This week, Milwaukee Public Schools formed a new community task force that will guide the district's decision on a potential spring tax referendum.
The task force will recommend priorities that a voter referendum could support, like small class sizes or increasing the number of school counselors. But the MPS Board has already charged forward with new multimillion-dollar commitments that may strain the district’s budget.
One is a new salary schedule plan. When the school board pledged to reinstate salary schedules earlier this year, the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association said it could help transform MPS into a destination district for educators.
But reconciling the new expenses with the district’s financial reality is proving difficult.
Phase one of the salary schedule went into effect at the beginning of this school year. It cost $5 million and boosted wages for the lowest-paid employees, like cafeteria workers and classroom aides.
Phase two is where things get tricky. This phase covers teachers, school psychologists, social workers, nurses, speech language pathologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and interpreters.
These employees were under the impression that raises would be in place by January. But Superintendent Keith Posley is now saying it will happen "no later" than March because the budget this fiscal year can handle no more than $6 million to pay for the teacher raises.
"The March date was a worst case scenario that we had to put in place," Posley said.
Teachers and others affected by phase two of the salary schedules spoke out against the delay at October meetings.
"The question before you tonight is, am I expendable?" said teacher Chris Hermann. "Are the teachers and staff in this room and across the district replaceable?"
That wasn't the only complaint.
The salary schedule in its current form would not count an educator's years of experience if they were working with an emergency license, also known as permit teachers. MPS has a lot of permit teachers — 585 this year. They get temporary licenses while pursuing certification in alternative programs.
"Now I'm being told those years count for exactly nothing in the eyes of the district," said permit teacher Angela Harris. "I feel insulted, unappreciated, and not valued."
Posley says it would cost at least $5 million to count permit teacher experience in the pay scales — and that the district can't afford it at this point.
MPS is already spending millions more than originally budgeted due to the salary schedules and new music education standards adopted by the board. Matt Chason, with the MPS Office of Accountability and Efficiency, warned the board that it's digging the district into a deeper hole.
"There is an iceberg on our financial horizon," Chason said. "It is imperative that the board understand the impact its decision making will make on our trajectory and speed towards it."
That iceberg is a projected $50 million deficit next year and a $400 million shortfall in five years.
Board member Bob Peterson said those numbers are sobering, but the community has opportunities to help the district increase revenue.
"Support a referendum on April 7," Peterson said. "Secondly, help find a new president in November so we can get federal funds. And thirdly, in November and in the future, help transform our state Assembly and Senate so we have sentient beings up there that know the importance of public education."
But board member Paula Phillips said the district needs to look beyond political strategies.
"If that [referendum] money doesn't come in, what is this board, what is this administration, what is the district willing to do to think about the kids we have now, to think about the teachers we have now?" Phillips said. "That means we have to make hard decisions about what our facilities look like."
Phillips emphasized that it's in the district's power to cut costs by better aligning its stock of school buildings with declining student enrollment.
For now, MPS is moving forward with salary schedules, even though the funding plan for future years is uncertain. The school board said attracting and retaining staff is too important to wait.
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