Patti Wenzel

MPS fiscal outlook is grim and not getting better

By - May 7th, 2010 07:33 am
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We all deal with budgets at home and work. But, arguably, few are as complex or affect the lives of as many as the 700-plus pages that is the Milwaukee Public Schools 2011 budget.

And this week’s budget hearing did little to clarify matters. “This is confusing to the vast majority of the public,” Milwaukeean Dan Pryzbyla said while holding the budget packet. “This is not oriented to the public. Why even have a public hearing when you’re just talking to yourselves?” Pryzbala’s sentiments echoed those of many in attendance.

Produced and presented by outgoing MPS Superintendent William Andrekoupolus, next year’s budget has over $1.3 billion in spending, with the daily operations fund cut by $10.1 million from 2010. He said reductions in revenues from state and federal aid, along with declining enrollment and increased fringe benefits, have led to massive cuts.

“Good things are happening in the classroom, bad things are happening on the balance sheet,” Andrekopoulos said. “This budget does everything possible to cope with the balance sheet while protecting the classroom.”

No one wins with this budget proposal, as 682 positions will be eliminated district-wide. The teaching staff will be trimmed by 260.5 positions, or 4.5% of the teaching staff. Andrekopoulos couldn’t say where teachers would be eliminated specifically, but said MPS will maintain small class sizes in the lower elementary grades to retain SAGE funding. Therefore, larger classes and less programming will be the norm in middle and high school classrooms.

The teaching cuts caught the eye of board member Annie Woodward, who seemed to be the only director concerned how this will affect students. “If we’re supposed to put children first, how is that possible by removing teachers and programs?”

Art, music and gym teachers were targeted for cuts early in the year, when principals were developing their 2011 building budgets. Due to increased health benefit costs, many schools, including arts specialty schools, were forced to eliminate theses teachers.

But the public outrage over the loss of these specialized positions moved Andrekopoulos to rework the district’s existing Talent Development Fund Program, under control of the central office. He has budgeted $2.8 million to this fund to pay art, music and gym teachers and removed the cost from individual schools, maintaining some coverage for these courses.

Andrekopoulos also proposes the elimination of 19 digital technicians and two supervisors who repair and maintain MPS computers. They will be replaced by outside contractors. Glass and plaster trades workers will be reduced to two positions to cover the entire district. He said there will be no plaster repairs or non-essential painting and glass will only be repaired in the case of emergencies, painting a grim picture for older buildings, especially.

The technicians and trades workers were out in full force to tell the board they would be penny-wise but pound-foolish to eliminate their jobs. Without the technicians, equipment would degrade, eliminating opportunities for the district’s students, one of the technicians said. “The cost of the technicians is small compared to the cost of the technology.”

Chris Haertl, an MPS painter, said having one painter and one glass worker to cover 200 buildings was “ridiculous.” He said the high schools and middle schools are already in physical disrepair and there are elementary schools where students can’t use classrooms because of the peeling paint.

“You need to be concerned about the lead dust and other factors before thinking of hiring outside contractors,” Haertl said. “We’re trained for this type of work, but outsiders are only going to be concerned about making money.”

And it wasn’t only the taxpayers and employees who were upset with the proposal. Students who picketed the meeting came in to speak their minds.

Darian Dixon said student’s views are underrepresented in the process and that the board and superintendent need to reach out to them. Tyler Moore demanded the board be accountable and stop compromising the future of the students. “We need morality in this,” she said. “It is not just the costs. Will you just keep cutting until there is nothing left?”

Andrekopoulos told the board that the loss of teaching, clerical and support positions are solely due to the inability to control fringe benefit costs. And more trouble lies on the horizon. In fiscal year 2012, the district will lose $47.8 million in federal stimulus funds which currently support Title I and IDEA programs.

He also decried the public’s reliance on the district to serve the poor. “Can the district continue to fill the roles of an employment agency, a social services institution and a K-12 school district? Can it continue to fill the gaps that exist when other government agencies abandon their obligations to provide services to the poor?”

While he couldn’t ask to stop providing social services in the schools, he asked the board and community to review their priorities, and that first and foremost the district must educate the students using it.

While most of the news was bad, there are some savings in this budget. Transporation costs are projected to drop more than $1.6 million due to assigning special education students to schools closer to their homes and paying parents who transport their children to private schools per household, not per child. But one area of savings, $7.1 million, will come at the expense of 9 schools being closed or reconfigured into other buildings.

An overview of the 2011 MPS budget is available to the public and additional public hearings will be held through the remainder of the month.

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