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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

MPS: If referendum fails, schools may be cut by 13%, central administration by 26%

MPS Board President Marva Herndon spoke during a Feb. 22 "Say Yes to MPS" press conference in support of the MPS referendum.
Emily Files
MPS Board President Marva Herndon spoke during a Feb. 22 "Say Yes to MPS" press conference in support of the MPS referendum.

On April 2, voters will decide whether to approve a $252 million referendum for Milwaukee Public Schools.

For the average Milwaukee home valued at $190,000, it would result in an about $400 property tax increase.

It’s the second time in four years that MPS has gone to voters for more money. But this time, instead of adding new programs, it’s about avoiding cuts.

For a combination of reasons, MPS is facing a $200 million deficit next school year.

State funding for public schools has dragged behind inflation, leaving MPS with a decrease in funding. Declining enrollment plays a role in that too.

Costs are going up — especially for salaries and benefits. In addition to reinstating a salary schedule in 2019, the MPS Board approved an 8% cost of living increase last year and is planning a 4% increase next year.

The district also added staff using one-time federal COVID funding, which goes away this year. To keep some of those people, it would have to pull from its general budget.

If the referendum doesn’t pass, MPS told school principals to plan for 13% budget cuts, and centralized offices to plan for 26% cuts.

"The last thing anyone wants to do is consider laying off staff," MPS Director of Communications Nicole Armendariz said in an email to WUWM. "However, with the size of the shortfall the district is facing it is likely that some positions will be cut."

Andrew Reiser, the principal of Trowbridge Street School in Bay View, says he would have to cut one of the school’s grade-level teachers, which would increase class sizes.

"Unfortunately if the referendum doesn’t pass, it does look like there will be somewhat of a reduction in staff," Reiser told WUWM. "And we’re looking at also having to do away with some of our afterschool programming that our community quite enjoys and has been beneficial for us."

MPS hasn’t provided details about the positions it would lose if the referendum fails. Superintendent Keith Posley is set to release his full budget proposal later this spring, after the election.

The Milwaukee Teachers Education Association is rallying in favor of the referendum, warning that the cuts will hurt students. Former Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes joined the union and other community groups at a press conference in support of the referendum last week.

"I’m here to say very plainly that if the referendum fails, the consequences for our children, for our parents, and educators will be dire," Barnes said. "The future of this city will be dire if the referendum fails."

But some residents are skeptical of another tax referendum. Dan Adams is a local attorney and Milwaukee homeowner who is concerned about housing affordability.

"The [teachers'] union wants to talk about kids and schools and teachers. Nobody’s talking about homeownership, nobody’s talking about eviction, nobody’s talking about housing affordability," Adams said. "And that’s a huge part of it when you throw a new cost on working families in this type of way."

The factors driving MPS to referendum are happening across the state.

At a time when the state of Wisconsin has a record $7 billion budget surplus, some Wisconsin school districts are facing budget deficits. Some districts are considering school closures, others are turning to taxpayers for more money.

Ninety other districts have property tax referendums on ballots this spring — an unusually high number. Many point to inadequate state funding as the reason.

In addition to raising funding through referendums, some other districts have reduced costs by closing schools. When asked why MPS doesn’t reduce its building footprint to better match its declining enrollment, school board president Marva Herndon said this:

"The mere fact that we’re losing students, that doesn’t that mean that their opportunities should be reduced."

Communications director Armendariz added: "Once buildings sell, they generally only yield a few hundred thousand dollars, minus maintenance costs. Even if MPS sold every building it owns, it would be years before the district saw any cost savings or additional revenue and that amount would not make up for the budget shortfall."

MPS will consider whether to close schools as part of an ongoing strategic plan.

But first, it’s turning to voters for more funding.


Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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