Wednesday, January 13, 2010

4K Update: New Questions and Some Answers

At our January 11 monthly board meeting, we made two decisions about how we would proceed on implementing 4-year-old kindergarten. The media of that meeting are available on the School Information System blog, so I won't repeat them here.

Implement 4K in Fall 2011

The board voted to defer implementation of 4K until fall 2011 due to concerns about whether the district or many of the community providers could be ready to go in less than 7 months (assuming time for registration and orientation in August.

I voted to defer until 2011 for several reasons. I support 4K. I would have liked to be able to implement in Fall 2010. However, I also had to listen when people who had pushed hard to start in 2010 -- especially those from the early childhood education community --  asked us to wait a year so that there is adequate time to do all of the steps that are necessary to "get it right."

This was not inflexible balking by providers miffed because we were voting in January. Community providers told us from the beginning that they would need to know by November at the latest so that they could do the work needed to open in September. With the vote in January, some providers felt that they could still start in September. Others said they could not be ready by September, and still others couldn't commit one way or the other. Add to that, the reality that there would be an RFP and selection process before community providers would know if they would get a 4K contract from Madison, and it was cutting it close for many people.

School district administrators said that MMSD-run programs could be ready to go by September 2010, but with no sites selected it was not clear how that would work. Working with the district's estimate that c. 1600 4-year-olds would be enrolling the first year, and the requirement that at least half of those students will be taught by MTI teachers in MMSD facilities, 800 students would be in MMSD-taught programs the first year. That means that the district would need to complete any renovations to meet code (at sites not yet selected), purchase and install any furnishings or storage, work with parents and complete the enrollment process, purchase classroom materials, and hire and train teachers and numerous support staff, in sufficient numbers to meet the need of 800 students. All in less than nine months.

It may be that I am an overly negative (rhymes with witch), or that I am too dull to understand how very well poised the district is to carry all of this out while reviewing proposals and awarding contracts, but it seemed optimistic or even reckless to rush forward to September 2010. If we are serious about the dire need for 4K, then we also need to be serious about making sure that students enjoy high quality well-run programs from Day 1.

Years ago, I learned a wise saying from the printers that I work with: "there's always time to reprint, but there's never time to get it right." From that saying, I learned the very real observation that people (formerly me) who are willing to put up with the extra cost, time loss, and inconvenience of reprinting a job that went to press with clear and fatal flaws, often are not willing to slow down and take the time to make sure that any problems are ironed out before the job goes to the printer.

That same concept kept coming back to me during the push to forge ahead. Simply put, my preference is to slow down, build in time to fix any problems, and get it right so that students and families have an orderly transition to a high quality program. We have affirmed a commitment to 4K, and we also confirmed a commitment to solid 4K programs when we voted to slow down and get it right in 2011.

Defer Approving a Finance Plan Until We Have More Information

4K is projected to cost $12.2 million during the first year. These are significant resources, especially given the budgets of the past two decades. The investment in  early childhood education is a valid expenditure. At the same time, however, I feel a need to respect the resources that we will be using and make sure that we are allowing enough time to use them well. Given  the agonizing that we have done over $50,000 expenditures in past budgets, I also feel a need to make sure that we have a well-thought-out plan before we commit to spending $12 million.

The plan, as presented, would finance 4K using $3.5 million in new property tax levy, $4.5 million through reallocation of property tax funding included in the annual budget, and $4.2 million through borrowing.

People who read my post of January 7, know that I was feeling positive about the financial plan. That feeling evaporated as colleagues on the board asked persistent questions about how the financial plan would work, what the tax impact would be, and how it will all work.

I know how I missed an important piece of the package but that doesn't change the fact that I missed the added property tax component during the discussions leading up to last Friday afternoon. Simply put, I understood to be the choice of borrow OR raise property taxes; I missed that we were talking about borrowing AND raising property taxes.

That is a big distinction.

There are a range of perspectives among board members on the following point, so I need to stress that I speak only for myself when I say that I am very uncomfortable with levying additional recurring property taxes to pay for 4K. Yes, we are able to levy at a much higher level than is currently the case. We could tax enough to not need to borrow to implement 4K if we so choose. But that is not a financing plan that works for me.

The dilemma I feel is that I remember well the conversations and forums that preceded the 2008 referendum. I remember the concern for property tax burdens among many of our constituents at that time, which was before the economy tanked. I am among the state employees that is taking a 3% pay cut disguised as furloughs, and have friends and relatives among the other government sectors who also accepted pay cuts. Friends in the business and nonprofit sectors are seeing layoffs, reduced hours (and earnings), and jobs leaving. My friends and relatives who are retired have seen their investments and pensions shrink. I'm not sure that I know anyone, or many people, who are earning more this year than they were in 2008. Meanwhile insurance payments, childcare and college tuition, gasoline, and other basic expenses are going up.

Under the circumstances, I cannot take lightly the impact of adding to property taxes no matter how passionate my commitment to public education may be. And I note that it would be very unfortunate if willingness to fund 4K through property taxes were to become a litmus test on love of public education.

I also am reminded of an eloquent statement made before the 2008 referendum, which reflects much of my own thinking about what that referendum meant and how it relates to the 4K funding crunch that we now face. It also is very relevant to why I support deferring decisions on the 4K financing package until we know the results of reorganization and work to find cost savings in district programs; much of this information is slated to be presented in February.Writing in August, 2008, fellow board member Ed Hughes said:
If the referendum passes, we will have breathing room. We should have three years when the specter of budget cuts is not hanging over our heads. This will enable the Board and the new administration to put into place the process we currently contemplate for reviewing our strategic priorities, establishing strategies and benchmarks, and aligning our resources.

Superintendent Nerad has described a proposal that contemplates a broad-based strategic planning process that will kick off during the second semester of the upcoming school year. This process will be designed to identify the community's priorities for our schools, priorities that I expect will reflect a concentrated focus on enhancing student achievement. Once we have identified our priorities and promising strategies for achieving them, we'll likely turn to examining how well our organization is aligned toward pursuing our goals. This will likely be the point at which we take a long, hard look at our administrative structure and see if we can arrange our resources more efficiently.

It will take a while - certainly more than a year - for us to undertake this sweeping kind of review of our programs and spending in a careful, collaborative and deliberative way. If we do go to referendum, and the voters authorize the increased spending authority we seek, then the obligation will pass to the Board and administration to demonstrate that the community's vote of confidence was well placed. There will be much for us to do and it will be fair to judge our performance on how well we take advantage of the opportunity the community will have given us.

I believe that we will find a way to make this work, in part because implementing 4K was identified as one of our strategic priorities. I also know that I will need a lot more information about the larger MMSD budget picture, the superintendent's reorganization plans, and the way that those plans will affect the budget, before I can begin to speculate on where that $3.5 million will come from.

The way that Wisconsin funds 4K creates an additional wrinkle, in that the district will receive increasing state aid/student over the first three years of 4K operation. Trying to get a handle on the projected costs and amounts of funding from all sources for the first five years is a challenge. The assistant superintendent for business services is working on the figures, but we do not have them at this time.

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