Category Archives: Education

Getting Better Educational Outcomes

Maybe it’s not all about “finding yourself” and class size.

Today Singapore’s education system is considered the best in the world. The country consistently ranks at the top of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a triennial test of 15-year-olds in dozens of countries, in the main three categories of maths, reading and science. Singaporean pupils are roughly three years ahead of their American peers in maths. Singapore does similarly well in exams of younger children, and the graduates of its best schools can be found scattered around the world’s finest universities.

The island-state has much to teach the world. But other countries are reluctant pupils. One reason is that Singapore favours traditional pedagogy, with teachers leading the class. That contrasts with many reformers’ preference for looser, more “progressive” teaching intended to encourage children to learn for themselves. Although international studies suggest that direct instruction is indeed a good way of conveying knowledge, critics contend that Singapore has a “drill and kill” model that produces uncreative, miserable maths whizzes. Parents worry about the stress the system puts on their children (and on them, even as they ferry kids to extra classes).

Yet Singapore shows that academic brilliance need not come at the expense of personal skills. In 2015 Singaporean students also came first in a new PISA ranking designed to look at collaborative problem-solving, scoring even better than they did in reading and science. They also reported themselves to be happy—more so than children in Finland, for instance, a country that educationalists regard as an example of how to achieve exceptional results with cuddlier methods of teaching. Not content with its achievements, Singapore is now introducing reforms to improve creativity and reduce stress (see article). This is not a sign of failure, but rather of a gradual, evidence-led approach to education reform—the first of three lessons that Singapore offers the rest of the world.

[…]

The third and most important lesson is to focus on developing excellent teachers. In Singapore, they get 100 hours of training a year to keep up to date with the latest techniques. The government pays them well, too. It accepts the need for larger classes (the average is 36 pupils, compared with 24 across the OECD). Better, so the thinking goes, to have big classes taught by excellent teachers than smaller ones taught by mediocre ones.

I’d like to hear more ideas like this out of Evers and Walker instead of “we’re going to spend more on the same thing.”

I’d note that Singapore spends about $10k/year for high schoolers and about $7,700 per kid for elementary schoolers. Wisconsin spends about $11,500 per student. So Singapore is spending a good amount, but less than Wisconsin on education and getting far better results for their kids. Could it be that the answer to better education in Wisconsin isn’t about spending more money? The answer is changing the way we educate kids.

Cedarburg’s Pro-Referendum Propaganda at Taxpayers’ Expense

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the sham referendum process in Cedarburg. Part of that process was the survey sent out by School Perceptions that was designed as propaganda – not an honest query of the community. MacIver took a closer look and has revealed just how shady that survey was.

Staff and parents of CSD students were emailed links to an online version of the survey, and then emailed multiple reminders to complete it.

Meanwhile, most local residents got a paper version via the U.S. Postal Service. The district mailed out 8,400 of the surveys—which many discarded as junk mail, according to the local newspaper.

While staff and parents got multiple emails linking directly to the survey and were encouraged to give their paper copy to another adult, everyone else had to go out of their way to request copies using snail mail.

To some, the heads-up to stakeholders more likely to support the ballot question feels more like a statistics trick than an unbiased effort to gauge public opinion. A MacIver News Service investigation in August raised concerns about bias in the district’s information-gathering effort.

“If there is a strategy behind the survey, then it isn’t really a survey and we shouldn’t call it one,” Cedarburg School Board member David Krier wrote in an April 22 email to Superintendent Todd Bugnacki.

Despite Krier’s protest, in two email blasts in the closing weeks of the survey, CSD officials urged parents and staff to fill out the survey online.

The May 22 and 29 emails signed by Bugnacki and the Cedarburg School Board encouraged staff to complete the survey electronically—and give their paper copies to another adult and have them complete that.

“If you reside in the District, you will receive a mailed survey as well and should encourage another adult (eligible to vote) in your home to take the Mail survey,” the email states.

“The involvement of our staff is critical in this process.”

Krier was concerned staff and parents, more likely to green light the referendum, would be able to skew the survey’s findings. Sending them links to the survey would boost their response rate compared with others in the community, like senior citizens.

But that was always the plan, Bugnacki said in a reply to Krier.

“The plan all along was to email the survey to parents, teachers, and staff. All residents within our school district boundaries have or will receive the survey via the mail. Additional surveys are available for families if needed,” Bugnacki wrote in a May 9 email.

Remember that the West Bend School District also used School Perceptions for their propaganda survey.

School Districts Fight to Avoid Tax Cut

From MacIver

[Madison, Wisc…] Homeowners in 148 school districts across Wisconsin will be getting an unexpected tax cut next year, but many of those districts would prefer to keep that a secret – and backfill those savings with new spending.

The reason for the tax cut is the termination of the Energy Efficiency Exemption (EEE). This loophole allowed school districts to raise taxes for supposed energy efficiency projects without going to referendum.

The energy savings on many of these projects is negligible. It will be decades before the savings justify the expense – which was considerable. Last year alone, districts collected an additional $92.3 million through the EEE. With the program eliminated, property taxes in those 148 school districts will automatically drop $92.3 million.

