Many hoped that the long-awaited audit of MPS finances and operations, which was released last week, would provide step-by-step instructions for fixing the looming MPS budget imbalance, not to mention improving student achievement. Instead, the audit demonstrated just how difficult solving MPS's problems will be.
The audit does focus on opportunities for savings, but even those that might be considered relatively simple are likely to be controversial among MPS staff and parents. For example, even saving money by serving reheated pre-packaged lunches, rather than cooking lunches at school, will likely have parents and kitchen staff upset.
Other opportunities for savings can only be realized if the district backs away from certain policies that have been touted, in the past, as educational reform efforts. Reducing busing costs, for example, would require less citywide busing, which is a needed element for parental choice. Centralized purchasing would take certain budgetary decisions out of principals' hands and would entail a retreat from the budget decentralization that occurred about a decade ago in response to the charter school movement.
These political and personal realities aren't thoroughly discussed in the audit report, but need to be understood if we expect to actually see the cited cost savings. If one of the chief complaints about the current district board and administration is a lack of leadership, are we to now expect these entities to be willing to combat parents, staff, and outside education reform advocates to get these changes implemented? Whether the advisory council to be appointed by Governor Doyle and Mayor Barrett will be willing is probably dependent on who is tapped to serve.
And what of the most significant source of potential cost-savings, reductions in employee health care benefits? That is sure to be a battle royale. While only two of the nine current board members had union support in their most recent campaigns, picking a fight with the unions would virtually ensure more contested seats and union-backed candidates in the next election. Union leaders are likely to be included on the appointed council, which would potentially set up a divide within the council on this issue unless those leaders can convince their memberships that certain concessions are necessary to ensure the future viability of the district.
It also is important to note that the $103 million in potential annual savings cited in the audit will represent less than 10% of the total MPS budget. Ironically, the audit does such a good job of describing how MPS got into this mess in the first place, it essentially convinces you that the 8% in identified potential savings won't go nearly far enough.
MPS's per-pupil spending isn't out of line and its expenses have not outpaced its revenues. The real problem is that MPS operates too large a system for too few children under a state aid formula based on pupil counts. The audit report, while not saying so specifically, makes it clear that getting the district back on sound financial footing requires the following:
- Enrollment losses stemmed, if not reversed;
- The legislature addresses certain specific problems with the funding formula, including the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program's impact;
- The district "right-sizes" itself by operating fewer schools;
- The tax base in Milwaukee grows.