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

Report: 'Status Quo' MPS Budget Belies Deeper Financial Instability

Emily Files
Superintendent Keith Posley looks on as MPS building service helper Anita Blue explains to the board that after 28 years, she earns $14 an hour.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum’s annual Milwaukee Public Schools Budget Brief details the long-term financial insecurity facing MPS, even though Superintendent Keith Posley has constructed a $1.2 billion budget for the upcoming school year that protects classrooms from cuts.

"This was a difficult budget to size up," says Policy Forum President Rob Henken. "On the one hand, you do see what seems like an easing of fiscal pressures."

Posley’s 2019-2020 budget proposal adds about 100 new positions, including 62 teachers. It also provides for a 2.44% salary increase for staff.

"You juxtapose that with MPS’s long-term fiscal outlook and you see that if revenues stay flat, these fiscal pressures are going to continue to grow," Henken says.

There does seem to be some relief on the horizon. Republican lawmakers in the state capitol are pushing a $500 million K-12 spending increase. It’s much less than what Gov. Tony Evers wants, but nonetheless would provide more money for MPS. The exact amount of state funding is yet to be determined.

Superintendent Posley built his 2019-2020 budget proposal based on the current level of state support. If the legislature were to increase aid, MPS would factor that in later.

“[Posley’s] main goal with this budget was to keep the schools whole,” says Policy Forum researcher Anne Chapman. “There were a number of sort of one-time fiscal maneuvers that they were able to do this year that likely will not be something they can lean on next year.”

As in the last few MPS budgets, Posley’s plan draws from the district’s construction fund to pay for school operations. Henken says local governments and school districts facing  fiscal pressure often shift money from infrastructure to more immediate needs.

Posley has also led a major restructure of MPS’s central services in order to provide stable funding for classrooms. “It’s hard to discern the impact that might have,” Chapman says.

Even though the proposed budget preserves classroom funding and adds new teaching positions, MPS employees say it is not sufficient. The teachers’ union is demanding the district re-instate a salary schedule that provides reliable raises. At public hearings, teachers, education assistants, building service helpers and sign language interpreters spoke of schools plagued by low morale and staff turnover.

“Status quo ... compared to last year, it seems like an improvement,” Chapman says. “But status quo is not where the district wants to be, status quo is not where the teachers want to be, status quo is not where the district needs to be to attract and retain teachers.”

MPS must rely on lawmakers in Madison to determine 95% of its revenue. But Henken notes that MPS does have control over expenditures, and there are ways to save money. He says in the future, the district will need to look at cost savings in transportation (scaling back bus routes) or facilities (selling under-utilized buildings.)

“There needs to be some concerted effort on both sides of the equation, both the expenditure side and the revenue side, if we are to make a dent in these teacher compensation issues, which clearly are a real issue for this district,” Henken says.

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