However, 21 of those districts see this as an opportunity to downplay the true tax impact of their referendums on next month’s ballot. For example, the Hartford J1 School District has a referendum for $5.5 million. According to the district’s website, “If the referendum is approved, there would be no impact on current school tax rates over the life of the 15-year borrowing term.”

Southern Door County Schools has a $6,270,000 building referendum that “would not increase your taxes over current levels.”

The Edgerton School District has been more transparent about this tactic than most. It’s trying to convince local residents that a $40.6 million building referendum plus a $1.25 million recurring annual operating referendum will only raise their tax rate by less than a dollar. The finance director, Todd Wehner, openly describes this tactic as a “levy opportunity or a levy shelf.”

Walker Vows to Return to Two-Thirds Funding of K-12

Sigh… once again, a Republican plays into the Democrat paradigm. It’s not about hitting some arbitrary funding amount or percentage. That is not accomplishing anything. It’s about improving educational outcomes for our kids. Unless Walker can articulate how this will improve outcomes, it’s just wasting more of the taxpayers’ money to get the same results.

[Madison, Wis.] – On Monday, Scott Walker announced that he is restoring the two-thirds funding of education by the state of Wisconsin that was instituted under Governor Tommy Thompson – and discarded by Democrats – while continuing to cut taxes for hard-working Wisconsin families. The governor released the following statement:

“We will fund two-thirds of school costs in our next state budget. Our good fiscal management and positive reforms, plus a strong economy, allowed us to make the largest actual-dollar investment in schools in our state budget while still lowering property taxes. Looking ahead, we will fully restore the two-thirds commitment made by former Governor Tommy Thompson. Tony Evers wants to undo our reforms. That would take money out of the classroom and away from students and he would allow property taxes to go up to pay for it.”

UWO Staff Frets about Cuts Despite Decline in Enrollment

This is funny. A professor whines about staff cuts.

OSHKOSH (WLUK) –Concerns among UW-Oshkosh faculty are rising as the school plans to reduce positions.

“The impact is going to be on the students, and that’s unfortunate,” said political science professor, David Siemers.

Siemers said faculty work load would go up; he blames the significant reduction in state support.

“This is an intentional financial crisis of the states choosing, we didn’t create that problem,” said Siemers.

Siemers said more classes for each faculty member means less attention for each student, and a less quality education.

In the SAME STORY…

“We’re down about 1,800 students undergraduate students in the last five years. So as a result we simply cannot support the same size faculty and staff,” said Leavitt.

Looking at the 6 fall semesters prior to the current one, there was a 15% decline in enrollment. The university said that’s essentially a loss of nearly $10 million.

It seems to me that the UWO staff has been enjoying a reduced workload for years without nary a peep. Now that the school is finally (way too slow) taking a tiny bit of action to rightsize the staffing level to the number of students, Professor Siemers is fretting. Whatever.

Woke School Cancels Education

Sigh

When Shorewood High School chose “To Kill a Mockingbird” as this year’s annual fall play, it seemed a relevant commentary on the times.

Based on the Harper Lee classic about a white southern lawyer defending an innocent black man in the 1930s, it is a story about segregation and racism, a broken criminal justice system and the sacrifices of those who would stand up for what is right.

But Lee’s book, which has been banned by many schools across the country, remains as controversial today as it did when she wrote it. On Thursday, just hours before the curtain was to go up, Shorewood canceled the production in response to a planned protest over the use of the ‘N’ word in some scenes.

News of a protest had circulated on social media early in the day.  And by mid-afternoon, Superintendent Bryan Davis pulled the plug, saying the district should have done a better job engaging the community “about the sensitivity of this performance.”

“We’ve concluded that the safest option is to cancel the play,” Davis said in a statement.

Live Broadcast of West Bend School Board

For some reason, the live stream of meetings of the West Bend School Board have not worked for months due to “technical difficulties.” I know… in an age when I can live stream anything in 3 seconds with my phone, that excuse sounds ridiculous. Thankfully, the Washington County Insider is on the case!

You can watch the live stream here.

They are going to talk about the union contract being at an impasse tonight. They are already late, so there’s no telling when it will come up.

UPDATE: Sure enough, the school board declared an impasse after two meetings with the union and imposed the district’s last offer – a blanket 2% base increase including those at the top of the scale. Given the lack of bleating from the usual union folks, it seems that they are pretty happy with it.

Once again, this School Board has failed to utilize their power to create a compensation structure that rewards better student outcomes and the teachers who generate them. In the West Bend School District, every teacher is treated the same, so everyone will trend to the middle, or just good enough to not get fired. Mediocrity throughout.

West Bend Teacher Union Negotiations at an Impasse

From the agenda for Monday’s school board meeting:

Recommended Action
I move to declare negotiations with the WBEA for 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 at impasse, and to implement the District’s final proposal for both years.

According to the law, if the two parties can’t agree, the school board can declare the negotiations at an impasse. This then allows the board to impose their last best offer.

