Reality Check

Reality Check: New State Laws Affecting School Districts

Three School Districts Approach Cuts Differently

MADISON, Wis. - Decisions at the state Capitol earlier this year set in motion a series of new decisions for area school districts, but every school tackled their fiscal issues differently.

WISC-TV's "Reality Check" took look at a tale of three cities. Sun Prairie School District has 7,000 students from their suburban community, the Madison Metropolitan School District has 24,000 students and the rural district of Monroe has 2,600 students.

Sun Prairie officials started their budget year with a $3.9-million hole to plug in their budget.

"Going into this year, the state budget had a huge impact on us," said Phil Frei, Sun Prairie deputy district administrator.

The district, like many schools across Wisconsin, started with the staff, as mandated by new state laws. They froze pay, increased pension and health care contributions.

"The bulk of the savings for the budget came basically on the backs of our employees," said Frei.

District officials also made some cuts, trying to avoid the classroom. They cut $150,000 from the maintenance budget, moving $750,000 from the district?s rainy fund.

Despite the deep cuts, officials also added six programs.

"As a parent coming into the schools a year ago compared to this year, I don?t think they would see much change in Sun Prairie," Frei said.

Taxes on the other hand, increased to $99 on the average home.

In the Madison School District, the budget was approved recently. On the average $240,000 Madison home, taxes decrease to $78.

However, the school district still had to make some cuts.

?About three-quarters of what was done came from our staff being willing to make those concessions," said Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Dan Nerad.

The district started with a $20 million budget deficit. Madison also froze salaries, increased pension contributions and health care payments for staff, which saved up to $14 million.

"But that can?t go on for long. It obviously helped address our budget this current year, but we need to have competitive salaries for our staff and benefits that are sufficient in a comparative way," said Nerad.

Otherwise, the district shifted some staffing to federal funds and made some administrative cuts. Officials said that they tried avoiding cutting on major programs and classroom expenses. However, this is only for one year.

"In the end, this state needs to have a more complete conversation on what does it cost to education children well what it costs when we fail to do so well," Nerad said.

The last district is Monroe, where the overall budget hole was $2.7 million. The deficit is a combination of a failed operating referendum and state budget cuts.

"Certainly, we had to reduce program offerings in some areas, so that means that some classes get offered every other year instead of every year," said Larry Brown, Monroe school district administrator.

Officials said that they did make classroom cuts, eliminating around 18 teaching and staff positions. Some programs also shrunk and some classes increased in size. The district also cut $350,000 from their technology budget and $1,000 from maintenance.

This is all after they also got a pay freeze and increased contributions from their staff.

Monroe's taxes are going down by the most of the three districts -- decreasing their levy by 10 percent.

The owner of a $150,000 home would see taxes go down more than $130 in order to meet state-imposed revenue limits.

"The reforms certainly have given us the opportunity to make some reductions and to help with those reductions, but they didn't cover all of the deficit that we have so cuts still have to be made and choices have to be made and those are tough choices," Brown said.

What about next year?

In all three districts, most of the budget savings are one-year savings, meaning next year is likely to be dramatically different.

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