MPS proposed budget: Could have been worse. Could have been better, too.

I talked to Meagan Holman, 8th district representative on the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, a couple of weeks ago, well before the Superintendent’s proposed 2012-2013 budget dropped. One of her biggest laments about this past year is that MPS faced, in 2011-2012, a massive funding reduction under the state budget prepared by Scott Walker and legislative Republicans. With cuts to categorical aids and the district’s revenue limit, MPS pegged the difference between what was and what could have been at $81 million–equivalent to nearly 800 teachers or the total per-pupil allocation distributed to all 21 of MPS’s high schools.

When you consider what MPS has accomplished this past year–full implementation of a new literacy plan, a new comprehensive math and science plan, modest (in some cases, very modest) gains in test scores, and a generally renewed sense of urgency about improving the district and involving the city as a partner–that it did so hamstrung by the state is pretty remarkable. And think of what more we could have done, Holman told me, if we’d had those additional funds, what kinds of new opportunities or investments we could be making in our children.

MPS is in much the same boat this year: tight revenue caps, declining enrollment, and pressure to boost achievement even more.

So now when you consider what Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton has proposed (pdf) in his 2012-2013 budget, it’s hard not to say, wow, that could have been a lot worse. (You can read additional budget documents, including the line-item budgets, by following links on the MPS budget and finance page.)

The proposed budget is only $20 million smaller than 2011-2012’s budget, a function primarily of reduced funding from federal sources and a projected slight decrease in enrollment, about 1.3%. The budget accounts for the closing of eight schools, approved with the MPS facilities plan earlier this year, but also the expansion of several others. (For example, MacDowell Montessori moves into the Juneau building and takes on the 9-12 grades formerly handled by the Montessori High School, now closed.)

And the budget calls for 400 fewer positions than 2011-2012, more than half of which, 234, are teacher positions. More than 100 of those positions were at the schools that are closing. And about 40 of those teacher positions are literacy and math coaches, not classroom teachers–though employees excessed from those positions may displace classroom teachers if they choose to stay with the district. MPS has not made any predictions about teacher layoffs; in fact, the district right now says it has more open positions due to attrition and retirement than it is cutting. But layoffs will be determined by license and need.

The superintendent also tried to keep cuts away from the classroom–which is hard, since MPS plows 86% of its operations budget into classes, mostly through salaries and benefits. The district is cutting nearly 40 of its educational assistants and aides, but most of the rest of the cuts come from administration and–the biggest cut besides teachers–maintenance staff.

And this budget has some additional steps that move the district in a positive direction. For example, SpringBoard is there–as I first wrote about on this site (later elaborated at the Bay View Compass), MPS is set to be the first district in Wisconsin to offer the College Board’s official pre-AP program. It will be rolled out in five schools, paid for primarily by the district and not those schools. The district is also continuing to re-centralize spending, this year including things like funds for substitute teachers and school safety, creating some flexibility within school budgets. Plus there is a guarantee that every student will see art, music, and physical education teachers at least once a week.

So in all, it could have been a lot worse. The cutting MPS did in 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 softened a lot of the blow this year.

But it also could have been a lot better. For one, of course, the state could have maintained its previous levels of funding. With 800 more teachers or the financial flexibility to make even bolder changes to curriculum or programs, MPS could be taking bigger chances..

For another, MPS teachers missed a chance to slice the size of cuts to teaching staff in half. Teachers voted earlier this month to reject a 2.6% salary contribution, a contribution that would have been matched by, among others, the superintendent and a number of board members and community leaders. That give-back would have funded up to 100 more classroom positions, reducing class size and broadening students’ access to art, music, and physical education.

The relative gains to taxpayers and to teachers for these decisions are small. The relative loss to MPS–and, more importantly, its students–is huge. Director Holman’s words keep echoing in my ears: Think about how much more we could have done. This budget does quite a bit, but many real opportunities have been lost.

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