The Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, perhaps the state's strongest school-funding reform group, has spent several years trying to convince citizens and state legislators that our public schools need more money. Earlier this month, the group's leader, Tom Beebe, asked the Madison school board for $6,500 to help him spread the word.
"We're 15 years into this," says Beebe, referring to state revenue caps that limit annual increases in school-district property taxes. "We all have this problem and the only way to change it is to change the system."
Beebe made his pitch at a meeting of the school board's communications committee chaired by Beth Moss, who says one of her top priorities this year is developing strategies to more aggressively seek changes in state funding.
"We're going to have to continue to cut the budget annually, and it's going to be worse and worse," laments Moss, a school board newcomer elected in April. She fears the district will have no choice but to begin "dismantling programs."
Moss believes support for changes in the state's funding structure is at a "tipping point," where better strategies in grassroots organizing and message control can have maximum effect. That's why she's pushing for stronger connections between the Madison district and advocacy groups like Beebe's.
"The only fix is to lobby the Legislature," Moss says. "We're at a point now where we can make a major push."
Complaining about state funding is hardly a new approach for school board members. But Moss wants to channel frustrations into strategies for public engagement. Besides lobbying the Legislature, she hopes to improve communication with parents and bring "lesser-heard voices" into decision-making.
Created last year, the communications committee is part of a larger strategy to improve public relations. In her 2006 election campaign, Arlene Silveira identified this as a top priority: "The board and the district have not done a good job in providing information to the public and promoting themselves."
Silveira squeaked to victory with the narrowest margin in school board history, but was elected board president this April. She's won over skeptics by being hard-working, quick to learn, and interested in building consensus. As president, she's emerging as a pivotal player in picking the next superintendent, whose vision will undoubtedly reshape Madison's schools.
The Madison district is "a pretty complex entity," says Silveira. "The more we can communicate to our community about what's really happening, the types of decisions we have to make and the types of things we do, it really enhances people's understanding and puts us in a point of strength."
She sympathizes with those who yearn for new programs and approaches. But the nuances and details of educational policy don't make for easy fixes or easy explanations. Thus it behooves the board to manage expectations, in a variety of contexts.
Last week, consultants hired to find the next superintendent presented the board with its "Leadership Profile Assessment," developed from 240 interviews with, and 400 questionnaires from, district residents and staff. The report (see this story on TheDailyPage.com) is a crisp statement of the public's perceptions of Madison's school system.
Madison residents are proud of the district's "top-quality academic programs in an environment of rapidly changing demographics." They see the schools as committed to reducing the racial achievement gap and meeting the "special needs of a diverse student population."
The biggest challenges identified by citizens are funding problems and the rising number of low-income and English-learning students. People fear that failure to address these problems will cause "the exodus of a considerable number of high-performing upper/middle-class students to private or suburban schools."
Members of the public also perceive that the district has a "top-heavy" central office with "many unneeded, generously paid positions," lacks long-range financial planning as it "confronts one financial crisis after another," and ought to be better scrutinized by school board members. And concerns were raised about the board and administration's "lack of transparency in district decision making and show of disrespect toward those who question administrative proposals."
The solution? The report suggests better PR.
"A concerted effort by the board and administration to become more creative in publicizing the [district's] outstanding educational opportunities might encourage more young/middle-class families to move into the district and convince others to remain."
To succeed, the district and board need to confront public perceptions that they're not interested in self-improvement.
Silveira, attuned to this, stresses the "open-mindedness" of the current board, citing as an example its willingness to discuss charter and magnet schools. This is a ripe area for criticism, as the board last spring narrowly rejected opening an arts and technology charter school despite strong community support.
Timing is looking good for the board. After a spring filled with painful budget hearings on school closings and an embarrassing flap over the naming of Vang Pao Elementary School, the school board got a lucky break this summer in the form of a one-time windfall in local tax revenue from the closing of several tax incremental financing districts. This will allow the district to avoid $5.4 million in budget cuts next year, and plan for a multi-year referendum in 2009.
One tool for involving more citizens in decision-making is an approach called "deliberate polling," used by the Sun Prairie school district to gain support for its referendum. The process, involving meetings of citizens armed with handheld voting devices, is being studied for use in Madison to assess support for a 4-year-old kindergarten program, which the Madison district has failed to develop.
Another key test will be how Silveira handles a growing chorus of concerns about an administrative committee charged with comprehensively reviewing the city's high schools. Last week, new board member Maya Cole wrote on the School Information Systems blog that she's been rebuffed in her attempts to get the board to review the project. But Silveira says the board is set to discuss the matter on Nov. 19.
As for the perennial issue of school funding, Moss and others are gearing up for a Nov. 15 state Senate education committee hearing. Tom Beebe's group supports a proposal to hike state funding for K-12 education by $2.6 billion a year, based on a model developed by UW-Madison professor Allan Odden.
But as Beebe was asking the Madison district to join his group as a paying member, Rainwater expressed "serious doubts" about the plan and questioned whether Madison schools would benefit. The funding scheme, Beebe admitted, could potentially lead to an initial decrease in state funding to Madison.
"In the first year, Madison gets screwed for political reasons," Beebe told the committee - hardly the best message to send when seeking money from a cash-strapped district.
Beebe might benefit from a lesson in better communication. Or maybe he believes that sometimes, the best PR strategy is telling it like it really is.