are struggling to make ends meet.

Other Things to Consider (most detailed in this briefing from CNI):

  • The ratio of private investment to TIF isn’t good policy.
  • The costs and benefits are not substantiated (The Joint Review Board has the power to request more information and a review of information they consider unsubstantiated)
  • These include project costs as well as job and property value projections.
  • Costs assigned to the TIF do not meet TIF requirements.
  • This project requires deviations from guidelines in self-support, 50% payback, equity participation and personal guaranty.
  • The operating agreement for the Plaza limits public access and works to the benefit of the hotel through catering and other requirements.

Contact Information

If you cannot attend the hearing, you can contact the Joint Review Board via email:

Dean Brasser

Gary L. Poulson

Roger Price

Lucy Mathiak

Dave Worzala

You can also contact the appointing bodies and ask them to advise their Member to vote against the amendment:

MATC Board

Dane County Board

MMSD Board of Education

Thomas J. Mertz and Jacque Pokorney

Co-Chairs, Progressive Dane

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Not Gonna Fly

The Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education will likely leave over $13 million in revenue authority unused in the district’s 2010-11 budget.

If they prioritize property tax relief over education in this manner, if they do not reallocate a significant portion of this amount to improving our schools, for at least the next year pleading a lack of resources for maintenance as Board Member Lucy Mathiak recently did,  isn’t going to fly.  Citing “resource constraints” as a reason to lower the ambitions for the strategic plan, as Superintendent Dan Nerad recently did, isn’t going to fly.

Any and all resource-based explanations for the relative failure to narrow shameful achievement gaps aren’t going to fly.  Any and all resource-based explanations for lapses in student and staff safety aren’t going to fly.  Any and all resource-based explanations for lacks in curricular breadth and depth, aren’t going to fly.

Finally, any and all appeals to state officials to prioritize investments in education over tax relief, aren’t going to fly.  If you want to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk.

It was failures by state officials that shifted too much of the cost of education to local property taxpayers; failure to reform the school funding system and failure to reform revenue to maintain previous levels of state support.  Madison was hit particularly hard by these failures, leaving the Board with difficult choices (get involved with the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools and their Penny for Kids campaign to change things at the state level).

Although they have protected core programs and services from cuts, thus far they have not acted as true “guardians of the schools.”  On Tuesday June 1, 2010, they have one last chance to change that.  That same day you have one last chance to let them know that you want want them to change that.

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

Show up and testify (suggested talking points here).

Thomas J. Mertz

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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


  • 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.


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

For more information on the Madison Budget, visit the district Budget Page:

To get involved in fixing things at the state level, join the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools ( and sign the Penny for Kids petition (

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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