What I find odd is the timing. When the School Board held the annual meeting less than three weeks ago, they specifically noted that they had not yet begun negotiations with the union. It was a point of contention because the proposed budget had about a million dollars in compensation increases, but no information on how that money was to be allocated.

Now, less than three week later, the board has conducted exhaustive negotiations for last year’s and this year’s compensation plans to the point that they are at an impasse? It strikes me that either the negotiating team at the district has a hair trigger at declaring an impasse, which would be unfair to teachers, or that this is a predetermined tactic because the school district is giving the teachers everything they want anyway. By declaring an impasse, the union can continue the fiction of victimhood.

Or I suppose a third scenario could be that the district was already conducting negotiations at the time of the annual meeting and simply lied about it. I don’t think that’s likely.

Evers’ failed logic and Cedarburg’s folly

Here is my full column that ran yesterday in the Washington County Daily News.

In justifying his call for a massive spending increase on public schools, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers cites the fact that local school districts have been passing referendums as evidence of a pent-up demand for more taxing and spending by everyone. Not only is Evers’ argument flawed, but he conveniently overlooks how dishonest many school districts are being to get their referendums passed.

More than 25 years ago, Wisconsin imposed a limit on how much local school districts can raise the local property tax levy, but the state allowed school districts to exceed the levy limit if local voters approved through a referendum. Recently, there has been a spate of school referendums being approved.

Where Evers’ logic fails is if the fact that some school districts passed referendums is evidence of an overall desire to increase taxes, then the opposite must also be true. The fact that the vast majority of school districts did not pass a referendum must be evidence that there is not an overall desire to increase taxes. The fact is only a small minority of the 421 school districts in Wisconsin have passed a referendum in recent years. Many of them have not even propositioned the voters with the question. If a majority of districts did not pass a referendum, would it not stand to reason that the majority of voters do not want a tax increase?

The recent surge in referendums passing is primarily due to two reasons. First, thanks to the booming job growth and increasing wages, we are living in a time of plenty. It is easy for voters to feel generous when times are good. They often forget that the $300 or $400 property tax increase they approve when the bank account is flush may not still be there when the next recession hits and they are looking for work.

The second reason referendums have been more successful lately is because many school districts have found a formula, based on gross misinformation, which increases the odds in their favor. Let us look at the referendum in Cedarburg as a perfect example.

First, the school district builds the facade of support through a stacked community advisory group and a phony propaganda survey. There are builders, architects and survey companies who have made it their business to help school districts run this sham process and Cedarburg engaged the infamous School Perceptions to conduct their advocacy survey. As designed, the survey in Cedarburg came back showing support for a referendum.

Second, the school district tries its best to hide the real costs of the referendum. In Cedarburg, they are saying that it will cost $59.8 million. That is completely false. The Cedarburg District wants to borrow $59.8 million. As anyone who has borrowed money to buy a home, vehicle, or anything else knows, there is a cost to borrowing. The total actual cost of the referendum, depending on the interest rates and term, is more likely between $90 million and $105 million.

Third, school districts play down the tax impact. In Cedarburg, they are claiming that such a massive debt would “be an increase of $58.00 per $100,000.00 of a home’s value.” That is a grossly incorrect portrayal. According to the district’s financial disclosure, the cost of the referendum would be $181 per $100,000. The $58 number is because the district plans to retire some old debt, so the net tax increase would be $58. But if the voters vote down the referendum, they will actually enjoy a tax decrease of $123 per $100,000 of home value when that debt is retired.

Not to mention that there are not a lot of homes in Cedarburg that cost $100,000. According to Zillow, the median home value in Cedarburg is about $300,000. So the total cost for the owner of a median Cedarburg home is $543 per year – or $10,860 over the 20-year term of the loan.

Fourth, every school referendum is different, but they usually share some similarities in their justifications for needing more money. In Cedarburg, they cite growing enrollment as a need for more space. The problem is that the Cedarburg School District, like most Wisconsin public school districts, has been experiencing a decline in enrollment. Kindergarten through 12th grade enrollment in Cedarburg is down 6.5 percent since it peaked in the 2004-2005 school year. And if you subtract the kids who open enrolled into the district (a number that the district can control), kindergarten through 12th grade enrollment was actually down 10.5 percent since the 2004-2005 school year.

Cedarburg District officials insist that enrollment is about to explode even though census data and state projections predict a continued decline in enrollment. Cedarburg officials rest their predictions on a bizarre analysis of residential development in the district. The problem is that history does not support their projections. In short, district officials are claiming that the district will add far more kids per new development than has been the case for the last 10 years or more.

Fifth, the school district leadership stonewalls anyone who might ask tough questions. In the case of Cedarburg, the superintendent declined to comment on the referendum and pointed to the district’s website for all inquiries.

If the voters in Cedarburg are smart, they will see through the balderdash that their school district is trying to sell them and vote down their referendum. If not, and they choose to foist a huge tax increase on themselves, it is certainly not an indication that anyone else in Wisconsin wants a tax increase too.

Wisconsin Test Results Released by DPI

Seriously… is this good enough?

