One year after facing a proposed budget that would have eliminated dozens of teacher positions and significantly reduced funding for schools, Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) directors, administrators, and stakeholders would be justified in breathing a sigh of relief upon initial review of the 2020 proposed budget. Not only does the proposed budget steer clear of teacher reductions, but it would add 60 teachers and raise the pay of most employees by 2.44%. The budget also holds overall funding for schools steady and largely spares central service offices from the types of sweeping cuts made in 2019.
These accomplishments are particularly noteworthy given the budget’s assumption that the district’s perennial revenue challenges will improve only minimally. With the fate of state aids and revenue limits – which affect nearly three quarters of MPS’ budget – still to be determined by state budget deliberations in Madison, the proposed budget counts on no increases from the state and only modest increases in federal revenue.
So how does the proposed budget add positions and provide pay raises when its major sources of revenue largely are flat? The answer lies in dozens of individual line item decisions and adjustments that are beyond the scope of this budget brief to fully investigate and explain. Yet, our high-level review of the key decisions indicates that the 2020 budget picture actually is far from rosy.
We find that the 2020 proposed budget leans heavily on accounting adjustments, use of prior year surplus, and continued underfunding of facility needs to make ends meet. There are justifications for those actions and they should not be deemed irresponsible in the context of a one-year budget. They should be recognized, however, as unsustainable and emblematic of the types of tactics MPS leaders reluctantly must employ to stave off painful position cuts in the absence of inflationary revenue growth and far-reaching changes in operations or facilities.
Perhaps more troublesome is the realization that while this approach allows MPS to function for another year at the status quo, it also fails to provide the wherewithal for new strategic investment to improve MPS’ educational outcomes and effectively serve the needs of its student population, many of whom are economically disadvantaged. As budget deliberations continue, it is important for all stakeholders to acknowledge that such capacity only will materialize when the roots of the district’s structural imbalance are addressed, and not through even greater use of reserves or accounting maneuvers.
In the following report, we attempt to explain and provide insight into key 2020 budget decisions and circumstances, as well as MPS’ long-term fiscal outlook. Our aim is to provide an independent assessment of MPS’ finances that will encourage informed deliberations by policymakers in Milwaukee and Madison. continue reading…