HALL MONITOR — Here We Go Again, Budget Edition

December 2, 2017

Jay Bullock

Since the end of Hall Monitor’s summer hiatus, every column has felt like a variation on the theme here we go again!

Why should this month be any different?

It might have been different had recent trends held. For a few years, Milwaukee Public Schools found itself in relatively good fiscal condition. Layoffs ended and we made a big deal about expanding programs and offerings. The district even built up a small surplus. This year, though, we flash back to the soul-crushing budget deficits of years past. Here we go again!

In October, the Milwaukee Board of School Directors had to patch a several-million dollar hole in this year’s budget, even though the district had cut almost 200 jobs before the school year started.

MPS is also projecting a $20 million deficit for the 2018-19 school year, and a $70 million deficit in just a few years after that, as projected costs outpace revenue.

In the context of its billion-dollar budget, MPS’s $20 million shortfall may not seem like much. But it means the loss of 200 teachers. Or 300 paraprofessionals. Or a Chromebook for every student.

Or replacing every drinking fountain in every school with one of those fancy, filtered bottle-filling stations. Take that, lead pipes!

MPS is not the only struggling Wisconsin school district. Last month, eight state districts put 10 funding referenda on the ballot, according to the state database that tracks them. Seven passed. Since 2016, nearly 240 school funding referenda have been put to a vote in Wisconsin, with 72 percent passing.

Much fault lies with the state, by far the largest source of funding for school districts. The medium-term solution is pretty clearly changing minds at the state level — if not changing the legislators themselves — so that Wisconsin’s investment in public schools returns to previous levels.

The long-term solution for MPS is increased enrollment. Fewer than 60% of school-aged children in town currently attend MPS schools; that’s a lot of missing revenue.

But medium- and long-term solutions won’t solve next year’s budget problem. What can MPS do in the short term?

From teachers, I hear suggestions ranging from laying off all the administrators to cutting school board members’ pay to zero. (One teacher tried to convince me that until recently the elected board worked for free, but they have actually been paid a salary, since at least 1935.)

MPS’s middle management possesses a redundant layer or two. For example, in the space of a few weeks this fall, my school was visited by both a “School Quality Review Team” and “Monitoring Conference Team.” Each was from the central office, each looked at what we were doing to improve student achievement, and each team reported to different bosses, who in turn provided different feedback to us. Did we really need both? Merely removing one of those layers of central office supervision would do nothing to redress the deficit.The district would have to cut over half its administrative positions to come close to saving $20 million. And as hard as it is for the teaching staff to function with redundant layers of supervision, I wouldn’t want to be here if there’s no supervision.

No, what we’re really talking about is closing schools and cutting compensation.

MPS still has far more capacity in its buildings than it does students. The district is currently writing a new facilities master plan. The previous one is from 2011. The new plan will certainly call for shuttering buildings and moving other programs around.

That will suck. No teacher wants their school closed after they’ve invested time, energy, and probably their own money in their classroom. And it’s not fair to the students who will be forced to switch schools. But it’s coming.

It will also suck when teachers and other employees are asked to give back salary or benefits, especially considering that everyone agrees, from the superintendent to the union to the nonpartisan Public Policy Forum, that teacher retention in MPS is a major problem. A recent study by the forum found MPS teachers are 50 percent more likely to leave than teachers in neighboring districts. So asking teachers to take a $4,000 cut, which is what it would take to save $20 million without layoffs, is just a bad idea.

A better idea might be to offer a couple of furlough days, or to reduce the staff academic calendar from 191 days to 189.

This past August, every teacher in the district sat through five days of professional development (PD) before school started. There’s a PD day at the end of the year, after we’ve turned in our grades and locked up our classrooms for the summer. And the day before Thanksgiving was, yep, a PD day.

If MPS wants to hang on to all those PDs (but come on, really?), they could drop our two paid holidays (Thanksgiving and either Labor Day or Memorial Day).

Two furlough days will cut pay by about one percent. Low-paid hourly employees, like paraprofessionals and aides, would be hurt most, and we should be sensitive to that. MPS is working on a plan to raise its minimum hourly pay to $15 by 2021, so that may soften the blow.

However, two unpaid non-work days for everyone would save the district about $6 million, but that would not take care of the entire deficit. We will still need to close a modest number of schools, and, maybe, not hire new employees for those positions that opened due to retirements. Yet those manageable cuts would mean the district could squeak by next year without layoffs or undoing its investment in arts and other programs.

The year after, when the deficit nearly doubles to $37 million? We’ll have to talk about that next fall, when I’ll be saying here we go again!

Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View High School and tweets as @folkbum.

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