On Nov. 4, Madison voters will decide whether to hike property taxes on an average home by $189 over the next three years to stave off $27 million in budget cuts for the city's public schools. The district is pitching it as prudent and necessary.
"We've been very deliberate about striking a responsible balance between the needs of taxpayers and the needs of kids," says Dan Nerad, the new superintendent.
The plan, if approved, would eliminate the paralyzing school board budget battles for the next three years, freeing up significant time for the board and a new administration to chart a new strategic plan and focus on initiatives to boost student achievement.
At a forum last week, school administrators and the press far outnumbered interested citizens as district officials gave a presentation on the complex details.
Still, school leaders are guardedly optimistic about the referendum's prospects. The presidential race promises a massive voter turnout among liberals and college students, who may be more likely to vote yes. Little organized opposition has surfaced. And a new superintendent and a collegial school board have decreased negative perceptions of the district's leadership.
"These are times of possibilities and excitement," says school board president Arlene Silveira.
This week, the school board penned a letter (see the related downloads at top right) explaining its position: "At its heart, the referendum asks for necessary funding to uphold our community standard of education."
School funding laws imposed by the state Legislature in 1993 require school districts to seek voter approval to increase budgets by any more than roughly 2.2% annually. Because costs to continue the same programs generally exceed this, districts are increasingly cutting student programs or holding referendums.
Madison officials say they've cut $60 million in services over the past 15 years and little is left to trim that won't reduce student services or increase class sizes.
November's referendum seeks to permanently increase the revenue cap for operating costs by $5 million in 2009-10, and an additional $4 million in both 2010-11 and 2011-12, for a total of $13 million. These increases would be permanent.
The projected tax hike on an average $250,000 home is $27.50 in 2009, $70.60 in 2010, and $91.50 in 2011, for a total three-year increase of $189.60.
To demonstrate fiscal discipline, Nerad has committed to making $1 million in cuts this year, including $600,000 in staff positions, even if the referendum passes. And Nerad pledges $2.5 million in additional spending cuts in the two subsequent years. The district will also transfer $2 million from its cash balance to offset the budget deficit.
Other savings will come from a new fund that allows the district to spread out capital costs over a longer period of time, remove some costs from the operating budget, and receive more state aid.
"We are committed to making reductions, finding efficiencies and being good stewards of tax dollars," Nerad says. "We realize this is a difficult time for people. At the same time, we have an obligation to serve our children well."
Don Severson, head of the fiscally conservative watchdog group Active Citizens for Education and a persistent referendum critic, wishes the district would have developed its new strategic plans before launching a ballot initiative.
"This money is to continue the same services that have not provided increases in student achievement" and come with no guarantees of program evaluations or instructional changes, Severson says.
Still, Severson likes what he sees so far in Nerad's leadership. "He's convinced me that he is looking to be very transparent and very accountable, both from the business side of the house as well as the education side of the house," says Severson. "That to me is a huge sea change in how things have operated."
At last week's forum, parent Peter Gascoyne praised Nerad's sensitivity to taxpayer concerns. "There are so many things to applaud in this new administration," he said. "It's such a breath of fresh air."
Another parent, James Howard, hoped district residents without schoolchildren think about "the costs to the community if we don't have strong public schools," and not make knee-jerk decisions to vote no.
Capping the moment was Nerad himself, who told voters "it's not going to be business as usual" under his tenure. He also pledged a "different type of relationship" with the school board than his predecessor.
Silveira credits Nerad with taking the district in a new, positive direction.
"We hired him based on a list of criteria that the community created, and now people meet him and say, 'Wow, here's a guy who's walking the talk,'" she says. "People see a person who really listens, who's really respectful and collaborative, who extends himself to supporters and critics alike, and who welcomes negative criticism."
Assuming the referendum passes, Nerad's next priority will be to engage the community in a strategic-planning process that could transform many of the district's programs and priorities. The school board intends to approve a process by the end of the year.
Notably, Nerad says he will insist on setting data-driven, annual targets for the strategies.
And he's "committed to pushing" for another look at a 4-year-old kindergarten program, something that has eluded the district despite its embrace by two-thirds of districts throughout Wisconsin. His staff is conducting an updated cost analysis, and he wants a school board discussion and a meeting with various stakeholders in the next few months. He's not ruled out implementing a 4K program as early as next year.
School board member Maya Cole says a "paradigm shift" is emerging in the district, and people are hopeful. "The past five or eight years with Rainwater were very painful for a lot of people."
Still, she's not celebrating a new era quite yet.
"In all honesty, I don't think that we'll really know how everyone is going to behave until after this referendum," Cole says. "That's when we have to start making a number of really important decisions about the future. But the possibilities are exciting."
Upcoming forums on Madison schools referendum
- Thursday, Oct. 16, 6:30 pm, Jefferson Middle School, 101 S. Gammon Rd.
- Wednesday, Oct. 22, 6:30 pm, Wright Middle School, 1717 Fish Hatchery Rd.
- Tuesday, Oct. 28, 6:30 pm, Sennett Middle School, 502 Pflaum Rd.
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