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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Myths and Facts About MPS Reform

Misinformation doesn’t help debate

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We’ve all read the screaming headlines about the $100 million wasted by the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) each year and the governor and mayor’s threat to take over the district if it doesn’t make drastic changes. But are the headlines and threats accurate? Here are some of the myths and facts about MPS’s finances and reform efforts:

Myth: The McKinsey & Co. audit proved that MPS wastes $100 million a year.

Fact: What’s “waste”? The audit showed that MPS could save between $58 million and $103 million by making drastic changes to the way it does business. Whether those changes are practical or wise is another matter. The auditors recommended laying off 358 full-time employees in food services, decreasing work hours of other employees so that they qualify for BadgerCare and redesigning benefits packages. But the audit found that MPS’s spending per pupil is roughly the same as similar districts.

So is that wasteful spending? Southeastern Wisconsin has the highest health insurance rates in the state; that’s reflected in the cost of insuring workers. And squeezing some of the district’s lowest wage earners so that they go on BadgerCare doesn’t seem like a good idea for the workers or for taxpayers, either.

Myth: City of Milwaukee residents will see a double-digit increase in their property taxes this year, thanks to the wasteful spending of MPS.

Fact: Since the state hasn’t finalized its budget for the next two years, MPS doesn’t know how much money the state will send to the district. The MPS Board of Directors will analyze MPS Superintendent William Andrekopoulos’ proposed budget and wait for the state to finish its budget. At that point, the district will be able to settle on a property tax levy for the year.

The district is trying to keep costs down. Andrekopoulos’ proposed budget does not increase funds for administration, construction and extension. The decline in student enrollment is leading to a similar decline in employees; the administration is projecting 139 fewer teachers and 71 fewer teaching assistants in the coming fiscal year. Spending will increase slightly on fringe benefits to workers—primarily due to the notoriously high health care costs in southeastern Wisconsin. State aid is expected to decline.

Myth: You can’t solve MPS’s problems by throwing more money at it. The state is already providing too much money to Milwaukee.

Fact: Actually, the state sent less equalization aid to MPS this past year—$18.6 million less than it had in 2008—and MPS expects another decline in state equalization aid in the next fiscal year. It may need to make up for that shortfall through increased property taxes.

It’s worth noting that MPS does not turn away anyone who wants to go to school. This includes those who are the hardest to teach—kids with special education needs, disabilities, from low-income families, and those with behavior problems. These kids need extra attention from educators and aides so that they can reach their full potential. That simply costs more than educating children who have built-in advantages at home.

 

Myth: MPS is getting an estimated $95 million in federal stimulus funds, and it still plans on raising the tax levy. “Management needs to be held accountable,” thundered Mayor Tom Barrett and Gov. Jim Doyle in a joint statement.

Fact: The federal stimulus funds are provided with specific guidelines for their use. The district is still deciding how it may use that money, but it most likely will be for providing more educational support for special education students and students that live in poverty. The funds most likely will not be used to reduce property taxes.

Myth: If MPS doesn’t shape up, Barrett, Doyle and the state superintendent will take over the school district and run it.

Fact: Barrett and Doyle have announced that they’ll appoint an advisory council to oversee the implementation of recommendations made by the McKinsey & Co. audit. Both men have been fuzzy on what, exactly, this council would do and how much power it would have. Barrett has argued that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law gives them the power to oversee the board. However, NCLB gives the state Department of Public Instruction the power to intervene to raise student achievement, not necessarily to sort out a district’s finances. The state can withhold funds from a district that isn’t improving, but is that the best way to raise student achievement at MPS? Does the state really want to force MPS into bankruptcy?

Could an advisory council change anything? The board does not oversee day-to-day operations and the district must operate within statewide funding regulations. A council may just be a Band-Aid on a more serious problem.

Myth:MPS could save $9 million to $15 million a year by laying off 358 food service workers and providing prepackaged breakfasts and lunches to all students. 

Fact:Kymm Mutch, MPS’s school nutrition services administrator, said she didn’t agree with the auditors’ recommendations.

MPS is serving prepackaged lunches in seven schools and plans to increase it to 34 sites in the coming year. Mutch said no layoffs are planned. She added, however, that while utilizing more prepackaged meals could require fewer part-time workers, it could also mean more workers who would work more hours—say, six or seven hours a day.

 

Mutch said that the food that’s been packaged at a central site is the same food that’s cooked in individual kitchens. The only difference is that the meals are in a different container. She said elementary school kids respond well to the prepackaged meals, but high-school students are less likely to choose them.

Myth: Every other school district in Wisconsin is succeeding. MPS is the only failing district in the state.

Fact: MPS’s test scores are improving, especially in math, largely due to the $10 million of state aid provided to MPS’s math program. The district is remodeling its literacy program to resemble its math model. Still, the race gap endures, as African-American and Latino students score lower than their white peers—unfortunately, this is a national phenomenon.

But MPS isn’t the only struggling school district in Wisconsin. Bob Borch, assistant superintendent of finance for the Elmbrook School District, said that rural and affluent suburban districts are also dealing with declining enrollment and a state funding formula that limits the amount of revenue a school district can raise.

“We are in the process of cutting $1.8 million for our budget next year,” Borch told the Shepherd. “We have a team of staff, parents and community members that are putting a five-year plan together so that we can cut $10 million total from our budget.”

Comment on this story at ExpressMilwaukee.com.