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Friday, August 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Madison middle schools face budget crunch coupled with increasing populattion of low income students
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Blackhawk Middle School teachers Erin Anderson (left) and Peg Coyne (right) discuss a student's welfare before class.
Blackhawk Middle School teachers Erin Anderson (left) and Peg Coyne (right) discuss a student's welfare before class.

The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) is attempting to operate with $9.2 million less in state aid this school year, reducing funding for middle school programming by $151,033.

Factors contributing to this significant loss include reduced tax revenues resulting from increased unemployment and home foreclosure rates. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Wisconsin lost 125,100 jobs between September 2008 and September 2009. Realty Trac, a website that provides real estate trends and information nationwide, indicates that Wisconsin has the 19th highest foreclosure rate in the country. One of every 229 homes in the state is in foreclosure.

Under the state budget, funding for K-12 education is reduced by 2.5%. Madison, however, is among 94 school districts hit even harder with cuts of 15% or more as a result of the general school aid formula (also known as the equalization aid formula).

According to the Department of Public Instruction's website, the purpose of the complex general school aid formula is to ensure an equal tax rate per pupil spending across the state. A key element of the general school aid formula is the amount of revenue a school district can raise on its own through resources such as property taxes. Beyond property taxes, factors including enrollment and higher-than-average cost per student also factor into the general school aid formula in determining the amount of funding each school district will receive from the state.

Unlike other communities around Wisconsin, Madison's housing market did not take as hard of a hit which, in part, is what led to decreased state aid, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. Rather, under the general school aid formula, a greater share of state funding was allocated to districts suffering the most from depleted property tax revenues.

"We have a broken state funding system that has wreaked havoc on our district," says Arlene Silveira, President of the Madison Metropolitan School District's school board.

"It is deplorable what they have done to education in the state," says school board member Marj Passman. "The state has committed a malefeasance of duty with their obligation to the children this state."

As the district is dealing with such a large reduction in state aid, it must also address the rising number of students from low-income families and the city's ever-changing demographics, particularly in a weak economy. From 1991 until 2009, the percentage of students from low-income families in Madison grew from 20% to 46.9%. Currently, 45% of the district's student population qualifies for free and reduced lunch (compared to 32% statewide). Among the students attending the district's middle schools, 49% are from low-income households, according to the Madison Metropolitan School District's website.

Low-income households are defined by federal guidelines as a family of four living on $33,000 or less per year.

"We've noticed, however, that there's been an increase in the number of families requesting consideration for free/reduced lunch and seeking assistance with other school expenses," says Wright Middle School Principle Nancy Evans. "This most likely has a direct connection to the state of the economy."

Not only has the number of low-income families increased within middle schools, but total enrollment has as well. Previously on the decline, the total number of students is now set to increase by 250 by the year 2014 according to the district.

This expected jump in enrollment could tax programs like special education even further. According to Peg Coyne, a special education teacher at Blackhawk Middle School, caseloads have increased over the last 10 years due to budget cuts. In addition, some schools no longer offer family and consumer education or technology education classes.

"I believe very strongly that a major part of my job is to consistently identify and implement strategies aimed at providing the maximum amount of resources to the classroom," says Erik Kass, assistant superintendent of business services. "This entails creating efficiencies across the district that drive these pockets of resources saved to be funneled back into the classroom."

Kass says that in the near term the district will implement a competitive bid process for the district's insurance, which could save the district more than $2 million a year.

While some are stepping up to volunteer and take on creative initiatives, members of Parent Teacher Organizations have seen a reduction in district and family donations as well as decreasing parental involvement.

Toki Middle School PTO member Angela Hubbard says she finds it difficult to ask for increased contributions from parents when so much of the student population qualifies for free or reduced cost lunches.

"Even if we do have a fundraiser, expecting people to give money to the school is not realistic," says Hubbard. In addition, parents often don't have time to volunteer at the school. "They may care but they don't have the time to contribute."

During fall registration at Hamilton Middle School, the PTO only raised $250 this year; a sharp decline from the thousands collected in previous years, according to Hamilton Middle School PTO President Amy Radspinner.

Though reduced funding and its consequences is an issue the district must continue to address, some are optimistic that schools will pull through despite the economic circumstances.

"Money is great, but everyone is in a financial crunch," says Sherman Middle School Principal Michael Hernandez. "The school is not looking for handouts, we're looking for volunteers -- one on one -- to listen, read. Build self-esteem and confidence. We're getting that."

Hernandez also says the school will continue to seek grants and external sources of funding. He gives credit to the school board, saying that they are "smart people" and that they have made cuts while maintaining services.

As for the impact the budget cuts will have on the district's middle schools, specific details remain unknown.

"We're looking at the whole budget to see where things can be cut," says Donna Williams, director of the school district's offfice of budgeting, planning and accounting.

Williams indicates, however, that there is not enough funding in the current budget for new technology for the middle schools. Instead, equipment such as computers will be shared by the schools.

Evans says that in planning the annual budget for Wright, she always makes "just in case" predictions.

"I never know exactly what changes will be necessary until I have received budget details from the district... At this time, I don't know exactly how we will be impacted."

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