“Inappropriate, short-sighted, and an insult to the city.” Other than that, how did you like our letter, Mr. Mayor?

Judge Doyle Square is back in the news. The City is now weighing two different proposals from the same developer for the two downtown blocks. The Board of Estimates endorsed the more expensive of the proposals last night (April 11) and the Common Council will likely take a vote on April 19.

To the vocal dismay of Mayor Soglin, the school board has gotten involved, writing to the mayor and alders to urge that they select the less expensive of the remaining alternatives. Here’s the letter:

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Why does the school district care? With the right decisions, Madison public schools could receive $12 million. It is worth ruffling a few feathers to advocate for those much-needed funds.

By now, most folks’ eyes glaze over at the mention of Judge Doyle Square. But it’s important, really! So gird yourself, plow through the following questions and answers, and you’ll emerge equipped to explain to the mayor and anyone else why $12 million for our schools is better than a $13 million subsidy for downtown luxury apartments.

Q.   Let’s start with some background, and first deal with some of the acronyms. What’s TIF and TID?

A.   TIF is tax-incremental financing. With a TIF project, a tax incremental district (TID) is created that encompasses an area targeted for improvement. The city makes public funds available to a developer who needs financing help for a project located in the TID. The city then freezes the current property value in the TID. Property owners in the TID pay property taxes levied by the school district, city, county and Madison College based on the current assessed value of their property, just like everyone else. But the only portion of those taxes that go the taxing jurisdictions is an amount equal to what the property taxes would be on the frozen property value. The amount paid above that frozen value – known as the increment – is devoted to paying off the public investments in the projects. Once the cumulative incremental property taxes have paid off the initial public investment, the TID can be dissolved and the increased property value in the TID can be restored to the tax rolls. Continue reading

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Expulsion F.A.Q.s

As the recent events with Dereian Brown have illustrated, the Madison school district expulsion process is something of a mystery to those who aren’t directly involved.  Here are answers to some of the questions that people have asked.

But first, a disclaimer. Members of the School Board don’t publicly discuss the deliberations we have about expulsions in closed session. I am speaking only for myself here. Also, student privacy considerations preclude us from talking about individual cases, so my focus is primarily on general procedures and policy issues.

Who decides whether a student will be expelled from a Madison school?

Ultimately, the School Board decides.

Where does dealing with expulsions rank among School Board responsibilities?

I think it is everyone’s least favorite part of the job. It is certainly mine. School Board members take every expulsion seriously. The application of our expulsion policy to the unique situations of individual students is a sobering and often saddening exercise.

How does an expulsion get started?

Expellable offenses are identified in our Behavior Education Plan (BEP). Once someone at a school learns that an expellable offense may have occurred, an investigation is undertaken by a school administrator. This is generally the principal or an assistant principal – for ease of reference, we’ll assume it’s the principal. The principal interviews students who may have information, including the students who are suspected of the misbehavior, and, when possible, reviews videotape from security cameras.

If the principal determines that a student has done something that meets the definition of an expellable offense, he or she sends an expulsion memo downtown. This is mandatory – the principal has no discretion in the matter.

The memo is reviewed, and if it is in order, an administrator prepares an affidavit that recommends the student for expulsion for a specific period of time, and also recommends an early reinstatement date.

If the student has or is suspected of having a disability, an investigation explores whether the behavior in question was a manifestation of the student’s disability. If so, the process ends. Otherwise, the matter is referred to a hearing examiner for a hearing. Continue reading

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Against Revenue Limits

It was a tough budget year for Madison’s schools. We delayed our technology plan, put a hold on expansion of our successful AVID college-preparation program, and reluctantly adopted more than $9 million in additional cuts. But as Wisconsin school districts operating under revenue limits go, we were lucky.

Revenue limits have forced the Pardeeville Area School District to absorb unusually deep cuts. Since last spring, the district has cut spending for teaching positions, field trips, textbooks, staff development opportunities, summer school, and athletic equipment and eliminated the cheer and dance team. (In a rousing example of bake-sale financing, the team was reinstated last month after team members raised $4,000 to keep going.)

The School District of Rhinelander is making plans to go to referendum next February for authority to spend more than revenue limits allow. Without revenue limit relief, the district will be facing more than $7 million in budget cuts. The jaw-dropping list of projected cuts include closing the district’s two charter schools, increasing class sizes, axing high school AP and foreign language classes, and eliminating all extracurricular activities.

The Solon Springs school district is planning to go to referendum in April to exceed revenue limits. The stakes are particularly high. Without spending relief through a successful referendum, the district will operate at a deficit that puts it on a path toward mandated dissolution within five years. Continue reading

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Stroebel-Schraa Anti-Referendum Bill a Danger to All School Districts

Senator Stroebel and Representative Schraa recently introduced legislation –Senate Bill 355 and Assembly Bill 481 – to address what they perceive to be the pressing problem of too darn many school district referenda.

The legislation would make two changes to referendum procedures. It would limit the scheduling of school district referenda to either the April spring election, which occurs every year, or the November general election, which only occurs in even-numbered years. It would also impose a price for failure. The bills provide that if a school district referendum does not pass, that district would be barred from scheduling any other referenda for two years.

