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Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

School Funding

Over the past week, WUWM has been exploring barriers to achievement in the Milwaukee Public Schools system. Today, on the final day of our Project Milwaukee series, we ask the question: is more generous funding the key to producing better grades? As WUWM's Ann-Elise Henzl learned, it depends on whom you ask.

While a $1.2 billion budget sounds big, expenses within MPS have been going up faster than revenue. Michelle Nate is the head of finance and operations. She says for example, one of the district’s biggest funding sources, state aid, has declined three years in a row. At the same time, costs such as for employee benefits and special education services have increased.

"We have a structural deficit. So continued emphasis on cost reduction has to be part of the equation no matter what," Nate says.

In other words, deep cuts -- including hundreds of positions in the budget for the upcoming school year. Rita Tenorio has already seen plenty.

"We've had to cut back and cut back and cut back," Tenorio says.

Tenorio is principal at La Escuela Fratney, an elementary school in the Riverwest neighborhood.

"We don't have a music teacher, we don't have a physical education teacher. We have no teaching assistants in our school anymore," Tenorio says.

Tenorio says like a number of schools, she was considering cutting her librarian. But she scraped together enough money to save the job for now, as long as enrollment is adequate.

This afternoon, small children are sitting on the floor of the expansive bilingual library. The librarian is reading a book about cows that use typewritten notes, to demand electric blankets from their farmer.

"Mantas electricas? Las vacas? Mantas electricas? 'Sinceramente, las vacas.'"

Principal Tenorio says libraries are especially important for students from low income families. Many don't have books at home -- not to mention computers.

"In order for children to really be able to learn and learn how to learn -- which is the future -- you have to have resources. I can't think of a better one than our school library.

State Sen. Glenn Grothman is a critic of MPS.

"When the Milwaukee Public Schools fail as many children as the Milwaukee Public Schools are failing now, that is a disaster for the entire state and they must improve," Grothman says.

Grothman says putting more money into the budget for certain positions, such as librarians, is not the answer to boosting low test scores in reading and math.

"Milwaukee is in the top 10 percent of spending schools in the state. Their total spending is about 17 or 18 percent higher than the state average. Clearly, money is not the problem with MPS," Grothman says.

The problem, according to Grothman, is that too much money is spent on teacher salaries, not student outcomes.

Not surprisingly, the teachers union disagrees. MTEA President Mike Langyel says MPS teachers earn their salaries.

"You never go into teaching to be rich, but you certainly shouldn't have to be poor to stay in teaching," Langyel says.

Langyel says the district has dedicated teachers, who sometimes spend their own money to buy class supplies. He blames the district’s budget troubles in large part on charter and voucher schools. They compete with MPS for students and money, and according to Langyel, leave the district with a more difficult workload.

"We have a large population of students that, through federal law, require intensive interventions and that takes a lot of resources that need to be spent in that direction," Langyel says.

MPS is hoping the state wins federal Race to the Top funds in September. That could translate into $70 million for the district to improve services.

Finance chief Michelle Nate says MPS has used millions of federal stimulus dollars on construction projects and teacher training -- things that had been put off because of tight budgets.

"How fast we can move towards things like reducing physical plant -- closing schools -- or getting control of the cost of our employee benefits package, that's what's going to determine how quickly we can recover," Nate says.

Nate wishes the state would change the school funding formula itself, but says that's not likely to happen. Previous attempts have failed. So the district is thinking outside the box, such as by making the most of foundation money and resources community groups have donated.

"What they're interested in doing is making long-term investments, and that might not show up in next year's test scores. But I believe that that base is being built and is sustainable and that the community really does want to involve itself," Nate says.

Nate says MPS has to find its own answers, because no one is going to ride in on a white horse to rescue the district.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.