The Madison School Board has one week to decide whether or not it will levy more taxes than the Madison School District said it needed to balance its budget.
The Madison Metropolitan School District said it needs $8.5 million of the $10 million it is authorized to levy from the 2016 operational referendum to balance the district’s budget for the 2017-2018 school year. The School Board is debating whether or not to use the remaining funds to cover other needs, including hiring more special education staff.
The board has to decide how much it will levy at the next regular board meeting on Oct. 30. That will determine how much additional education taxes Madison homeowners will see on their bills.
The November 2016 referendum gave MMSD the authority to levy up to $10 million more than state-imposed school district revenue limits this year. The School Board voted on the district’s preliminary operational budget in June. At that time, the district projected it would need about $11.4 million more in taxes over the previous year to balance its operational budget, bracing for an anticipated decrease in Wisconsin state equalization aid.
The School Board revisits their budget each fall after Wisconsin lawmakers pass the state budget. The district received more money from the state than it projected in June. Updated calculations showed that the district would need a $8.5 million tax levy increase to balance its budget, a $2.9 million decrease from its June estimate.
The district said the state aid, coupled with Madison’s growing tax base, would mean the property tax bill on the average-priced Madison home would increase by about $8.50 a year. MMSD’s assistant superintendent of business services Mike Barry said Madison’s tax base growth last year was “very robust,” up 6.2 percent, or $1.5 billion.
At Monday’s operations group meeting, some community members shared their concerns about special education personnel in the district, particularly around the decrease in special education assistants, or SEAs.
“I am hearing from parents at multiple west side schools, at least, that SEA staffing is not adequate this year,” said parent and former Madison School Board candidate Cris Carusi. “It is really exciting that we have more equalization aid in the budget than we thought.... I think our community would rally behind making sure we pay to meet those (SEA) needs before we cut the levy below what we said we would.”
The public comments resonated with some board members, who wondered if the district should use the additional funds to hire more SEAs.
“I respect saving money, I respect not having high taxes, but I am hearing from a lot of people that we don’t have enough SEAs,” board member Nicki Vander Meulen said. “We haven’t had an increase in the special education budget from the state in 10 years. Yes, I understand the burden, but if we are doing that well, we should put our money there.”
Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said the stories about shortages were “hard to hear” after the district continued investment in staffing.
“We made some (strategic choices) that we were going to invest more in teachers and shift the balance from SEAs," she said. "I wonder if that is the pain we may be experiencing and hearing about in the district.”
Cheatham told the board that the special education team has a process for evaluating staffing needs in classrooms beyond the beginning of the year and a reserve of money is available to hire more staff. Cheatham suggested that the board wait until its November conversation around staffing to make those decisions.
“My concern is we have one week before the levy has to get established," she said. "We agreed as a group that we were going to take a big step back and (assess) what are our goals when it comes to staffing... inclusive of special education.
“I am worried about making some short-term decisions to put more staffing in when we agree that this is a priority for the board this year.”
Cheatham said if the School Board wants to levy the remaining funds, they should invest in capital maintenance projects since they already have established plans.
Some board members were behind TJ Mertz’s idea of levying a portion of the additional money to have on hand as needs arise and to establish a trend so taxpayers know what to expect each year.
“If we do a low levy this year our trend line is going to be big, almost inevitably (next year),” Mertz said. “We can spend it, we can tax it and bank it, or we cannot tax it. I would favor finding targeted uses for (a portion of the additional money)."
Board President James Howard said although other board members had good suggestions about how to use additional money, he was hesitant given the potential burden on taxpayers.
“When you look at the six-year trend in our tax levy, we’ve done a fairly good job... but it is cumulative,” Howard said. “I know there are a lot of people out there who support our schools, but really look for (the School Board) to make sure that we are responsible.
"It would be great to have all the things that everyone talked about, but I do respect the fact that incomes are not increasing.”