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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, May 09, 2011

The Joint Finance Committee could stop MPS teacher layoffs by simply fixing the funding flaw

by folkbum

Last weekend I was working on a post--the one that I put off when OBL news took over for a while--about the Milwaukee Public School's proposed budget cuts nearly 1000 positions, news that was bubbling through the grapevine at the time but that didn't hit the media until this mid-week story (and accompanying tsk-tsking editorial*).

I was writing in the context of Governor Scott Walker's absurd promise to create 250,000 jobs in his first term, and the ridiculous nature of promising that while knowing full well he'd be gutting public employment. Though MPS isn't producing 1000 new unemployed people--many of the eliminated positions will be, as the district points out, simply unfilled empty positions after retirements and resignations--hundreds of other school districts, villages, towns, cities, and counties will be cutting, too. By the time the state budget is final and fall rolls around, the ranks of the unemployed will be many thousands larger than it is.

And the kicker to that is the simple fact that the worst enemy of any unemployed person--those disgruntled voters Walker courted with his inflated promises--is another unemployed person, which Walker is about to create in spades.

(Wisconsin is not isolated in this trend. While the US economy broadly has added jobs over the last two years, more than 40,000 public employees have lost theirs, not counting temporary federal census workers. Cuts planned to education and local governments across the country will spike that number over the next six months.)

As to Walker's claim that his budget repair bill gives local governments "tools" to deal with his devastating proposed budget cuts, MPS and virtually every other municipality that has weighed in has said, simply, that cutting employee pay and screwing with their working conditions without fear of reprisal simply isn't enough. MPS would still be $40 million in the hole from where they were expecting to be before the state budget cuts were announced.

But here's a simple way for the legislature fix a long-standing wrong and save a ton of MPS jobs in the process. All the Joint Finance Committee needs to do is fix the voucher funding flaw. In short, because of the Milwaukee Parental Parental Choice Program--the voucher program--the state undercounts Milwaukee's students, making MPS seem more property rich than it is, and therefore deserving of less state aid than the state's funding formula would normally allow. The result, according to MPS,is more than $50 million less for the state's largest and poorest district. (This money is not returned to taxpayers--it's distributed out across the rest of the state to other districts, which is why non-milwaukee legislators are not terribly interested in fixing the flaw.)

If you're doing the math, that adds up to about 500 teaching positions, more than the 468 positions MPS expects to eliminate. Even if the flaw is only partially fixed--say, $30m worth--would stop every layoff. Every teacher layoff, anyway, as MPS is also making steep cuts in administration, contra some local complaints.

MPS last week released a companion document about the proposed budget, and it notes that MPS did not go into this budget year lying down. The district settled contracts** with pay freezes and significant health insurances changes (new administrator, drug plan changes, increased contributions) that will save nearly $20 million next year, in addition to pension savings with some bargaining units. The all-important benefit-to-salary ratio, despite the salary freezes, is falling 7% next year. Such savings had left MPS in a pretty good spot before budget cuts, even counting the ever-present voucher funding flaw.

JFC could spend not one additional dime of tax dollars in this upcoming budget, and simply correct--or at least lessen--that funding flaw. In the process, MPS teachers don't end up on the unemployment line competing with everyone else struggling to get by in this this still-wretched economy. And MPS's students don't bear the brunt of Walker's devastating cuts.

* The editorial falls into the growing oeuvre of complaining about the fallout from actions taken by the gubernatorial candidate they endorsed last fall--the one whose decimation of the state the editorial board, in Walker's own words, should have seen coming.

** There are calls, including in the editorial referenced above, to re-open the contract with teachers. I earlier made such a call myself. But should the budget-repair bill that bans collective bargaining be upheld in the courts, its effective date of mid-March would make any changes made after that simply illegal. It would take a single complaint to unravel all of it. Smartly, the union is having none of that.

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