MPS sends out budget priorities survey

Milwaukee Public Schools is sending kids home with a survey asking parents to list their spending priorities, from 1 to 14, for upcoming budgets.

Principals need to finalize their school budgets by Thursday, which means the survey arrives a little late. However, the district does have time to alter budgets, as happened last year after education cuts arrived from Madison.

The administration is expected to bring a final budget to the board in April and the board is expected to vote on it in June.

Filling out the survey – also available online to parents, community members and others – is a challenging task. Not that it’s difficult to follow or anything, but to ask parents whether it’s more important for children to have access to lunch OR a nurse OR a reasonable class size is not easily answered.

Of course, MPS is in a zero-sum game and these are exactly the questions administration has to ask itself during the budget process.

Then there’s the question of fairness. For many parents in the district – this one included – it’s not simply a question of what one’s own child needs. We don’t ride the yellow bus to school, so should I rank it 14th even though I know many kids couldn’t and might not get to school if transportation is cut? It’s disingenuous – maybe even uncivil – for me to say it’s the lowest priority for the district, just because it’s the lowest priority for my child.

“We want to know the priorities of our community,” Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton said in a news release announcing the survey today. “Cuts (at Central Services) would be painful, but we think they’re needed to shield schools from as much pain as possible.”

The release reads: “As it stands now, the Superintendent’s budget proposal calls for a boost to art, music and physical education through new minimum standards for the number of specialist teachers in each school. That boost would be paid for through further cuts at MPS Central Services. The budget proposal also calls for greater efficiency through centrally funding services such as safety and special education.”

Efficiency and central services cuts are not, however, shielding schools enough.

At my child’s school, and at another from which I’ve heard, the art, music and gym would be returned – and greater efficiency achieved – at the cost of at least one teacher and some paraprofessionals. At our school, these personnel cuts don’t even come close to balancing the budget. And this is as the district says that it has begun to see some savings from changes made to employee benefits last fall.

A school board member told me privately last week that other schools have called to say that they’re in a similar situation. Another director lamented that the district must stem the tide of kids leaving MPS.

Our school – and there are others, too – generally has a waiting list of 50 or more students who would like to attend this Milwaukee Public School, most of whom I’d be willing to bet do not enroll in another MPS school if they don’t get in. The likely permanent loss of those kids to other districts and private schools most certainly costs MPS millions of dollars.

With fewer teachers and fewer classrooms, even fewer kids will be able to enroll in these successful schools and will likely follow the same path away from MPS.

You know what that means? Even tighter budgets in the future.

The district must get serious about engaging Milwaukee parents. It must work to keep the families it has and it must get out there and talk to the parents it has to get back. Politicians have made it clear that MPS must compete. Sure, it must compete from a position of weakness because it cannot turn any student away, but if it is to compete, it had better get out and meet its customers and potential customers.

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