Tuesday, July 12, 2011

About those property taxes and the MMSD budget gap...

I recently wrote this response to TJ Mertz's blog on the newly-discovered shortfall in state aid to the Madison Metro School District. It places the gap, and the WSJ article on the gap, in perspective. At least it provides my perspective on where we are and what is likely to happen next.

TJ, before you fall into trashing James please be aware that, as is the case with every board member, James learned of the gap from a reporter. Not from the district. He was asked to comment, as was I, and probably every other board member that the reporter could reach, to comment specifically on raising taxes.

With no information on the gap or administration's proposed response, I suspect that James responded the way most of us would. When we voted to set the preliminary budget, the board majority was very concerned about raising taxes above the amount approved in the 2008 referendum. We managed to put positions - notably for Occupational Therapy Assistants - back into the budget despite administration's efforts to use them to solve the budget gap that we knew about. We also managed, as you are well aware, to assure that 4K students in the Allied Drive area will have 4K in their neighborhood. We did both of these things without raising taxes; instead, we made choices about how we use existing resources. I can guarantee you that those solutions did not come from the pollster who offers tax raises without the larger context. But you know that, too.

James' answer reflects that approach, although it is not reflected in the answer that was printed. You can stop bashing him.

When we were setting the preliminary budget (which we received a mind boggling 10 days before we were asked to vote on it), many of us asked questions about the state budget and our level of confidence in the numbers that we were using. We were assured that these were highly vetted and developed numbers. Apparently not so much, but we were not alone in our surprise. It is surprising that the first knowledge that we (board members) had was when a reporter called.

Since then, we have had a good deal of purple prose about what happened. The only option offered was to raise taxes. I suspect that some of us will be looking at a number of alternatives based on staff responses to a survey asking what we could do without and what we absolutely need to succeed. There are some big neon arrows in the frontline responses. None of those are reflected in the budget that administration brought forward. (I note that some board members don't find the line item budget to be very helpful in shaping their opinions; I tend to find the line item budget to be very helpful in thinking through ways to solve real problems like OTA services and K4 that actually reaches our poorest students).

It is reasonable to expect that staff responses to the budget survey of last spring will be reflected in solutions that come from the board as we set the final budget and tax levy in October.

Between now and then, we will we working to get through the smoke and mirrors that were used in the preliminary budget and the dance of the seven veils that we will surely get in administration presentations on the budget. It may be that raising taxes is the truly the only option. But until there has been a full discussion based on verifiable information, I will not be committing to one course of action or another in fixing this hot mess.

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