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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Fair
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Teacher pay cuts put off painful austerity measures for Madison schools
A brief reprieve
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We took our kids to registration on our way out of town for a last summer fling at the beach. It turns out you're never too old for the back-to-school butterflies.

The school smell hit us the moment we walked in the door - a familiar mix of nostalgia and anxiety brought on by the elixir of industrial cleaners, new textbooks and cafeteria food.

Who will be back this year? Who will be leaving? What big changes are in store?

These questions are more poignant than ever this fall, in the wake of our state's battle over the future of education. Last spring, our kids saw their teachers at the rallies around the Capitol, and took part in the biggest mass civics lesson in state history.

Now, a few of those beloved staff are leaving. A lot of Madison teachers are retiring; others are hanging in there with a contract that cuts pay and benefits and leaves them with less control over their jobs and less planning time.

But the threat of big, scary cuts to sports, the arts and special programs - and even school closures - has been postponed.

That's because, as my friend Kristen Nelson - a self-described "school board junkie," former president of the Lake View PTA, and all-around tireless advocate for kids - puts it, "We basically balanced the budget on the backs of teachers."

Taking $15 million out of Madison teachers' compensation gave our schools a short-term reprieve this year.

"Last year, the board did not have the flexibility to ask the teachers to make such a sacrifice," Nelson points out in her blog K&the3ds. "Instead, they were forced to make cuts that directly affected student programming. You name it, it was on the chopping block: sports programs, English Language Learner services, school closings."

Nelson attended the community listening sessions, where people came out in droves to give passionate testimony against the threatened cuts. The result, she says, was a painful but fair and democratic budget. Then Scott Walker came in and made it easy for the school board to drive a much harder bargain with teachers. The whole community process went out the window.

Luckily for Madison, as school board member Ed Hughes points out in a recent blog post, the 2008 referendum voters passed authorizing the school district to exceed state-imposed spending caps means the district has $13 million more to spend this year.

As a result, Madison is not only holding off on painful cuts, it is adding new initiatives for the 2011-2012 school year, including long-awaited 4-year-old kindergarten, new Spanish-English dual immersion programs at Glendale and Chavez, the Badger Rock charter school, new Talented and Gifted programming, a college-prep program for underserved youth, new resources to address the achievement gap, expanded summer school, and new programs to help middle schoolers with serious mental health problems.

"That hopeful day in November 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president may seem like a distant memory now," Hughes writes, "but the school district continues to benefit in a big way from the thumbs-up verdict on our spending plans that Madison voters delivered."

Thanks to the 2008 referendum - not to mention the historic retirements and teacher concessions on pay and benefits - "We're still able to move forward in Madison with new ideas and initiatives," writes Hughes, "green shoots of hope pushing up against the general gloom."

Jill Jokela of the East Attendance Area PTO coalition concurs, but notes that difficult budgets will be coming soon.

"Timing is everything," she says. "The referendum runs out after this year. I'm very curious to see what happens for the 2012-2013 school year, because that is where the real pain points seem to be."

So give your teachers a hug. They have been through a lot this year, and thanks to them, the Madison schools are still going strong. Then talk to your neighbors. We are going to need to muster a lot of community spirit to keep our schools great when registration rolls around next year. That's when the real back-to-school butterflies begin.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.

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