When asked to describe the upcoming fiscal year’s situation in the Milwaukee Public Schools, Superintendent William G. Andrekopoulos was direct and to the point. “This is the worst financial condition I’ve ever seen.”
He shared his comments during a loud and spirited meeting of the district’s committee on strategic planning and budget last night. With more than 200 parents, teachers and students in attendance, the board and Andrekopoulos listened to the reactions to proposed cuts in classes and services for the 2010-2011 school year.
The evening started out with over 100 supporters of arts education marching to the MPS Central Offices on 53rdand Vliet from Milwaukee High School of the Arts. Students carried signs in opposition to the loss of teachers at the district’s art magnet schools and a group of children carried a large cardboard coffin, representing the death of arts.
Inside, the crowd was loud and proud, representing schools from across the district – Alcott Elementary, Elm Creative Arts School, Wedgewood Park International School, Pulaski High School – carrying signs and wearing shirts demonstrating their alliances. But they all came together with one message for the board, to stop and think about what they were doing before destroying schools.
In January Andrekopoulos sent budget projections to each school based on proposed 2010-2011 revenues and expenses. Principals and school governance teams worked to balance their allotted monies with the needs of the students and the guidelines of the district, and in almost every school they failed, instead resorting to cuts to teaching staff, para-professionals, and programming.
The students were the most eloquent in defending their schools and programs. Michael Haubner, a 7thgrader at Wedgewood Park asked the board to keep their promise to him and his classmates to provide a challenging, vibrant school. “Support schools that are achieving, keep your promise to us,” he said.
Haubner’s mother asked the board to look for cuts by closing schools that are failing, not schools like Wedgewood, which is an international baccalaureate school and has been cited as a model demonstration school by the governing body of the IB program.
Ryan Krueger, another student who participated in the arts march. “We have come to speak for the children. The arts are everything. To many the arts are the only reason they come to school.” He spoke confidently, reminded the board that Milwaukee High School of the Arts has a 93% graduation rate, one that is better than the district and national rates. He stressed the importance of arts education and told the board that if they persisted in forwarding budgets that cut arts funding they would have schools called “Elm Creative School, Lincoln School of the, Roosevelt School of the, Milwaukee High School of the.”
Andrekopoulos said the arts, music and Physical Education program cuts, along with the loss of specialty teachers and aids was due to dropping enrollments, $4.2 million less in state general aids, a loss of SAGE funding and increased benefit costs for teachers and retirees. The wage and benefit proposal for the 2010-2011 school year shows that health insurance, employment taxes and pension benefits equal 77% of the total salaries and wages paid by the district. The districts benefit package pays 100 percent of health premiums for all teachers and retirees and offers coverage with two different insurers.
Andrekopoulos said the board has to get a handle on the benefit spending before it ankrupts the district. In that vein, Board President Michael Bonds asked how many full-time teaching positions could be saved by having all employees switch to the lower-premium health insurance policy offered by the district. After a quick calculation, Andrekopoulos said 480 positions could be retained by switching insurance carriers.
He added that the budget problem will be even greater for the 2011-12 school year, when the stimulus funds provided to the school district by President Obama disappear.
But this budget round is only beginning and will not be completed until mid-June. More public hearings are scheduled and more hand-wringing will occur. Hopefully, the board will listen to children and taxpayers to make tough decisions that will save the good, high performing schools and the students who attend them.