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Monday, Nov. 12, 2007

School Tax Outrage

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Sure, everyone demands MPS do something about its horrendous achievement gap between black and white students and the worst reading scores in the nation, but you don`t have to get ridiculous about educating poor kids.

Just as outraged as politicians who claim the only purpose of government is to cut taxes for their constituents were the media.

When only one citizen showed up to object at the first public hearing on that 16.4% property tax increase, the media couldn`t believe it. Under the guise of a "news analysis," the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote a front-page editorial demanding to know of Milwaukee residents, in essence: "WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU PEOPLE!?"

Education reporter Alan Borsuk wrote that the media showed up at the public hearing "expecting a ruckus" over the big tax increase and were sorely disappointed by the shortage of outraged homeowners.

Because of the poor turnout, the Milwaukee School Board scheduled another hearing before voting on Andrekopoulos` property tax proposal. After being chastised severely by the media for failing to be sufficiently inflamed, an angry mob of citizens showed up at the second hearing waving torches and pitchforks.

OK, it was just the rhetorical equivalent. But the media were happy to be able to report lots of angry conflict. The hearing lasted for hours before the Milwaukee School Board voted in early morning to cut the property tax increase from 16.4% to 9%.

Placing Proper Blame Actually, there were some major reasons to be outraged that Andrekopoulos, a low-key education bureaucrat, would need to propose such an enormous property tax increase for Milwaukee schools. But very few in the media seemed to have a clue what was really responsible for that whopping increase. Hint: It wasn`t local school officials. Remember how conservative Republicans in the Legislature held up the state budget for months so they could posture interminably over how much they were opposed to increased taxes?

Well, guess what. The need for that enormous property tax increase for Milwaukee schools was a direct result of actions taken, and actions not taken, by all those self-proclaimed tax heroes in the Legislature.

If a 16.4% increase in property taxes for schools is so outrageous, what would a more reasonable increase be? How about a 2.68% increase? That`s more like it, right? Well, that is how much Andrekopoulos proposed to increase spending for Milwaukee Public Schools. That is more modest than either the city or the county will increase their budgets for next year.

So if MPS spending would increase only 2.68%, where did the rest of that 16.4% property tax increase come from? The answer is: from all those self-avowed opponents of taxation in the Legislature.

Next year Milwaukee Public Schools will receive $19 million less in state aid than it did this year. The state school aid formula reduces funds for Milwaukee schools by that much because enrollment is declining at the same time city property values are going up.

In addition to that $19 million loss in state aid, Milwaukee property taxpayers have to pay $4 million more as a result of the expansion of the voucher school program.

Ironically, Milwaukee taxpayers have to pay more for each child who leaves MPS to attend a voucher school than they would pay to educate those same children in MPS. Taken together, the Legislature`s failure to correct either of those funding disadvantages for Milwaukee shifts $23 million in school costs from the state to local property taxes.

Legislators know this. Mayor Tom Barrett and other local officials repeatedly urged budget negotiators to correct the school aid formula and to stop overcharging Milwaukee taxpayers for the voucher program. But legislators were too busy posing for holy pictures as tax opponents to do anything to prevent Milwaukee taxpayers from being socked with double-digit property tax increases for their schools.

Of course, Andrekopoulos did not have to propose raising property taxes to fill that enormous $23 million hole in his budget created by the Legislature. He could simply have further gutted the education of Milwaukee schoolchildren.

It is a familiar pattern in Milwaukee, the state`s only majority African-American and Latino school district. These are the children who have the greatest educational needs and the greatest educational obstacles.

Not wanting to waste perfectly good tax money on children living in poverty, the Legislature perpetuates a school funding formula that benefits wealthy suburban districts where children already have every educational advantage.

The next time the media want to whip citizens into an outrage over taxation for education, they should start inflaming public opinion over blatant educational inequities that shortchange children with the greatest needs.
What`s your take?