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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 75.0° F  Overcast
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Another Chicken Little budget for Madison schools
Was projected deficit meant to give a true picture or just scare people?
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Lucy Mathiak: 'I've never seen anything quite like this.'
Lucy Mathiak: 'I've never seen anything quite like this.'

It's a good thing Madison is a full of certified smarty-pants. It takes a high level of smarts just to comprehend the complex and shifting budget situation faced by the Madison school district. Even some school board members have a hard time making sense of it.

"I've never seen anything quite like this," says Lucy Mathiak, the board's vice president, of the process by which the district has presented information about its proposed $372.8 million budget this year. "When you have the health and welfare of schools on the line, I feel like I have to ask for answers. It's not a comfortable position."

Frustrated, Mathiak first raised questions about how the district came to its projected $30 million budget hole in her School Daze blog. She notes, first of all, that the gap was closer to $18 million, presuming the board exercises its existing ability to raise taxes, as approved by voters in a 2008 referendum: "This means that the draconian school closings and massive staff layoffs reported earlier are unlikely to happen."

But even if that gap is plugged, new ones are opening up. Recently the district was told by a consultant that it needs to do $85.7 million in repairs to existing buildings over the next five years, well beyond the $4 million a year it budgets to this end.

"That was a request by the board to have that report and conversation as part of the budget process," says Erik Kass, the district's assistant superintendent for business services. "It's extremely helpful to know that information. It gets back to being transparent and open with the community in knowing these things."

Transparency and openness are popular buzzwords in discussions of how Madison schools present information to parents and taxpayers. The district posts a variety of updated resources on its website to try to answer questions.

But Mathiak says this is the most chaotic budget process she has encountered in her four years on the board, making it harder than ever to arrive at good decisions. "I can't blame the state," she says. "It has to do with choices that are made with the massive miscommunication as to how big the deficit is."

John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., agrees the district's original $30 million figure was absurd. "It has caused a great deal of anxiety in the schools, in the community and among board members," he says. "There was no need to propose cuts of that amount."

In tossing out "the sky is falling" numbers like these, is the school district interested in presenting a true picture, or just scaring the bejesus out of everyone?

Mathiak calls the original projection inexplicable, noting such errors as the double counting of 9.3 bilingual teaching specialists - a $632,670 mistake. "That is $600,000 we don't need to worry about anymore," she says.

Kass chalks up the confusion to semantics, saying the district followed board directives in coming up with reductions beyond what was likely to be necessary.

"We were directed by the board to provide a list of items for them to consider a zero percent property tax increase, and that's what we did," Kass says. "Maybe we as an administration have a lot of culpability." But the district, he notes, is taking a different approach than it has in the past, presenting a broad array of options.

The district is continuing to hold hearings, workshops and public sessions on its budget woes. The next one will be held this Sunday, April 18, at Warner Park Community Center, beginning at 1 p.m.

But already, the board has agreed it won't pursue the most severe proposed cuts, which included consolidating north Madison schools, eliminating school breakfast, and reducing school guidance counselors, nurses and psychologists.

And on Monday, the school board settled on measures to achieve another $6 million in cost savings and cuts from recommended options, further reducing the projected budget gap to about $12 million. (For the current scorecard, click here.)

None of the decisions are binding, however, until the board makes its final budget vote June 1.

This is not the first time the Madison school district seems to have taken its budget message from Chicken Little. Three years ago, the board was faced with making up to $12 million in cuts, and there was talk about consolidating east Madison schools.

"Obviously, schools didn't close and we survived," recalls former school board member Carol Carstensen, now active with Grandparents United for Madison Public Schools. "There were other, additional things that could have been done that weren't done at that time."

In other words, there are usually ways to avoid making certain kinds of painful cuts.

Parent Matt Calvert served as advocacy chair of the Lapham-Marquette Parent Teacher Group when the board considered shuttering one of those buildings. Instead, the district found an innovative way to use extra space in the schools for its alternative programs. Now, he feels the district faces a tough situation that is not entirely of its own making.

"Taxpayers said in 2008 they want to fund schools above the [state's set revenue cap]," says Calvert. "We just have to suck it up and pay the taxes because the Legislature is not funding our schools and doing the job that they need to do, so they've left us no alternative."

Carstensen, too, says the budget mess is not the district's fault. "The reality is the school levy has not gone up over the period of the revenue cap. And most of the increases that people have seen have been a result of the other taxing entities [like the city and county]."

But Don Severson, president of the school watchdog group Active Citizens for Education, blames the grim budget dilemma on a lack of long-range planning by the district and board during the past several years.

"It is a little more transparent than last year, but [they still] struggle to have information in a clear fashion," he says. "They still don't have any evaluation, analysis and assessment data on programs, services and personnel."

Severson admits it's a tall order to have good data, a priority identified in the district's strategic plan last year. But he says it's essential to have this information to make sound decisions.

Severson's group advocates a slew of measures to trim the budget, including reassigning all Instructional Resource Teachers to the classrooms - an option still on the table. Plus, it stresses that taxes should be raised minimally, and resources rejiggered to fill the gap.

For Mathiak, the process has been disappointing. "To this day," she says, "the administration has not admitted that I was right about the numbers they released and how they got them or, more important, why they persisted in using that figure even after numerous attempts by board members to clarify what those numbers were about."

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