Madison schools Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham recommended the board focus on strengthening existing programs and infrastructure, which would not require new expenditures.
"What I don't see enough of is... options that we can create for kids who aren't quite making it," school board member Dean Loumos said Monday at the Madison Metropolitan School District's Board of Education work-group meeting. "Holding our own on what we do this year, so we can do it again next year, frankly isn’t good enough for me."
Loumos was referring to the district's proposed 2013-2014 budget (PDF), which Madison Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham and Assistant Superintendent for business services Mike Barry presented. Under the proposal, the overall budget would shrink by $2 million for a total of $391 million. Cheatham recommended a 4.47% increase in property taxes, which means an increase of $119 on the average $231,000 Madison home.
The tax increase is almost half the amount available to the board, adding $11.1 million to the district's tax revenue. Doing so, Cheatham said, will allow the district to assess its spending priorities and minimize the possible reduction in state aid a higher tax increase would cause the following year.
That the district would forgo the opportunity for additional funds to implement programs for struggling students disturbed Loumos.
"I'm not locked into this [4.47% levy]," Loumos said. "If there are some things we want to do this year, why wait till next year? We do have room to get some money for it, and if we can justify it to the community... we see at the end…that it's worth it."
Cheatham said Madison schools have already implemented a variety of initiatives to increase student achievement but have not seen "measurable improvements."
"It isn't for lack of working very hard and doing a lot of things at once," she said. "I feel pretty confident the reason that hasn't occurred is because of the lack of long-term vision."
Cheatham recommended the board focus on strengthening existing programs and infrastructure, which would not require new expenditures.
"I want to be more strategic and thoughtful about this than how we did it in the past," she added.
School board President Ed Hughes said the district's central offices would be reorganized in order to increase the efficiency with which the district provides support services to teachers.
Cheatham's budget proposal would also cut expenses by freezing staff hiring, equipment and supply budgets.
The freeze on supplies concerned student representative Luke Gangler and board treasurer TJ Mertz, both of whom described paper shortages last year.
"The last quarter at Memorial [High School], the copiers were down; almost nothing was readable," Gangler said. "I'm not too concerned about pushing the tax levy a little bit higher if we can get a little more wiggle room in for things we can use."
Mertz said parents were asked at his son's school to donate paper twice during the school year.
"My son's school happens to be one of the more affluent schools," he noted. "At other schools parents would not be able to do that."
Hughes said the freeze on supplies should not adversely affect classrooms, even if the need increases at some schools.
"It's the overall amount of spending that's frozen," he said. "So if there are different enrollment impacts at different schools, there would be corresponding adjustments."
The proposed budget also calls for a 1% wage increase for all workers and a 0.5% increase on top of that in certain categories of hourly employees like educational assistants, food service staff and security assistants.
Erin Proctor, president of the education assistants' unit of Madison Teachers Inc., spoke favorably of this move.
"I understand that money is tight, but even what you're putting in there and proposing shows that you do care, that you do acknowledge the work that we do," she said.
Even with an increase, board members noted that teachers' salary levels may not be significantly higher than they were in the 2010-2011 budget after adjusting for inflation. Hughes said his rough calculations showed an average increase of 1.7%, which is below the inflation rate.
"It may be just a break-even scenario or close to it," said Mike Barry.
Cheatham will present the preliminary budget to the Board of Education July 29. The board anticipates voting on the budget August 26 following a month of review and public hearing.