The latest round of tests administered to Wisconsin public school students show less than half of students in grades 3 through 8 scoring proficient or better in English/language arts and math, benchmarks that haven’t been surpassed in the previous two years either, according to results released Tuesday by the state Department of Public Instruction.

 […]

DPI officials also released scores from the ACT exam, required of all high school juniors and used in college admissions to test student readiness. In the fourth year of this mandate, the composite ACT score for 11th-graders was 19.7 out of a possible 36, down from 20.0 in the previous school year.

“By and large, we have some consistency arising,” DPI spokesman Tom McCarthy said. “There is not a lot of change.”

Maybe it is. Maybe the test scores reflect an accurate portrayal of the spectrum of intelligence innate in Wisconsin’s kids. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe our education system is failing too many of our kids.

If one accepts the latter supposition, then what are we going to do about it? And no, “spend more money” is not the answer. While that is an easy answer for politicians, the data shows that spending more money does not drive better results. So what else?

School Choice Wisconsin points out that Choice Kids are consistently scoring better.

Data released today by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) shows that again this year, students in the Parental Choice Programs are outperforming their peers. As with all test data, a one-year snapshot has limitations but the trend of higher scores for students on a voucher is great news for students and taxpayers.

“All three Parental Choice Programs, comprised predominately of low-income students, outscored their full-income counterparts across the entire state in public schools on the ACT,” Jim Bender said. “Combined with the Forward Exam, these results highlight superior outcomes at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers.”

And I would point out that most Choice School spend less per student than public schools. Granted, the data is skewed because it stands to reason that parents of Choice kids are generally more involved in their kids’ educations and parental involvement improves educational outcomes. But those parents were just as involved when their kids were forced to attend public schools. Perhaps more choice is part of the answer to allow parents to find the best learning environment for their kids.

What else? Pay teachers more? I’m all for that if they are delivering better outcomes. But why would we pay more money to the same people and expect different results? The only reason to raise teacher pay is to attract better teachers.

Better curriculum? Perhaps. We have certainly seen multiple experiments over the years, but the results still seem to stay stagnant.

More time in school? All year school and longer school hours would give kids more opportunity to learn. That would come at the price of less time for extracurricular activities, family time, work, etc. Are we willing to do it?

Or do we revert to the position that the results we are getting for the gobs we spend on education is “good enough?” Despite all of the bloviating from politicians and advocates, the lack of serious reform year after year leads me to believe that we have accepted these results as good enough – even if nobody wants to admit it.

Evers’ failed logic and Cedarburg’s folly

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here’s a taste, but you’ll need to pick up a paper today to read the whole thing.

Where Evers’ logic fails is if the fact that some school districts passed referendums is evidence of an overall desire to increase taxes, then the opposite must also be true. The fact that the vast majority of school districts did not pass a referendum must be evidence that there is not an overall desire to increase taxes. The fact is only a small minority of the 421 school districts in Wisconsin have passed a referendum in recent years. Many of them have not even propositioned the voters with the question. If a majority of districts did not pass a referendum, would it not stand to reason that the majority of voters do not want a tax increase?

Hartford School District Plans Another Tax Decrease

What a refreshing story.

A small crowd turned out for the meeting, but they approved the school district’s proposed 2018-19 budget that calls for a small decrease in the taxes district property owners will pay per thousand. The budget, which still needs the Board of Education’s final approval after they receive more financial information from the state calls for a drop from about $5.99 per thousand in 2017-18 to about $5.98 per thousand for the 2018-19 budget year.

According to information provided by the school district, the owner of a $200,000 home paid $1,198 in taxes to the district for 2017-18 and will pay slightly less for 2018-19 of about $1,196 — a decrease of about $2.

“The district total levy for the 2018-19 school year will be $9,997,988 compared with the levy of $9,788,739 for 2017-18,” said District Director of Business Services John Stellmacher. “But we are anticipating a larger drop after a significant increase in fair market values and new construction in the city of Hartford over the past year.”

Stellmacher said the balanced budget being proposed includes a 0 percent base wage increase for teaching staff but nearly $283,000 in merit pay increases for teaching staff. These increases were approved in March.

He said the district continues to use the Act 10 Tools effectively.

“Our average health insurance renewal the past 7 years has been under 2 percent. We have a rate guarantee for an under 2 percent maximum increase for 2019-20,” Stellmacher said. “The district has been able to accomplish this through purchasing power in the Waukesha County Area Schools Health Cooperative and through competitive bidding. We also have a highly engaged staff and robust wellness program that emphasizes healthy lifestyles and consumerism. Our teaching staff has a base employee contribution rate of 21 percent toward their health insurance as we’ve worked to model benefits closer to the private sector.”

Stellmacher said stability in health insurance rates has allowed the district to invest in merit pay, small elementary class sizes, facility maintenance, and high quality professional development.

Meanwhile, in West Bend, we are looking at another levy that increases the property tax levy to the maximum allowed by law, a $900k pay increase for teachers, no merit pay, and starving facility maintenance in a run-up to a massive referendum.

More money has not, and will not, improve education for our children

Here is my full column for the Washington County Daily News that ran yesterday.

