School hallway/lockers file photo

Madison School Board members indicated support Monday for an operating referendum on the ballot in 2020 in addition to the previously discussed capital referendum to renovate buildings.

The Madison Metropolitan School District is headed toward two major referenda next year.

While no votes have been taken, all seven Madison School Board members indicated support for an operating referendum during a Monday night discussion of the district’s future revenue sources. That would be on top of the capital referendum that has been under discussion since last year.

“I don’t think we can proceed with the type of growth and investment in our schools and kids that we would like to do without exploring the option of another operating to exceed referendum,” said board member Kate Toews. “I say that with some caution, I guess, because we are also looking at a capital referendum that I think is critical for the city right now and critical for the future of our schools.”

The numbers are far from final for both, as community outreach is planned for the coming months. Monday, chief financial officer Kelly Ruppel presented an example that would allow the district to exceed state revenue caps by $8 million in 2020-21 and 2021-22 and $10 million in 2022-23 and 2023-24.

That would fill the hole being left after next year when the current operating to exceed referendum, approved in 2016, expires. That has provided the district $6 million over revenue limits in both 2016-17 and 2017-18 and $8 million in 2018-19 and this year, 2019-20.

The items are likely to be on the November ballot, when turnout will be as high as its gets in election cycles with the 2020 presidential election. Board member Cris Carusi supported moving the vote to April to give them and the district more confidence going into the summer budget process, but other board members wanted to allow more time for public outreach and input.

Without a successful operating referendum, the district would have a nearly $10 million hole to fill each of the next three years, according to the presentation from Ruppel.

“Taking $10 million out of the system would be very difficult to totally protect students in the classroom,” Ruppel said.

As an example, the presentation pointed to potential cuts to staffing, adding to the percentage staff contribute to their health care plan and reviewing current programming and priority actions if no new revenue sources were found. While Ruppel mentioned the ongoing efforts toward equity among the potential budgetary considerations, board member Ali Janae Muldrow said that framing did damage, as “the idea becomes that inequity is affordable.”

“We talk about our equity projects as an expense differently than we talk about our athletics as an expense,” Muldrow said. “That is something I’d like to see us reconsider.”

Board president Gloria Reyes said despite her support for the operating referendum, she was “really concerned” about the long-term budget challenges the district faces.

“It would be nice to have everything,” Reyes said. “That’s just not doable.”

Ruppel’s presentation pointed out the changes in state aid over the years, as well as the drop in the district’s mill rate since the 2015-16 school year, the last time it was over $12 per $1,000 of property value. If the example operating referendum and a $315 million capital referendum were approved, the rate would jump back near that, up to an estimated $11.75 in 2021 and as high as $12.16 in 2023.

“When you look at this over time, we start to return to a mill rate that we’ve seen in 2015-16, almost going back to our more normal level of mill rate,” Ruppel said.

The mill rate is the level at which local governments tax property owners in their jurisdiction.

The board will consider pursuing polling in addition to a broader survey ahead of the referendum in the coming months along with other community outreach. Muldrow said the community feedback would help “set the tone for some of the scale and scope.”

“Most people in Madison enthusiastically support public education and our schools and our kids and our teachers, and also navigate the reality of their own income,” Muldrow said.

Toews said she hopes to aim for lower than the sample $8-10 million range, but believes something is necessary to avoid major disruption to the district’s efforts.

“The Plan B has very significant changes to how we support our staff and I think makes us a much less attractive place to work,” she said.

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Scott Girard is the local k-12 education reporter at the Cap Times. A Madison native, he joined the paper in 2019 after working for six years for Unified Newspaper Group. Follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.