The one-strike-and-you’re-out-for-two-years proposal has garnered the most attention so far. See, for example, this analysis by the Wisconsin Budget Project  explaining that a failed referendum could actually force a school district to wait for three years before trying again.

The other prong of the proposal — restricting referenda to April and November elections – has some initial surface appeal. But in practice a danger lurks.

The proposal would mean that a school district would have only once chance to go to referendum to exceed the revenue caps established in a biennial budget. That one chance would only affect the second year. There would be no opportunity to respond by referendum to the revenue limits set for the first year of a biennial budget. Continue reading

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A New Propaganda Front in the War on Public Schools

The war on public education in Wisconsin has many fronts. The conflict is most obvious in elections, as when the anti-public-school American Federation for Children spent $148,000 last year to rid the legislature of Wausau’s Representative Mandy Wright, a former teacher and prominent public school advocate. With the legislature safely in Republican hands, the war moved to a new front. Lobbyists for the anti-public-school groups have been working behind the scenes with friendly legislators and the governor’s office to craft legislation and budget bill provisions to advance their cause.

The war also requires propagandists. The anti-public-school warriors are no slouches in this department, either. Witness their efforts to seize upon the results of the legislatively-mandated “school reports cards” to label schools and entire school districts as “failing.” (This rhetorical volley is assisted by their efforts to resist requiring similar report cards for voucher schools.)

The propagandists have recently come up with an audacious new argument: data show – so they say – that public schools are incapable of boosting student achievement. Spending more money on public schools is a waste of tax dollars. Far better to invest those public dollars in voucher schools where there will be a payoff on the investment.

As the following section of this post explains, this emerging line of attack is evident in a recent Journal Sentinel column that attacks Wisconsin high school principals for having the gall to ask that public school educators have a voice in the formation of the state’s education policy. After pointing out the factual errors in this column, I trace the genesis of this line of attack and then explain how it is built on a fundamental logical fallacy. Continue reading

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Top Ten Reasons To Be Wary of the Republican Scheme to Stick Charter Schools in Madison

During the Joint Finance Committee’s recent legislative bludgeoning of the University of Wisconsin system, Committee members snuck into the omnibus UW motion a provision that creates a new entity in the UW System. The sole purpose of the entity is to authorize new independent charter schools to operate within the Madison school district (and, theoretically, in Milwaukee as well).

An article by Molly Beck in the State Journal reported on this development and included quotes from me and our superintendent Jen Cheatham that were sharply critical of the proposal.

Yesterday, Chris Rickert wrote a column in the State Journal that essentially called Jen Cheatham and me short-sighted and self-interested whiners, as interested in maintaining control over Madison public schools as in educational outcomes.

In a virtuoso flight of rhetorical fancy, Rickert analogized the proposed new UW bureaucracy tasked with jamming Madison with charter schools to U.S. Marshals sent to the segregated south to overcome racist recalcitrance during the Civil Rights movement.

It’s a new experience being compared to the likes of Bull Connor and George Wallace, but I suppose I can chalk it up to the pressure Rickert is under to produce four provocative columns a week. Continue reading

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Will the Budget Bill Render Unconstitutional the State’s School Finance System?

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has held in both Kukor v. Grover, 148 Wis. 2d 469, 496, 436 N.W.2d 568 (1989) and Vincent v. Voight, 2000 WI 93, ¶3, 236 Wis. 2d 588, 614 N.W.2d 388, that Wisconsin public school students have a fundamental right to an equal opportunity for a sound basic education.

In Vincent, the court explained that this fundamental right entails both the opportunity for students to be proficient in mathematics, science, reading and writing, geography, and history, and for them to receive instruction in the arts and music, vocational training, social sciences, health, physical education and foreign language, “in accordance with their age and aptitude.”  The court held in Vincent that the state’s school finance system will pass constitutional muster only so long as the legislature provides sufficient resources so that school districts across the state can offer students the equal opportunity for a sound basic education that the Wisconsin Constitution requires

The proposed state budget will hold revenue limits constant for the next two years.  The only additional funding provided will be a bump in categorical aid in the second year of the biennium.  Other than this additional $100 per student categorical aid in 2016-17, school districts throughout the state will be unable to increase the amount of revenue they can raise and so, for practical purposes, the amount they can spend over the next two years.

Every school district’s expenses go up every year.  With revenue capped, the only route to a balanced budget entails cuts in the programs and activities that generate the expenses.

Will there be school districts whose budgets will be so pinched by the revenue limits imposed by the legislature that their district schools will no longer be able to provide the “instruction in the arts and music, vocational training, social sciences, health, physical education and foreign language” in accordance with the age and aptitude of the schools’ students that the Wisconsin Constitution requires?

Particularly for rural school districts with declining enrollment, the answer will almost certainly be yes.  Under Vincent, which is controlling Wisconsin precedent, this will violate the constitutional rights of the students in any such districts.  Under Vincent’s logic, this in turn would render the state’s school finance system unconstitutional.

Or so, at any rate, lower courts in Wisconsin will be obligated to hold if the issue is presented to them.  If the issue were to reach the supreme court, the likelihood that the current Wisconsin Supreme Court would honor stare decisis and follow its Vincent precedent is another matter entirely.

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