With school back in full swing, the MacIver Institute’s Ola Lisowski completed a comprehensive review of the state of education in Wisconsin. The data gives some insight into how well our education system is serving our kids and raises some questions. One is left wondering, however, why Wisconsin’s politicians insist that throwing more money into education is the only answer.

Overall, ACT achievement scores have remained flat. In 2017, the average ACT score for graduating students was 20.5. That was the exact same as in 2016. Prior to 2016, the average ACT score remained flat at 22.0 or 22.1, but there was a change in participation requirements in 2016.

Until 2016, students only took the ACT if they were intending to go to college or just wanted to take the test. Starting in 2016, Wisconsin began requiring all enrolled students to take the ACT and taxpayers pay for the exams. Although students can still opt-out, the new rules pushed the participation rate for taking the ACT from the 63.5 percent in 2015 to 92.1 percent in 2016 and 2017. The fact that a much larger number of kids are taking the ACT — including many who do not have any intention of attending college — necessarily lowers the average.

Compared to the other 16 states that require all students to take the ACT, Wisconsin’s average is third best. Only Colorado and Minnesota do better.

Another metric for which longitudinal data is available is Advanced Placement course participation and results. Average scores for AP tests have been trending slightly down since 2010. In 2011, 68 percent of students scored a 3 or better on AP exams and 65.9 percent scored that well last year. But the good news is that more and more kids are taking AP exams. Last year, 57 percent more AP exams were taken as compared to the 2010-2011 school year. Much like with the ACT, broader participation usually pushes the average down, so it is good to see so little decline with the surge in participation.

Graduation rates have increased slightly since 2011 from 87 percent to 88.6 percent in 2017. That beats the national average of 84 percent. The real news in the much better graduation rates for some minority groups. The Hispanic and Latino graduation rate jumped from 72 percent in 2011 to 79.9 percent in 2016. The graduation rate for Native American kids grew from 71.7 percent in 2011 to 77.8 percent in 2016. Asian and black graduation rates increased by 0.5 percent and 0.4 percent, respectively. More kids are graduating and that is good news.

Unfortunately, we must temper the good news about the graduation rate with the data about remedial education. For many years, colleges have offered remedial education classes for incoming students.

They are classes for kids who are accepted and enrolled into the college, but need to shore up their core math or English skills.

Wisconsin began requiring in 2016 that UW System schools track which students need remedial education and the high schools that graduated those kids. The results are not good. Roughly 20 percent of all incoming students in the UW System require some form of remedial classes. These students graduated from 184 high schools. That means that almost 36 percent of Wisconsin high schools are sending kids to college who are not proficient in math or English. Not only is that indictment of those high schools, but it is a tremendous added expense to those kids who have to pay for remedial education they should have already received.

There is a lot more data on school performance. I invite you to read the overview at the MacIver Institute or dig through the Department of Public Instruction data yourself. A couple of insights bubble to the top after wading through the data. First, Wisconsin’s schools are fairly decent, for the most part, but there is a lot of room for improvement. Second, the performance has remained fairly consistent for the years despite taxpayers spending more and more every year.

This makes the politicians’ response all too disappointing. Tony Evers, the Democratic candidate for governor, has one answer to every question about education: Spend more money. This is despite the fact that spending more has no measurable impact on educational outcomes. Gov. Scott Walker has had a strong record of actual education reform, but has fallen into the same spending paradigm. This election, he is hanging his hat on the fact that Wisconsin increased spending on education and is spending more than ever.

The reason that politicians conflate more government spending with improving educational outcomes is as lazy as it is stupid. It is an easy way for them to demonstrate that they are “doing something.” In fact, they are doing nothing but wasting more money. The outcomes matter — not the spending.

More money has not, and will not, improve education for our children

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online now. Go pick up a paper, but here’s a snippet:

A couple of insights bubble to the top after wading through the data. First, Wisconsin’s schools are fairly decent, for the most part, but there is a lot of room for improvement. Second, the performance has remained fairly consistent for the years despite taxpayers spending more and more every year.

This makes the politicians’ response all too disappointing. Tony Evers, the Democratic candidate for governor, has one answer to every question about education: Spend more money. This is despite the fact that spending more has no measurable impact on educational outcomes. Gov. Scott Walker has had a strong record of actual education reform, but has fallen into the same spending paradigm. This election, he is hanging his hat on the fact that Wisconsin increased spending on education and is spending more than ever.

The reason that politicians conflate more government spending with improving educational outcomes is as lazy as it is stupid. It is an easy way for them to demonstrate that they are “doing something.” In fact, they are doing nothing but wasting more money. The outcomes matter — not the spending.

West Bend Annual Meeting, Budget, and Tax Levy

This post is going to be a little long, so strap yourself in. If you live in the West Bend School District, you’ll want to read it. The rest of y’all should find a good college football game to watch.

On Monday, the voters of the West Bend School District are invited to attend the Annual Meeting of Electors. This is an annual meeting where, theoretically, the voters approve some of the big ticket items like the tax levy and budget. In reality, all of the votes are non-binding, so the School Board can still do whatever they want. Still, it is an opportunity for voters to show up and have their voices heard.

