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School board members Kate Toews, TJ Mertz and Mary Burke at an October meeting.

On Monday, the Madison School Board approved the district’s preliminary operating budget for the 2018-2019 school year.

The preliminary budget includes a 2.13 percent cost of living increase in pay for all employees, the maximum allowed by state law. The increase followed weeks of public comment from school staff, parents and Madison Teachers Inc. leadership at board meetings this spring. The Madison Metropolitan School District re-allocated $3.6 million from other areas, including some of Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham’s proposed priority action areas for the upcoming school year, unused reserve funds and budget surpluses from last year. 

Other salary wins for employees were a $230,000 increase to meet $15 minimum wage requirements for education and special education assistants and $32,000 for seniority wage increases for some food service employees.

The preliminary budget approval also includes a 4.58 percent tax increase for homeowners as a result of the 2016 operational referendum. The district estimates an $81.81 tax bill increase next school year for a median-priced Madison home, valued at $267,000. The tax increase is about $2 million under the $10 million cap the district has the authority to levy.

The Madison School Board conditionally approved budget allocations for principal and assistant principal salary scales and special education staff spending, but board members want more clarity about those areas before the final budget vote in October.

Board member T.J. Mertz expressed frustration over the budget process, specifically around special education spending. Last year, the board allocated additional funds for special education staff that the district did not spend.

“The issue isn’t what we’ve allocated, it is not spending what we’ve allocated,” Mertz said. “I sit here very frustrated. How do we take this funding and make sure it is applied to student success instead of sitting here unspent ... I don't know how to send a clearer message.”

Cheatham acknowledged Mertz’s frustration, and said finding qualified people and equitable distribution of staff across schools influenced the district’s decision not to spend the funds.

“It’s so much more complex than the dollar amount,” she said.

Cheatham said the board will be able to discuss the topic at length following a study on the district special education services, which is expected to be released later this summer.

The board also debated about the new office of opportunity youth, proposed by MMSD earlier this spring. The four staff members in the office would be the dedicated points of contact for services related to “opportunity youth,” a population of high school students the district defines as at risk of not graduating due to low credit attainment or involvement with the criminal justice system.

Board member Nicki Vander Meulen worried that students of color and students with disabilities may face segregation under the new office, while Mertz preferred to allocate funds to programs that directly serve youth.

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Newly elected board president Mary Burke said she trusted the district to iron out the major details of the office before it launches in the fall, taking lessons from this spring’s micro-school pilot.

“Each week and each month that goes by, we are undermining a successful implementation,” Burke said. “We shouldn’t tie the hands of the administration ... I urge others to trust the administration and make the investment.”

Board members also discussed a Mertz proposal to reduce the district’s proposal for safety upgrades by $3 million, down from the nearly $6 million the district requested. Mertz argued that the district could make schools safer without overspending on “the illusion of safety.”

“It’s a very, very expensive illuision to create ... If we harden the classrooms (a determined school shooter) will (shoot) in the hallways. If we harden the building, they will do it when students are moving in and out of the building,” Mertz said.

Other board members, including Gloria Reyes, pushed back on Mertz’s proposal, calling a substantial investment in facilities necessary for securing school buildings.

“It is about time that we take security measures seriously,” Reyes said. “To think that (a school shooting) will not happen in Madison, I am not willing to accept that.”

The board ultimately voted to keep the original allocation.

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