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Education

MPS Tackles $29 Million Deficit in 2015-2016 Budget

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MPS leaders say new budget focuses on improving teaching and boosting student acheivement

Milwaukee Public Schools will hold the final public hearing Thursday on its proposed budget for next school year. The district faces a $29-million deficit brought on by falling state and federal aid.

Gov. Walker has proposed cutting $127 million from public schools next year. That number could change when lawmakers take up K12 spending in coming weeks, but if it doesn’t, MPS would lose $12 million. On top of that, Superintendent Darienne Driver says the district’s federal funding is going down by $17 million.

Federal money supports Headstart for young children, and programs for at-risk and low-income students.

“Tutoring programs, things that we’re able to do after school, our summer school programs are deeply affected by not having adequate funding in Title 1. In terms of what we’re able to do for our English Language learners through Title 3 dollars, we always are struggling to try to make sure we meet their needs as well, and so when we have those cuts to those programs, it limits what we’re able to do for our young people,” Driver says.

Driver says to offset the losses, MPS will strengthen partnerships with outside agencies. They might provide, for example, nursing and psychological services in schools, and interpreters for students with hearing impairments.

Driver says MPS will also put resources into raising student achievement. One initiative is to carve out more time for teachers to meet one-on-one with students struggling in reading and math. Another is to improve student outcomes in high school.

“We’re creating a high school region, getting additional supports to support our principals, our teachers and our students in those schools, paying very close attention to programing, to course offerings and to electives and making sure that our young people have met all the requirements necessary to get into top institutions and also to prepare for the world of work,” Driver says.

For MPS teachers, the proposed budget includes a 1.6 percent salary increase over last year. But that raise does not fully fund a salary structure the school board and teachers’ union outlined last year.

Driver says the administration tried to bump up salaries more by introducing a high-deductible health plan, but the idea didn’t fly.

“And so without being able to make those changes to the benefit structure, we just didn’t have the funding to be able to give them more money,” she says.

“It’s a matter of priorities, the district can’t afford not to deal with this issue,” says Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association union.

He says ACT 10 caused hundreds of veteran teachers to retire, and their new, younger successors won’t stay long if salaries aren’t competitive.

“What we see right now is a crisis, really, of staff turnover, with several of our highly qualified teachers, especially in very sought-after areas – bilingual education, special education – going to suburban schools, getting paid more than what they’re getting paid in Milwaukee,” Peterson says.

Peterson argues the board could find money to pay teachers more, such as by reducing administrative positions.

Superintendent Driver says MPS is working to better support staff, including by opening a “New Teacher Center,” and reimbursing employees for gym memberships.