On the agenda this year is:

7. Consideration of Proposed Resolutions

a. Resolution No. 1 – Tax Levy

b. Resolution No. 2 – Disposal of District Property

c. Resolution No. 3 – Board Member Compensation

d. Resolution No. 4 – 2019-20 Annual Meeting Date

The only thing we have any information on is the proposed budget and tax levy, so the voters will be walking in blind to whatever the resolutions are about board member compensation and the disposal of district property. We’re going to take a deeper look at the budget and tax levy, but first, let’s discuss the process a little.

In years past, the West Bend School Board began its budget process in the spring. If I remember correctly (I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong), we usually got a preliminary budget in the April/May time frame. That high-level preliminary budget was posted on the district web site and the people had some time with it.

This year, the first appearance of a preliminary budget from the school district that I saw was last Tuesday morning – after the Monday night board meeting.  Perhaps it was posted Monday night. But now the Electors are being asked to vote on it a week later. One. Week. That’s all the voters get to read it and understand it. There hasn’t been any time for the media or interested parties to ask questions. There hasn’t even been another board meeting where citizens could voice their opinions on it. There is really no excuse for this kind of opaqueness from the West Bend School Board. They have had this information for months, but failed to be transparent about it. Their lack of transparency is not incompetence. It is willful.


That being said, let’s look at the budget. As we get into it, we must remember the context of this budget. The West Bend School Board just postponed action on a $85 million referendum. Budgets are where we define our priorities. There is always an unlimited list of needs/wants (the distinction between the two often being in the eye of the beholder) and a limited amount of money to pay for it. The budget is where you have to prioritize that list.

 

There are two versions of the West Bend School District’s Preliminary Budget. Here is the summary document that is being provided for the meeting on Monday. Here is a slightly more detailed version that was presented at the School Board meeting last week. Neither version is nearly as detailed as what other districts, like Slinger, provides. Again… transparency…

Let’s start with the revenue side of the budget. There are two primary sources of revenue for a Wisconsin school district – the local property tax levy and state aid. The West Bend School District is facing a demographic and societal shift that is causing a decline in enrollment for the foreseeable future. The estimates range between a 10% and 20% decline in enrollment in the next 10 years. This is a significant impact on the state aid that the district receives because it is based on enrollment. Also, enrollment affects the property tax levy limit for the district. In short, the West Bend School District is facing a sustained period of declining revenue. In the preliminary budget (focusing on the operating budget and not the special parts), we see this manifest in a projected $233,405 decrease in revenue.

That decrease in overall revenue is despite a property tax hike. The School District wants to increase the property tax levy by $928,249 – the maximum amount allowed by law. Most of this is offset by a decrease in the levy due to some debt service coming off the books, so the impact will be minimal. But taxpayers could be enjoying a rare tax decrease if not for the School Board’s desire to tax to the max.

In light of that fact, let’s take a closer look at the spending side of the budget. Overall, the preliminary budget proposes a $1.3 million spending increase. You’re reading that right. The preliminary budget has a structural $1.4 million deficit.

The School District must have a balanced budget, so they are raiding their reserve fund to fill the gap. Superintendent Don Kirkegard acknowledges that this is not sustainable and he will be working to bend the district’s cost into the revenue number next year. I cut him some slack because he has only been on the job since July and was handed this budget. Also, he comes from another state and it takes a little time to learn the Wisconsin Way of school budgeting. This budget is the product of the interim Superintendent, staff, and most of all, the School Board.

What is driving the spending increase? Almost all of it is due to a planned compensation increase for the teaching staff. Although salary negotiations are still underway, this budget includes a 2.1% base salary increase. That is the maximum that the School Board would have to give under Act 10. That amounts to a $929,853 compensation increase. That umber is a little misleading because the budget number includes benefits, salary, and headcount fluctuations. But based on the commentary at the school board meeting last week, that number is about right. They are planning roughly a $900k salary increase.

The other increases are scattered around the budget. It is a little hard to tease them out because the district is also reallocating a lot of expenses. According to the Superintendent, they are working on reallocating expenses to the building level so that they can have better visibility to where the expenses are actually being spent. That’s a good thing, but it makes year-to-year trending data difficult.


The story of this budget is not really what it does, but what it doesn’t do. The West Bend School Board is facing declining enrollment and, consequently, declining revenue. Next year they are planning to ask the taxpayers to dig deeper into their family budgets and pay more for bigger, newer facilities. This budget is the School Board’s statement of priorities before asking the taxpayers for more money and they chose to kick the can down the road another year. They are choosing to not make any hard decisions nor demonstrate that they will be good stewards if the taxpayers give them almost the equivalent of an entire year’s budget to spend all at once.

Here are just a couple things this budget does not do:

Maintenance. Many of the facilities needs that are driving the perceived need for a referendum are due to years of poor maintenance. Jackson Elementary is old and falling apart, they tell us. The High School building needs serious renovations and repairs, we’re told. I defy anyone to look at the preliminary budget and determine what the school district spends to maintain their facilities. There isn’t a line item for it. According to the Superintendent, the large, capital projects like roof replacements and such are covered by the Capital Projects Fund and is about $2.3 million. More routing maintenance like carpet replacements, door repairs, fixture replacements, light bulbs, etc. are kind of tucked into the “other support services” or “central services” budget items. But those line items blend a lot of “catch all” expenses.

