As advocates from around Wisconsin gathered at the Capitol last week to mark 10 years of work to change the state's school finance system, legislators inside were hammering out budget changes that will almost certainly set back the movement.
"I have a feeling that people at the legislative level [are saying], 'Oh, they're just a bunch of whiners,'" says reform advocate Carol Carstensen, a former Madison school board member. "If you look at the state budget, it looks like there's a huge amount going into K-12 but...it goes through the schools to keep the taxes down."
What Carstensen means is that, under Wisconsin's longtime school aid formula, districts with low per-pupil property tax values get a bigger portion of costs paid than those, like Madison, with higher property values.
Schools in Madison have already lost $1.8 million in state aid for the next year. The Madison district anticipates the need to cut $3 million to $4 million after the budget is calculated and the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) makes its school aid calculations.
"We won't have a handle on it until DPI does its aid run in July," says Joe Quick, the district's legislative liaison. That estimate will then determine "what recommendations the administration makes to the school board on what other cuts have to be made."
Madison School Board president Arlene Silveira says there are no anticipated employee layoffs here, now that the district has passed the time for making such decisions. But she notes that there are significant differences in the budgets passed by the Assembly and Senate in terms of local school impact, which an eight-member conference committee will now try to reconcile.
And that's causing anxiety for school board members, involved parents, employees and advocates. Says Silveira, "I'm a bit apprehensive about what's coming our way."
T.J. Mertz, a parent and school finance reform advocate, says Madison schools are in much better shape than other districts, which face cutting things like sports and music programs. But some of the things that make Madison schools good could suffer as a result of budget issues.
Class size and staff workload are historically among the first things to be negatively affected. And funding new budget-authorized initiatives, such as four-year-old kindergarten, may mean cutting other programs.
Quick says state support of the four-year-old kindergarten (4K) program is a big win for Madison schools. The Senate version of the budget restored $3 million in grants in 2010-11, to launch such programs throughout the state. In the Assembly version, $500,000 was earmarked for the program in 2009-10.
"Regardless of the outcome, we're pleased the Legislature understands the importance of 4K," says Quick. "Since the governor originally added $1 million to the $3 million base of the grant program, a veto seems unlikely."
Other state budget wins for Madison schools include adding flexibility in paying for resources like safety and security, salary for school nurses, and energy upgrades to aging school buildings. Quick says the district has extensive plans to upgrade 50 buildings.
This flexibility is helpful, given state school funding laws that have made it tougher for districts to pay for essentials. The "revenue cap" law, which the Legislature put in place in 1993, requires school districts to seek voter approval to increase budgets by more than 2.2% annually. As costs to maintain current levels of service generally exceed this amount, districts are faced with cutting student programs or holding referendums.
Late last year, Madison voters approved a three-year, $13 million school funding referendum. That made this year's budget process much easier.
But Silveira remains concerned about the outcome of the state budget. In July, the school board will begin to "discuss options and the many different scenarios out there."
Meanwhile, some parents worry that many of the programs restored in Madison schools this year due to flexibility from the referendum will be cut again. These include keeping down the size of elementary music and gym classes, commonly called "specials."
An initial proposal to hike the size of these classes by 50% was nixed by the board. It also restored the Ready, Set, Goal parent-teacher conference, which helps engage families in the learning process early in the school year.
"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."
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.
"Groups will fight for their pieces of the pie, their programs, their schools," he says. "And boards of education will have to continue - as they have in most places for 15 years - to look to do the least harm instead of the most good."
But Mertz does see one upside to the way things have played out: "I think our legislators got a taste of what it feels like to budget with 'mandated' cuts this cycle. I hope it creates some empathy that will lead them to comprehensive school funding reform."
Key K-12 budget provisions
- The Senate version provides a $55,000 annual grant to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to contract with a nonprofit group to prevent and reduce youth violence and other delinquent behavior, and boost graduation and vocational preparation.
- The Senate restores language in Gov. Jim Doyle's budget to repeal the qualified economic offer, which allows school districts that offer at least a 3.8% boost in total compensation to avoid binding arbitration.
- The Assembly version appropriates $250,000 annually to explore the feasibility of consolidating school districts. Two or more districts could apply to the Department of Public Instruction for study grants up to $10,000.
- Both versions provide funding to launch a four-year-old kindergarten program in Madison. The Assembly provides a $500,000 grant in 2009-10, while the Senate would restore the Joint Finance Committee's original funding of $3 million in 2010-11 in grants nonspecific to Madison.