The Madison School Board voted unanimously Monday night to adopt the district’s $529.8 million preliminary budget, a 7% increase over the previous year, amid state funding uncertainty.
District officials have been in a financial holding pattern as they await the outcome of the state budget battle.
Based on the current Republican-backed budget to be voted on this week in the Assembly and Senate, school districts would only get $128 million in new money in various aid categories, such as a slight boost to special-education reimbursement from the state. Otherwise, the GOP plan pumps more money into reducing school district property taxes.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers had proposed $1.6 billion in additional K-12 funding. He still has the ability to alter the GOP spending plan by vetoing some or all of the budget bill.
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“We’ll see how this turns out and figure out next steps then,” said district spokesperson Tim LeMonds. “All school districts are in the same situation across the state, sort of waiting in limbo until things come together.”
Madison Superintendent Carlton Jenkins’ first budget would fund early literacy and full-day 4-year-old kindergarten in eight schools, raise average wages 3.23% and hike property taxes 3.83%.
An average home valued at $333,200 could see a property tax increase of up to $114, though that will likely change depending on how the state budget addresses state aid and property tax limits. The district’s total property tax levy would increase 3.83% to $363.4 million.
“I am incredibly proud of what we’ve been able to do as a district thanks to the referendum, thanks to voters, thanks to local taxpayers in terms of full-day 4K, early literacy, in terms of investing in restorative justice and equity to a greater extent as a district,” School Board president Ali Muldrow said.
“But you have to take very seriously the implications of the current conversation around education as a part of the state budget — that is a very demoralizing conversation,” Muldrow added. “Because the budget that Republicans in our Legislature are trying to put through is not prioritizing our educators and our young people in any way, and it’s disappointing.”
The district budget assumes a $100 per pupil increase in the state-imposed revenue limit — the combination of general aid and property taxes. But the GOP state budget holds the limit flat — something which could punch a $2.7 million hole in Madison’s budget. The district also assumed a $0 increase in per pupil state aid but the Republican budget cuts per pupil aid statewide by $17.6 million.
“We must acknowledge the proposed budget from our state Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, with a zero increase in dollars, has the potential to impact our budget by $3 million,” Jenkins said during Monday’s board meeting. “We’re going to have some tough decisions to make if this isn’t corrected.”
The School Board’s final budget vote is scheduled to take place in October.
The fight over federal aid
School district officials and education advocates blasted the state’s budget committee last week for slashing Evers’ budget proposal.
Legislative Republicans defended it by noting it will allow $2.3 billion in federal COVID relief aid for K-12 schools, known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER funds, to flow into the state.
“With this budget, the state will be funding two-thirds of local education costs and will be meeting the benchmarks needed to bring this federal funding to Wisconsin schools. Schools in my district will be getting unprecedented increases,” Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, said in a statement last week.
But Muldrow called that assessment an “incredible misunderstanding” of how ESSER funds can be used to help districts recover as they continue to weather the pandemic.
“ESSER funding is not designed to make sure that we compensate teachers fairly, it’s not designed to absorb long-term recurring expenses,” Muldrow said. “It is funding that is specific to what it means to children to survive a global pandemic and the kinds of supports our young people need that are specific to this moment in history.”
ESSER funds will be paid out to districts in three installments with different expiration dates. ESSER I funds, a total of $174 million statewide, must be exhausted before the end of September 2022; ESSER II funds, a total of $686 million statewide, must be exhausted before the end of September 2023; and ESSER III funds, a total of $1.5 billion — 20% of which must be reserved by districts specifically to mitigate learning loss due to COVID — must be spent before the end of September 2024.
The amount a district is set to receive through ESSER is based on the Title I funding formula, which means districts with higher enrollments will receive more federal funds during the 2020-24 grant period, something that could spell trouble for smaller rural districts.
ESSER in Madison
The Madison School District is scheduled to receive $70.6 million over the course of the three payment installments. The district’s first installment, ESSER I, was approximately $9.2 million and has already been exhausted as of the end of the 2020-21 school year. District planning for the use of funds from ESSER II and III has been put on hold as the administration awaits more information on how the state budget will affect eligibility.
Guidelines dictate the types of expenses ESSER funds can cover. ESSER II funds, for example, are to mitigate learning loss, restore and maintain high-quality learning environments, and safely reopen elementary and secondary schools as soon as possible.
Additional planned ESSER expenditures by the Madison School District include expansion of programs to address mental health needs; increase summer school efforts to address learning loss; enhance virtual learning infrastructure; expand wireless online connectivity for students; develop innovative learning spaces, and address classroom redesign needs. The federal grant program requires districts to document and submit budgets and costs for use of the funds.
“Using these funds now on operational expenses establishes a funding cliff for future years when this one-time funding disappears,” LeMonds said. “There are no assurances that future state budgets will make up the difference between what we spend now using one-time funds and what will be needed to sustain those operational costs once the grants expire. Essentially, we would be sustaining a base level of costs on borrowed time.”