It is safe to say, however, that despite these pressing needs that are fueling a referendum discussion, the budget makes no serious effort to spend more on maintenance.

I tried to find some good benchmarks for what schools should spend on maintenance, but they are hard to come by. This data from the Building Owners and Managers Association says that for office space (roughly equivalent), people spend about $8.07 per square foot for annual operating expenses. That number includes some things like security, administration, etc. that are not really pertinent in a school setting. If we just include repairs, maintenance, cleaning, etc., it’s about $4 per square foot per year. The West Bend School District has 1,141,656 sq. feet of building space – not including grounds, sports fields, parking lots, etc. It is reasonable to expect that the district needs to spend $4 to $4.5 million per year just to keep their facilities reasonable cleaned and maintained. I don’t see anything near that much in the budget even as I add up the line items.

This points to a trend of School Districts intentionally under-funding maintenance, allowing facilities to decline into disrepair, and then pushing for a referendum to make up for their neglect. This budget looks like it will continue that trend.

Labor Costs. Without a doubt, labor costs are the largest expense in any school district budget. If the School Board is ever going to control costs and bring them in line with revenue projections, they have to control the cost of labor. There are only a few ways to do that. They can cut overall compensation – salaries and benefits. They can reduce the number of employees. Or they can force employee churn to create a younger, cheaper workforce.

At some point, the district needs to reduce the number of employees. There are fewer and fewer kids to teach. Therefore, there will need to be fewer and fewer teachers, administrators, and support staff to serve those kids. This needs to be done intelligently and carefully, but it needs to be done.

The School Board and this budget fail to take advantage of Act 10 to control the overall compensation costs for the employees. Employees still have a sweetheart deal on benefits. The School Board is assuming a maximum base salary increase. The School Board has not implemented merit pay or other performance-driven compensation models. They haven’t done much of anything. The compensation package for West Bend School District employees looks much like it could have in 1999 or 2005.

Once again, this budget just kicks the can down the road and fails to do anything about rising labor costs in the face of declining revenue.


The preliminary budget for the West Bend School District sends a very clear message to the citizens of the district. Despite virulent protestations about needing tens of millions of dollars in a referendum to pay for critical facilities, the School Board intends to just keep doing the same thing as if there isn’t any need at all. They are not making any hard choices or shifting any additional spending to address those needs. They are also not addressing the structural funding issues that are already impacting the district’s revenue. The School Board is planning to ask the taxpayers to dig deeper into their family budgets and give up their own priorities, but the School Board is refusing to dig deeper into their own budget. Instead, they are doing what far too many school boards do: tax to the max; give employees as much of an increase as possible; starve facilities; refuse to innovate; keep doing everything the same way and wondering why you keep getting the same results.

I will believe that there is a crisis in the West Bend School District when they begin acting like it. This budget sends the message that the School Board thinks everything is fine the way it is.

UW-Whitewater’s Chancellor’s Husband Banned From Campus #metoo

This is the most Clinton excuse ever.

Most recently, a female employee told an investigator last spring that Hill squeezed her knee under a table “not less than three times.” The employee sat between Hill and Kopper at the April 2018 event.

Hill told the investigator it was one time, not three, and that he had to move her leg so he could reach his own to massage a cramp in his calf.

Oh, here’s the context:

The University of Wisconsin System banned the husband of UW-Whitewater’s chancellor from campus and ended his unpaid appointment after a sexual harassment investigation found “merit” to the allegations made against him.

Chancellor Beverly Kopper announced the news in a statement Friday, saying that she “fully supported and cooperated with” the System’s investigation against her husband, Alan “Pete” Hill.

Budgets are About Priorities

And MPS’ priorities are clear. Ouch.

So imagine my surprise when, thanks to the Facebook page for an upcoming high school reunion, I learned the school is getting a new $5.7 million stadium. The stadium will have artificial grass and a new track for WIAA events. The report I saw didn’t mention metal detectors, but it would be a good idea.

The new stadium is part of an $11 million improvement in athletic facilities for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), presumably so the little convicts can have the best facilities before being sent to the penitentiary.

So the next time someone tells you that MPS needs more money, remind them that more money does not mean a better academic performance. And if they ask for evidence, ask them if $5.7 million could be better spent than on a new stadium for a failing school. And then ask them if the students would be better off with a new track instead of shutting the school down entirely.

At least the artificial turf matches the artificial concern of Wisconsin’s Democrats, including gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers, for the well-being of MPS students. Perhaps the new scoreboard can flash the number of kids being pushed through the system without learning anything – not that any of the students will be able to read it.

James Wigderson
Editor
RightWisconsin

Taxpayers On Hook for Illegal Promise by UWO Chancellor

Ugh.

OSHKOSH – The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh must pay $15 million to cover the debts of the university’s private foundation in connection to several high-profile building projects, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

That puts the foundation’s outstanding debt, ultimately, on the taxpayers of Wisconsin. However, the state can, and likely will, appeal the decision.

