The Milwaukee Public Schools are facing a $32 million budget deficit for next year, causing significant cuts at schools across the city.
The cuts have led to ongoing parent protests calling upon School Board members to aggressively find more resources for the district.
The cuts will mean a loss of 154 full-time equivalent positions next year in local school staffs, including 57 teachers, 25 administrators and 71 support staff, according to an analysis from the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future of the latest budget figures released May 2. The figures do not include cuts in central administration staff or staff in district-wide programs.
The administration itself admitted in the May 2 press release that there was a loss of 57 teachers, but obscured this by highlighting the addition of teachers in the early elementary grades as a result of the state’s class-size reduction program (see article “The Case for Smaller Classes”). Popularly known as SAGE, the initiative will allow a net increase of teaching jobs in the district.
Some people have criticized the administration for using SAGE figures to mask the budget cuts. As University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Alex Molnar points out, “SAGE was never intended as a budgetary supplement to inadequate funding.”
This year’s budget crunch follows years of belt-tightening. In addition, district projections show that budget cuts are expected to get worse in coming years, as expenses increase significantly in areas such as health care and fuel costs for transportation.
GOOD PROGRAMS CUT
Some of the hardest-hit programs are districtwide initiatives designed to help students who have difficulty achieving in traditional school settings. For example, Lady Pitts, a high school for teenage mothers, will likely have to close. Another highly acclaimed program for special education students, the School-to-Work Transition Program, will likely be another casualty of the budget cuts.
“Our program will be gone,” said Barbara Foulks of the School-to-Work Transition Program, which transitions special education students into adult jobs. “The kids we serve will be hurt.”
“What bothers me,” she continued, “is that when they eliminate my job, they [the school board and district] are not making any plans to deal with the needs of the kids I serve. If they were serious about reform, they would have something else in place for these kids.”
Paraprofessional, music, art, and gym positions have also been hard hit. At Allen-Field Elementary School, for example, the school will be forced to cut seven paraprofessional educational assistants who serve the bilingual program.
A number of local school councils sent in letters with their schools’ budgets, calling upon the School Board to help find more money and warning how the budget cuts are affecting educational quality.
The Governance Council at Custer High School, for instance, submitted its budget “under protest of the budget cuts our school is forced to endure,” its April 11 letter said.
Custer lost five teacher positions and five assistant positions this year, and under initial projections for next year was to lose an additional five teacher positions, a guidance counselor, and a secretary. In addition, programs were cut for driver’s ed, music, family and consumer education, and vocational services for special-ed students.
While the May 2 budget provides small additional amounts for the high schools (which had been particularly hard hit by original projections), deficits are still cutting into programs.
At Riverside University High School, for instance, even with the latest budget the school is about $500,000 short if it wants to maintain programs and staff at this year’s level, according to Principal Mary Anne Zapala.
The heart of the funding problem in MPS is twofold:
- MPS receives about $1,570 less per pupil every year than the area average, according to figures from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
- The state-imposed spending caps on public schools in 1994, as part of an attempt to hold down property taxes. This problem of spending caps (also known as revenue limits) has affected districts across the state (see article below).
School Board members say there is little they can do to resolve the funding crisis and have blamed it on the state legislature. At the same time, the board has done little to lobby the legislature for more money.
In a letter to the Shepherd Express-Metro, a Milwaukee weekly newspaper, Sen. Gwen Moore (D-Milw.) criticized moves by the School Board during the latest state budget negotiations which reduced the amount of money coming into MPS. She also noted, “I have never been approached by board members or their professional lobbyists regarding ways to address an anticipated $32 million deficit.”
Many parents and teachers have complained that the School Board does not seem to sufficiently recognize the severity of the district’s funding problems. In the School Board’s Strategic Plan adopted March 28, for instance, there is no mention of finding more resources for MPS. Instead, the strategic plan focuses on “financial management” of the district’s money.
NEW ADVOCACY GROUPS
The budget cuts have helped spawn several new advocacy groups, in particular Parents United for Public Schools (PUPS) and School Councils Organized for Progressive Education (SCOPE). In addition, the group Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH) has become increasingly active on school issues.
This year’s budget crunch coincides with a decentralization plan by the School Board, in which schools are given set amounts per pupil, and then “charged” for certain services provided by the central administration or, for other services, given the option of “buying them back.” “Chargebacks,” as they are called, are mandatory. “Buybacks” are optional.
Programs such as Lady Pitts and the School-to-Work Transition Program were optional “buybacks.” Some argue that the administration and board are abdicating their responsibility to serve all students by making programs such as Lady Pitts “optional.” The School Board and administration can thus claim that they are not responsible for cutting the programs, but that the programs were not deemed valuable enough by the schools to “buy back.” Yet it is difficult to fault schools for concentrating their resources on basics such as the core teaching staff.
The School Board is to vote on a final budget at its May 30 meeting.