Ahead of voting on a preliminary budget for the upcoming school year on June 24, the Madison School Board on Monday discussed several amendments slated to be introduced later this month. The amendments aim to beef up base wages to keep pace with the cost-of-living, as well as provide funding to the nonprofit Simpson Street Free Press.
Three amendments introduced by board member Cris Carusi and discussed at the board's operations work group meeting would provide funding for a 2.44 percent base-wage increase for all staff, which is a point the teachers' union, Madison Teachers Inc., has been fighting for during negotiations with the Madison Metropolitan School District. The amendments detailed several areas the current budget could be cut, including central office costs and halting several positions the administration planned to add in the next school year. The amendments anticipate using additional revenue expected from the state budget to help fund the cost-of-living adjustment.
District administration officials during the meeting pushed back on the cuts and using the amendment process to boost wages, saying that the board should wait until the state budget is passed so the district knows how much additional revenue there is to provide a higher base-wage increase.
The proposed budget provides a 0.5 percent base-wage increase to all staff, which does not keep up with inflation, according to MTI. MMSD has said that the base-wage increase combined with step and lane adjustments, which provide employees with small pay increases for greater educational attainment or more experience earned, provides for an average 2.5 percent increase in compensation. However, many staff do not receive step and lane adjustments. Carusi said that for more than 1,000 special education assistants, substitute teachers and other staff, the base-wage increase is the only pay increase they will see in a given year.
“I am not done fighting for our staff, and I will need to go back to the drawing board and do some reworking because that’s just part of the process,” Carusi said after the meeting. “The 2.44 base-wage adjustment is not a pay raise for our staff — it’s just a way to help our staff maintain the cost of living … I plan to introduce an amendment at the board meeting on the 24th.”
Similar issues on base-wage increases versus looking at total compensation came up during last year’s budget process as well.
“I understand (MMSD officials) wanting to be fiscally responsible and I respect that,” Carusi said. “At the same time, the way I worded the amendment doesn’t commit us to paying if we don’t get the funding from the state. I do think the amendment is fiscally responsible and at the same time sends a clear message to our staff that if we do get additional money from the state, that they are our top priority.”
MMSD anticipates about $2.7 million of potential unbudgeted revenue from the state budget, which aims to increase revenue by $200 per pupil. $175 of that $200 increase would come from Madison taxpayers via a tax levy that would increase by 7 percent instead of the planned 6.2 percent increase, while the last $25 per student, which totals about $675,000 for the district, would come from the state.
The district is also eyeing a $120,000 minimum increase to special education categorical aid. The state budget vote is slated for June 30, though it’s unclear if the budget process will extend into July.
“We want to get this wrapped up and we want to get a cost-of-living adjustment soon,” said Doug Keillor, MTI executive director, during the public comment period of the meeting. “The school year ends Wednesday and summer school starts soon. We have folks that are going to be engaging in second and third jobs soon and we want to send people out with a settled contract and not thinking that this issue is going to be pending over the summertime.”
Keillor said that failing to provide an appropriate base-wage increase for all staff will exacerbate problems the district is trying to address, including attracting and retaining staff of color.
Members attempted to dance around the base-wage increase during the discussion on Carusi’s amendments. Kate Toews, who chaired the meeting, sought to keep the discussion limited solely to the budget cuts proposed in the amendments and not expand into what Carusi had wanted the funds from the reductions to go to — staff compensation.
Toews said she framed the discussion that way because the district is still negotiating with MTI and she wanted to include fellow board member Ali Muldrow, who has a conflict-of-interest on staff compensation issues, in the conversation.
“It was challenging,” Carusi said of the discussion Monday night. “Budgets are about values and priorities, and what was really hard about tonight’s discussion was that we talked about budget cuts but we couldn’t talk about staff compensation as a priority. It wasn’t a conversation about the amendments; it was a conversation about budget cuts.”
Simpson Street Free Press funding
Nicki Vander Meulen introduced an amendment that would provide one-time funding of $30,000 to the Simpson Street Free Press, a neighborhood nonprofit that helps students sharpen their reading and writing skills while working for a newspaper. The amendment was originally sought by former member Dean Loumos before his term on the board ended in April.
District officials opposed the amendment, saying SSFP should go through MMSD’s partnership office to create a memorandum of agreement that would make sure SSFP aligns with the district’s goals. The district said it does not want the board to create partnerships via the budget process.
It’s unclear if MMSD would approve an agreement with Simpson Street if it applied. The board is set to renew the Schools of Hope tutoring program, which applied through the MOA process, at the end of the month despite MMSD acknowledging a lack of identifiable success in improving academic performance. Schools of Hope has been around for nearly two decades.
SSFP has focused on providing more academic achievement opportunities for students during out-of-school time, something that isn’t as readily available via the district and other nonprofits. SSFP leaders say focusing on out-of-school time is essential to eradicate the stark racial disparities in reading proficiency between white and minority students.
Vander Meulen said she plans to reintroduce the amendment on June 24 and offer more specifics on how the funding will be used. The amendment originally indicated that the funding would help the organization fund operations.
Taylor Kilgore, the managing editor for SSFP, said in an interview Tuesday that the group has previously met with Superintendent Jen Cheatham and other district staff to discuss processes. In the past, the organization has sent different versions of MOAs and have attempted to start partnerships with the district, Kilgore said.
"Regardless of the exact processes that the district wants us to go through right now, we already have been able to demonstrate to them what we have been able to do with MMSD and with schools," Kilgore said.
Kilgore said SSFP doesn't have the large development teams to raise significant funds and easily go through the partnership processes that other, larger nonprofits can more easily do.
"With any nonprofit organization, you can do a lot (with the $30,000), even with operations funding. It still contributes to our students and still contributes to the way we can expand our curriculum," Kilgore said. "We have a proven track record. Our data for years shows we have the results one wants to see in an organization. When you see an organization — whether it's us or not — who has the results in turning students around in terms of academics, we should build on those."
Kilgore said she is hopeful for a vote on June 24, but is less optimistic about the prospects of the board passing the amendment.