As the Madison Metropolitan School District continues to craft its budget for the upcoming school year, a new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum finds that MMSD will be in an even tighter place than it is now without help from the Republican-led legislature.
The nonpartisan and nonprofit policy research organization released its report last week, breaking down the projected future finances of both MMSD and Milwaukee Public Schools.
The report says that the district has stayed afloat in recent years largely through temporary fixes: increased federal funding due to the pandemic and a 2020 referendum.
But the deadline to use those federal funds is fast approaching, and the last chance the district will have to use those funds is September 2024. Additionally, next year’s budget is the final year the district’s operating budget will increase from that referendum. That means that with MMSD’s current proposed 2024 budget, the district would have to spend over $30 million dollars less compared to 2023.
Jason Stein, research director with the Wisconsin Policy Forum, says the current proposed budget is a “worst-case-scenario” budget, assuming the district gets no additional state aid next year.
“It’s a sobering document in a sense that right now, the budget would decrease the total staffing at the district by 155 positions, or 3.7%, in 2024,” Stein says. “Even with those cuts, the district has got to use some of the last of its federal pandemic funding to pay for 111 ongoing positions. Because that federal funding is temporary, that would put the district in a tougher position in 2025.”
Part of the reason for MMSD’s financial troubles is declining general school aid, the main form of state assistance to public schools across the state.
That state aid is calculated through a formula that weighs local property values against what the district spends.
Stein says that Madison’s unique situation means that MMSD is put in a precarious position, because it puts more of the burden on the taxpayer.
“Districts that have higher than average property values and spending can receive less favorable treatment under that formula,” Stein says. “The district’s property values have continued to rise rapidly, its spending has increased in part due to the referendum, so all of that leads to a gradual erosion over time of that funding source.”
General state aid for MMSD is projected to nearly reach its lowest level in over a decade next year, at just over $37 million.
Another reason for MMSD’s woes are students moving away from public schools and instead enrolling in independent charter schools.
Three independent charter schools have opened in Madison since 2018. When a student moves from MMSD to one of those charter schools, the district pays over $9,000 per student to the charter school.
Stein says that that money comes right from the state aid that would have gone to the district.
“If you look at the revenue limits that cap the total amount of funding that districts can take in for their key revenues for education, or if you look at just state aid, both of those are tied to your enrollment,” Stein says. “There’s a lag when it happens, but over time, declining enrollment results in lower funding for the school district.”
The new report comes as MMSD continues to struggle to retain teachers and staff. Earlier this year, MMSD proposed a 3.5% cost of living adjustment for staff, an increase that Madison Teachers Inc, the union representing MMSD teachers, says is inadequate. MTI says that, in order to keep up with inflation, teachers and staff should be getting at least an 8% base wage increase.
At a school board meeting last month where MTI teachers called on the school board to protest the modest proposed wage increase, Bette Jo Bradly, a third grade teacher at Chavez Elementary, said that if teachers are not more adequately compensated, more and more teachers are going to leave the district.
“We don’t have enough,” Bradley says. “We don’t have enough staff, we don’t have enough anything. We’re all overworked, our special ed teachers are asked to cover for someone who’s absent, our coaches are subbing. Everyone’s exhausted. We can’t keep doing this.”
Earlier this year, Governor Tony Evers included several items in his proposed state budget to help schools across the state. Namely, Evers proposed increasing revenue limits for schools by $350 per student in 2024 and another $650 per student in 2025.
The Republican-led legislature, however, has said that they plan on reducing those increases, though they have not yet publicly stated by how much.
The state’s Joint Finance Committee is currently debating the state’s upcoming budget, and has not indicated when they will take up the topic of education. They are expected to send their final proposed budget to Governor Evers next month, when he can either sign, veto specific items, or even veto the entire budget.
Even without help from the legislature, MMSD does have a few options on the table to get its budget in line.
One option, the report says, is substantial cuts to almost all aspects of the district. The district’s current proposed 2024 budget already calls for around 150 positions to be cut across the board, and would fund nearly 200 positions with the final batch of one-time federal funds.
But the district could go another route: authorizing another referendum to once again increase the operating budget. While voters overwhelmingly approved the last two referendums to increase the district’s operating budget, it would still be a short term fix.
MMSD is slated to approve a preliminary budget sometime next month, and adopt a final budget in October.
Photo courtesy: Chali Pittman / WORT Flickr