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Friday, October 31, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 37.0° F  Mostly Cloudy and Breezy
The Daily
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Madison schools 2013-14 budget passes amid calls for increased funding for mental health services
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Following the public hearing, the school board voted 6-1 to approve the budget.
Credit:Bennet Goldstein

Gary Stout, a retired preschool and kindergarten teacher, taught in the Madison Metropolitan School District for 13 years.

"I remember being a kindergarten teacher in my first year and having a student with five or more cigarette burns on his forearm," he told the Board of Education at a public hearing of the proposed 2013-2014 budget (PDF) Monday night. "Eventually he told me his Auntie did that to him because he was bad."

Another student, five years old, attempted suicide. Twice.

"He tried to cut his wrist on his first attempt and then on the second occasion he tried to hang himself," Stout said. "People don't realize the stuff that happens in Madison. It's amazing."

Stout spoke to the board in support of adding funds to school initiatives to teach social and emotional learning, a curriculum designed to teach children self-awareness and relationship skills.

Anna Moffit, an advocate with Wisconsin Family Ties, also spoke in favor of increasing services for youth with mental health needs and disabilities.

"I hope that our district continues to make educating children with special needs a priority, as well as a budget that reflects this priority," she said.

Following the public hearing, the school board voted 6-1 to approve the budget, with board member Mary Burke casting the sole vote in opposition. School board member T.J. Mertz says this year's budget does not include additional funding for SEL and special education services, but notes that the district is interested in supporting these initiatives through professional development and potentially a reallocation of resources.

The approved $391 million budget reflects a loss of $8.8 million in state aid. The school board also approved instituting a property tax levy of 4.47%, adding $11.1 million to the district's revenue. The levy will add about $119 to the tax bill on the average $231,000 Madison home. The budget decreases spending by 1% and increases workers’ wages by 1% and 1.5% for certain hourly employees.

New Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said the budget was transitional and that in the coming year she, staff and school board members would construct a new budget from the ground up.

"While we did the best thing we could with this budget with the time we had, we intend to take it to the next level the next time we go through this process," she said.

Mertz said the issues raised by Stout are reflected in the district's strategic framework (PDF). He says the board considered these issues in the budgeting process, partly due to feedback received at public listening sessions.

"Students spend a lot of time out of the schools," Mertz said. "The district has definitely recognized in the last couple of years ... that we need to be working closer with social workers, psychologists and community resources around our students' mental health. I think that the classroom experiences of social and emotional learning are places in general that this administration and this board would be open to expanding."

In January 2012 the school district formed a Mental Health Task Force to design a culturally informed, school-linked system of mental health supports for students and their families.

For Gary Stout, waiting until next year to fund additional social and emotional learning (SEL) initiatives is not soon enough.

At the end of the printed copy of the speech he delivered to the board, he wrote, "Please think about allocating more funding for SEL in our next budget." Before reading it during the hearing, he scratched out the words "in our next budget."

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