Chief U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan Kelley issued a partial summary judgment Wednesday, saying letters from two former UW-Oshkosh administrators, promising to use university money to bail out the foundation, constitute enforceable contracts and therefore must be honored.

Irrespective of what the letters said, the administrators were not legally permitted to make that commitment on behalf of the taxpayers any more than I am. It seems to me that the Foundation’s recourse is to sue the former administrators.

Evil Foxconn Gives $100 Million to UW

Boy, I sure hope that Evers can kill the Foxconn deal. /sarcasm

Foxconn Technology Group will invest $100 million to UW-Madison that will go toward establishing an interdisciplinary research facility for the College of Engineering, the largest research partnership in the university’s history.

The Foxconn Institute for Research in Science and Technology, or FIRST, will collaborate closely with the company’s Wisconn Valley Science and Technology Park near Racine.

Foxconn CEO Terry Gou joined UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank for the Monday announcement, signing several agreements formalizing their relationship.

The gift is one of the largest in the school’s history, Blank said, and will help develop Wisconsin’s research and engineering talent.

West Bend Referendum Fight is Not Over

The citizens of West Bend received a reprieve last night when the West Bend School Board decided to suspend the referendum effort. “Suspend” is the key word. At the meeting, School Board President Joel Ongert made it clear that he wants to put a referendum on the April or possibly next November ballot. It is worth noting that those elections also historically have much lower turnout. That makes it easier for the referendum to pass (if you’d like me to explain this, I will, but I think y’all get it).

Ongert also made a comment that he thought that the needs at the high schools warranted $60 million! In the current referendum proposal, they are asking for $31 million for the high schools. Ongert wants to spend so. much. more.

Over the next few months as the citizens of the West Bend School District and their School Board consider the prospect of a referendum, we should keep some hard numbers in mind.

$215 million. That is how much the taxpayers will be obligated to pay back if the referendum being considered is approved. The district already owes about $130 million due to the passage of previous referenda. If the referendum passes, it will bring that total to about $215 million in owed interest and principal.

$2,125. There are about 40,000 adults who live in the West Bend School District. If the $50 million referendum being considered passes, the share for each adult is $2,125. Each adult’s share of the total $215 million debt would be about $5,200.

$5.3 million. The taxpayers currently spend about $5.3 million per year on paying down debt. That is $5.3 million that is not spent on educating kids. It is being spent on paying off buildings. That number will increase substantially if the referendum being considered passes.

20. Under the proposal outlined by Baird for the School Board, it will take 20 years to pay off new referendum debt. On the payment schedule presented by Baird at the August 13th school board meeting, the taxpayers will paying only the interest payments for the first nine years. The taxpayers will not pay down a single dollar of the principal until the tenth year.

2.7%. Despite having the authority under Act 10 to control labor expenses, employees of the West Bend School District can still get a family health insurance plan for as little as $49 per month. That is 2.7% of the total cost of the plan. The taxpayers pay the remaining 97.3%.

307. Using the Kindergarten Trend Projection Model, which extrapolates kindergarten enrollment trends to forecast future enrollment, there will be 307 kids in Jackson Elementary in nine years. That compares to the 371 kids who were in the school last year and the 535 kids in the same building at the most recent peak in 2010. That is a 43% decline in student population in the Jackson Elementary building, but also includes the reconfiguration of grades that occurred in 2014.

5,289. Using the same projection model, the entire West Bend School District will have an enrollment of 5,289 kids in the 2027-2028 school year. That compares to the 6,634 kids in the last school year and 6,843 kids in the district in the most recent peak year of 2009. That is a 20% decline in enrollment over the next decade.

Different project models give slightly different numbers, but the declining enrollment matches the trend that the school district has seen in recent years. Due to generally lower birth rates, open enrollment, the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, and demographic shifts, the West Bend School District is seeing the same declining enrollment as many other Wisconsin school districts.

21%. In the most recent open enrollment figures, 21% of the kids who open enrolled out of the West Bend School District left to attend a virtual school. While the West Bend School Board wants to invest in buildings, families are seeking out modern ways to get a quality education.

20. The world of education is not immune from the societal and technological transformations taking place around us. Educational delivery methods now include online and hybrid learning, collaboration with industries, augmented reality, and so much more. The West Bend School Board is asking to spend $85 million on a 20th century education model.

Zero. If the voters approve allowing the West Bend School Board to dump tens of millions of dollars into buildings, they can expect zero improvements in educational outcomes. It has been proven time and time again that once the basic safety and space needs for school buildings are met, spending more on buildings does not result in better education.

For recent evidence, look at the test scores and graduation rates in the West Bend School District since the other school building referendums were passed. According to DPI data, all of the results are flat or declining. The new Badger and renovated Silverbrook schools look fantastic, but they did not make any kids smarter. That is why the school board has wisely not even attempted to claim that it will improve education in the district.

There are a lot of things that the West Bend School Board could do to try to improve education for the children under their care. Dumping money into fancy buildings is not one of them.