March 31, 2008

Strapped: Unified not alone in broken system

Racine Unified is hoping to pass a $16.5 million referendum Tuesday that would add $3.3 million to the district's maintenance budget over the next five years. (Here's a list of how the money would be spent.)

Working on a freelance story for another publication, I researched the other 62 school referendums on the ballot in Wisconsin Tuesday. That's right, there are 62 of them.

Of the 48 school districts holding referendums (some have more than one question), 33 are seeking money for maintenance funds or operating expenses. That's nearly 8 percent of all districts in the state.

Talking with several superintendents today, they all said the state's revenue caps have stripped away everything they can cut. I don't know if that's true or not. One superintendent said they'll cut consumer education and agriculture programs (it was a rural district), and extracurriculars if the vote fails. Another they hadn't even contemplated a no vote, because they didn't want to look like they were blackmailing voters.

What's interesting about these districts is tomorrow is their first referendums in at least 20 years (probably longer, but no one could say for sure). These are small districts in conservative areas that cut their budgets and held spending tight as long as they could. They drew down their fund balances, deferred maintenance, left positions dark and generally cut every corner they could find. Now, with no where else to go, they're asking voters for help.

By comparison, Unified has gone to voters a few more times. By the J-S's count, Unified asked voters to exceed revenue caps 16 times since 1993. Voters have approved nine of the referendums for a total of $59 million, according to the Milwaukee paper.

Tomorrow will be No. 17. Much has been made about Unified's poor leadership in recent years. I agree with this - to a degree. Hicks and company clearly couldn't make things work here. His plans may have been brilliant, but he couldn't get teachers to buy into them, couldn't get students to respond to them, and couldn't get the community to rally around them. So it goes for a school administrator.

Hicks' decision (and the School Board's) to outsource Unified's finances wasn't a great idea. But in reality, it didn't affect the bottom line. I know, I know ... they paid the incentive fees and had to buy out the contracts. But Alioto and PBCG did save Unified money. So, it's basically a push and now we can get back to bringing things in house and leaving consultants in the past (hopefully).

No, in reality there are underlying pressures that will make any superintendent look bad. The state revenue formula boosts the revenue cap 2.5 percent a year, while expenses are increasing at 3 percent or more. Cut a half-percent or more out of your budget every year since 1993, and things are going to get interesting, to say the least. Declining enrollment compounds the problem (it's the reason Kenosha is building new schools while Racine hopes to fix the steps on 100-year-old buildings) because school districts are paid per student. Fewer students, less cash.

The alternative to a systemic problem is that Unified has had an incredible string of poor administrators and School Board members dating back 15 years. The same goes for the 33 School Districts going to referendum today, plus the dozens of others who will go next year or had gone in the years past.

Nope, the reality is public schools are borrowing the Annual Meeting concept from town governments. In that system, voters from a town can show up at a meeting once a year and pass anything they want. They can double the budget or cut it in half - majority rules. Those meetings have left more than a few elected officials unhinged, but so goes democracy (remember Churchill's quote: "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.").

Good or bad management, rich or poor school district, the Wisconsin system is going to force schools to place questions on the ballot every year going forward. Some will pass, some will fail (Unified has a 56% passing rate - not bad for baseball, but hardly a passing grade) and everyone will have an opinion.

That's all OK, but realize the impossible position school officials and voters are in. The numbers will not work out. There is no fix. We're all frustrated. And yet, every day children are educated. In a few months, thousands of young adults will graduate. Many will go to college, earn degrees, study some more and get their master's and doctorates. Others will join the Armed Services and serve our country, or get jobs, work hard and raise families.

Racine Unified is a good school district. I know, it sounds absurd. We're told over and over that we live in the worst city in the state with the worst schools and the worst problems. But it's not the truth. Why do we do this to ourselves? To others? Why the cynicism?

I think it's the frustration. The system is broke, we all want it fixed, and we don't have the first idea on what to do. Some people yell and criticize, others detach and ignore. Then, in the middle, you find people who do what they can. These are the people who bring me hope. They're the ones who really care. They're the ones who make a difference.

1 comment:

  1. "Cut a half-percent or more out of your budget every year since 1993..." leaves the reader with the impression that funding has decreased since 1993. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Spending on public education has increased dramatically, well beyond the rate of inflation, during that time frame. If public school systems like Unified can't get the job done for $12,000+ per student, perhaps it is time to stop trapping parents and children in an ineffective and expensive school system and give them vouchers to attend our many functioning private schools that do the job for far less while also maintaining their property.