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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 2.0° F  Fair
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Mandate for new thinking
Agonizing school budget hearings show need for change
Is there a better way? If so, newcomer Maya Cole will have to find it.
Is there a better way? If so, newcomer Maya Cole will have to find it.

Maya Cole's victory Tuesday night over Marj Passman is yet another sign that voters expect new ways of thinking from the seven elected citizens who govern the Madison Metropolitan School District.

'This district budgets to a crisis, and that's what ineffective governance is all about,' Cole told Isthmus last month as she called for fresh approaches to the district's annual budget fracas. 'We have to get away from that model.'

Voters elected Cole over Passman, who was better financed and had the backing of Madison Teachers Inc. Passman ran mainly on the issue of inadequate state funding for public schools. Cole, in contrast, stressed her collaborative instincts and community demands for innovation.

Her victory marks three consecutive years in which voters have picked more reform-minded candidates over those backed by the teachers union and political establishment. And given the union's failure to endorse Johnny Winston Jr., who handily won re-election, it's the first time in a generation that a majority of board members are not endorsed by MTI.

Beth Moss' big victory on Tuesday brings to three the number of MTI-endorsed candidates, although she took pains in the campaign to stress her independence, advocating for teacher health-insurance changes and new charter schools.

Cole's call for new approaches would be a welcome change from the springtime ritual of torturous budget hearings, where parents, children, teachers and support staff wait patiently for hours to yell, beg and cry about budget cuts.

This drama has dominated the school board's agenda as of late, and eight more nights in April will be filled with doomsday talk, which feeds impressions that Madison schools are facing a fiscal crisis, eroding educational quality.

Even board members agree there must be a better way.

'Honestly, what goes through my mind during these hearings?' asks Lawrie Kobza, the board's vice president and budget committee chair. 'Why in the world am I doing this? Why am I on the school board?'

At a press conference last month, Superintendent Art Rainwater said the district's 2007-08 budget was the most difficult to balance since state revenue caps took hold 14 years ago.

Next year's proposed budget would hike spending by $7 million, to $339 million. But it calls for $7.2 million in cuts, because projected costs exceed the district's ability to raise revenues.

The main cause for this gap, according to a budget forecast released in January, is the district's estimated 4.7% salary and benefits increase for employees.

The district hopes to save $2.2 million by cutting special-education services for students with speech and language needs; $1.5 million by increasing class sizes at seven elementary schools with low percentages of low-income students; and $860,000 by ending small class sizes for 'specials' classes like art and music.

Many citizen pleas are coming over 'consolidation' plans that would close Marquette, Sherman, Blackhawk or Lindberg schools, and reconfigure several others, including combining Affiliated Alternatives with Shabazz High School. Consolidation is estimated to save about $800,000.

Several board members, including Carol Carstensen, say they won't support any school closings. They've got until April 30 to come up with alternatives.

Last week, the board voted 5-2 to reject a referendum proposal that Carstensen floated on a community e-mail list before discussing it with her colleagues. The $34 million, three-year referendum would have restored many cuts and added a 4-year-old kindergarten program.

Carstensen's been blasted for not effectively garnering behind-the-scenes support. Kobza has called her public rhetoric around the referendum ' coinciding with the final weeks of the campaign ' 'incredibly destructive.'

Board member Lucy Mathiak sees politics at play: 'I'm inclined to think this wasn't about the budget, but it was an effective device to rally support for Carol's candidates.' Mathiak also brands Carstensen an ineffective chair of the board's long-range planning committee.

'She's lauded for being a budget expert but her only solution is to have a referendum,' says Mathiak. 'That's not a plan. It's a Band-Aid.'

Clearly, the budget process needs to be reformed. Kobza has attempted to do that over the past year by demanding fiscal analyses of many programs, and finding efficiencies, including savings in transportation costs.

Cole will replace retiring Ruth Robarts, who for years has lamented the board's failure to be visionary. 'Is there a better way?' Robarts asks. 'There's got to be a better way.'

Mathiak agrees: 'I'm not satisfied that we've done everything in our power to find other ways to look at the budget problem.'

Many smart and well-paid district administrators spend thousands of hours and significant mental energy on what computes to be 2% of the total budget. Imagine the many ways that time could be better spent.

The take-home message from Tuesday is that voters want a new approach. Cole's election is a mandate for more serious, out-of-the-box thinking ' and her six new colleagues would do well to pay attention.

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