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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Friday, April 30, 2010

In budget message, Sup't blasts everyone but himself

by folkbum

This blog has existed for almost the entire career of outgoing Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent William Andrekopoulos, which says something about longevity and sticktoitiveness for both of us.

Over the years, particularly the early years, this blog levied pretty much nothing but criticism at Andrekopoulos and his policies. In the last few, as both he has changed and I have enwizened myself to the challenges of running a district like this, I've given him more than the occasional bit of grudging respect.

But much of the challenge Andrekopoulos finds himself in as he delivers his last budget proposal to the Milwaukee Board of School Directors is of his own making, and a long time in coming, and on his way out his directs his fire at almost everyone but himself.

And I do mean fire: Here are just a few of the bombs tossed in Andrekopoulos's budget message (pdf):
• The District must control costs. As the Administration has said repeatedly, it is imperative that fringe benefit costs be reduced. The 74.2% fringe benefit rate projected for FY11 is unsustainable. If the rate remained at 68.7%, the already extraordinarily high FY10 rate, MPS would spend about $28 million less on fringe benefits in FY11 than is now budgeted. That is money that could be used to staff classrooms with more teachers, with more supplies and more support. That money, as it is now budgeted, is opportunity lost. [target: the teachers union]

• As the District confronts a harsher economic reality and works to improve student achievement, the Administration, the School Board and the larger community need to decide what exactly they want MPS to be. Can the District continue to fill the roles of an employment agency, a social services institution and a K-12 school District? Can it continue to fill the gaps that exist when other government agencies abandon their obligations to provide services to the poor? [target: the city and county of Milwaukee]

• Poverty and its many, many burdens weigh on the Milwaukee Public Schools and its students. To deny this, as some commentators and politicians choose to do, is simply to deny reality. [target: talk radio and suburban Republicans]
There are also jabs at the Milwaukee Parental Choice (voucher) Program, state legislators, and the US Dept. of Education. But surprisingly, the one agency that could easily have been a target but is missing from the attacks is the WIsconsin Department of Public Instruction. With its threats to withhold funds and increasingly specific demands in a corrective action plan for the district, DPI is putting a tremendous amount of financial pressure on MPS. Some of that is hinted at in the budget message. The district is spending $6 million on a uniform new reading program adoption, plus more on training for that, as a consequence of DPI's orders, for example, and rolling out a new discipline program nearly district-wide.

And, of course, there's no place in this budget message for Andrekopoulos to recognize the parts of this crisis--his word--that are of his own making.

First, let's talk about that benefit rate. Just to bring everyone up to speed here, MPS defines its benefit rate in a way that basically no one else on the planet does. For example, while the obvious things are there--health insurance is the big one--the district also includes things like social security taxes and state-mandated pension payments in the figure, something that neither the district nor the union has one iota of control over. But three more important points need to be made about this. One, MPS teachers' overall compensation is not better than that of teachers in neighboring districts. In fact, in salary taken by itself, MPS ranks 24th of 25 metro-area districts this year. Adding in pension and health benefits, MPS is not any more attractive compared to what a teacher can get a few miles north or west of here, where the work is generally easier and there's no residency rule. (Click on the graphic for the Journal Sentinel story from last year about area teacher salaries.)

Two is that six years ago, the union put on the table a health insurance proposal that would have reduced costs more than the package Andrekopoulos and the district proposed and won in arbitration a year later. Since then, costs have soared under his plan.

And three, the delay in settling contracts with the union we saw back then is a pattern Andrekopoulos has repeated. In fact, I and other MPS teachers are working under a contract that expired on June 30, 2009. The union has been ready to deal on health care, and other matters, for well over a year, but every day that passes without the district willing to negotiate is another day MPS hangs on to the higher costs of health care.

Another place Andrekopoulos could accept responsibility is in the over-sizedness of the district. I give him credit in the last two years for trimming the size of the district--two years ago, there were 214 programs; come September, MPS will offer about 190. But when Andrekopoulos took over, there were only about 180 programs, and about 20,000 more students enrolled. At the same time as MPS was leaking students, Andrekopoulos pushed initiatives--often in pursuit of Gates Foundation and other grant funds--that expanded the programs offered to the shrinking student body. The worst was the "multiplex" initiative, which I wrote extensively about here in 2005. All three multiplex high schools will be large high schools again come fall (North Division, Washington, and Marshall), and many of the other small, "innovative" high schools that grew out of those same initiatives are closed, too. Even with the closures coming this fall, MPS will still be operating well below capacity.

Look, I do not envy Andrekopoulos or his task here given the economic realities of the situation, and I certainly don't envy the principals and other supervisors who have had to put the human face to those cuts. (I have a feature in May's Compass about exactly that, though it's not online yet. Check back tomorrow.) But if Andrekopoulos is going to toss around a lot of angry criticism at people who deserve some blame for the crisis, he needs to look inward, too.

The budget proposed here is not final; it will still need to get through a Board that is loath to cut teaching positions, among other things. Plus some things could change twixt now and September, such as the district manning up and returning to the bargaining table to settle the contract. The Board's budget committee will meet Thursday, May 12 to consider what to be done. If you go, take a sleeping bag and some Red Bull.

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