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Raises, officers both out as Madison School Board OKs 2020-21 budget — but COVID-19 may cause changes
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Raises, officers both out as Madison School Board OKs 2020-21 budget — but COVID-19 may cause changes

School book and apple

Bracing for coronavirus-related budget cuts, the Madison School Board on Monday approved a preliminary budget for next school year that removes previously planned raises.

The Madison School District is assuming $7.6 million in new state money won’t materialize because of the pandemic-rocked economy. To cover the potential gap, the board earlier this month approved keeping base wages flat and freezing part of the salary schedule.

Also Monday, the School Board unanimously terminated the district’s contract with the Madison Police Department to station police officers inside the city’s four main high schools — effective immediately.

The City Council also needs to cancel the contract so the district isn’t on the hook for paying for the officers. A majority of council members plans to introduce a measure to that effect. In the district’s preliminary budget that was adopted Monday, the funds that would have gone toward the officers can be used for other staff and are not tied to any specific position, district chief financial officer Kelly Ruppel told the board.

School boards must pass a preliminary budget before July 1, when the new fiscal year starts. Districts temporarily operate on this budget until figures around property values and the state budget are finalized. The board then votes on a final budget in October.

Board member Anada Mirilli said almost half of the budget is in a “state of limbo” because the district has no idea how much funding it will get from the state.

“We’re just making a guess,” board member Cris Carusi said of the $7.6 million the district has predicted it might not see from the state.

The $471 million spending package passed Monday on a 5-2 vote would decrease property taxes by $8 for the owner of an average-value home in the district, now estimated at $311,500.

The total budget, which includes payments on debt service, capital maintenance and community programs, would be lower than current-year spending, but the property tax levy would rise 1.2% to $334 million. The district’s portion of property taxes on an average-value home is estimated at $3,333 next year, or 0.2% less than the current year.

Major changes

The district said total compensation has exceeded the rate of inflation for the last seven years — something it said has helped recruit and retain the best and brightest teachers.

But the board directed officials to pause a proposed 1% increase to base wages and freeze part of a salary schedule that rewards staff the longer they work in the district.

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Those raises could eventually be incorporated back into the district’s budget approved in the fall, depending on how the state budget shakes out.

Mirilli said she thinks Gov. Tony Evers will prioritize education in his budget given that he is a former educator. She was optimistic that the raises could be added back in, but said the board needs to be cautious because there’s so much uncertainty.

“This is not our final decision around this,” Mirilli said. “This is a placeholder based on what we know currently.”

Board members Carusi and Nicki Vander Meulen both voted against the preliminary budget. Carusi said she thinks the district’s financial situation “won’t be as dire” as predicted. Vander Meulen said she could not support taking away any money from teachers, even on a preliminary basis.

Other school districts in Dane County and across the state are taking a similar wait-and-see approach to compensation, the district said in its budget plan.

Bargaining with the union over base wages will begin after the district receives final financial figures from the state. The highest allowable base wage increase under state law this year is 1.8%.

The preliminary budget also includes “significant” changes to employees’ health care plans, including the addition of a $100 deductible for individuals and a $200 deductible for those on a family plan.

The plan also doubles the share employees pay for health care premiums, with higher-paid employees contributing more. The change takes effect Wednesday.

The district “can simply not afford to continue to pay” its current share of employee health benefits, Ruppel said at a meeting earlier this year.

The district also anticipates cutting 47.5 full-time-equivalent positions, about 1% of all employees.

Because of a projected decline in student enrollment, the majority of the job losses would be in teaching and educational assistant positions. Eight of the positions cut would come from the district’s central administrative office.

Citing economic uncertainty created by the virus, the district also did not include in this budget two potential referendums eyed for November. Like with its operating budget, the board will finalize its plan regarding referendums in the coming months.

Madison Teachers Inc. executive director Edward Sadlowski encouraged the board to approve its referendums plan soon, noting that two other large urban districts, Milwaukee and Racine, had successful referendums this spring.

“For the district to sit back and wait is concerning,” he said. “We know the Madison community supports its public schools.”

State Journal reporter Emily Hamer contributed to this report.

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