As Madison Metropolitan School District officials plan for an additional $5 to $9 million in state aid cuts, Gov. Tony Evers said he's still hopeful the state can manage its budget amid the coronavirus crisis without a budget repair bill.
“I think it’s premature to say for sure there will be a budget repair bill,” Evers said in a Tuesday interview. “I believe that we need to have the opportunity to see where those cuts can be made within state government before we get down that road.”
But without certainty, MMSD chief financial officer Kelly Ruppel wrote in an email Friday, the district will still plan contingencies “to ensure we are successful” in case there is a repair bill, which would adjust state spending in case of shortfalls.
“We believe it important to be prepared for a state budget repair bill this summer in a way that positions us to maintain flexibility with our expenditure plans,” Ruppel wrote. “The new revenue assumptions we will present on Monday, stem from many conversations with our peer districts around the State and in Dane County, along with state and national education associations, on how to protect our students and staff in a climate of high level of uncertainty.”
The estimated $5 to $9 million in cuts came from the potential for cuts to the additional revenue authority of $179 per student and a $2.8 million Special Education Reimbursement Rate increase that is in the budget as it stands now, Ruppel wrote.
“If there is a State Budget Repair Bill, these items are areas that they are likely to look at first for adjustment,” Ruppel wrote. “They may be at $0 revenue, less, or we may receive something better than $0, but in order to be flexible we need to make decisions in the June Preliminary Budget that provide us the ability to move with the uncertainty as it comes.”
If a budget repair bill is required this year, it’s unclear when it could be voted on by the Legislature. With elections in November and ongoing uncertainty about the impact of the pandemic on state revenues, politicians haven’t publicly committed one way or another to pursuing one.
Evers said a funding cut to schools in the middle of an academic year would be close to a “red line” for him.
“We have to have a budget that’s balanced, that's for sure, but I'm hopeful we can make the changes necessary so that we don’t have a budget repair bill,” he said.
Evers' administration last month announced $70 million in state agency spending cuts to help boost funding and stabilize finances to get through the remainder of the current fiscal year. UW System is bearing the brunt of those cuts, with officials announcing last month they would transfer $40.7 million back to the state's general fund.
The School Board has to vote on a preliminary budget by the end of June, though the budget won’t be official until it is finalized in October after enrollment counts. The district is still considering a November ballot measure to help fund operations, but will have to finalize a budget without any funding from that in case it were to fail.
Ruppel acknowledged that unlike normal years, the budget “could look very different” in October.
“That’s not usual for us, but nothing is usual right now,” she wrote.
A Wisconsin Policy Forum report earlier this spring noted that K-12 education is the largest chunk of the state budget, and would likely be part of any cuts necessitated in a Budget Repair Bill.
While MMSD is heavily reliant on property taxes instead of state aid compared to other districts, a decrease to the revenue authority or other measures that would lower the levy limit would serve as a funding cut. The district already cut $8 million from the 2019-20 budget in the preliminary 2020-21 budget.
Contingencies could include cutting as many as 92 full-time staff positions or undoing much of the planned wage increases for staff, based on a survey the district sent to staff last week.
Ruppel wrote that the district will move forward with its “core values at the forefront” as it considers the 2020-21 budget.
“We aim with all of our decisions to put students at the center,” she wrote. “Through our standard budget feedback process, we've spoken to parents, community leaders, principals and staff about the uncertainty ahead of us. All feedback at the highest levels have been consistent: protect student programming, student mental health and social emotional supports first, as they are needed now and in the fall more than ever.”
The board will discuss an updated budget proposal Monday night.
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