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School tax outrage hits Milwaukee

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Joel McNally
November 5, 2007

When Milwaukee School Superintendent William Andrekopoulos proposed a 16.4 percent property tax increase for Milwaukee Public Schools, tax-cut politicians started spluttering apoplectically like Sylvester the Cat in the old cartoons.


Sure, everyone demands MPS do something about its horrendous achievement gap between black and white students and the worst reading scores in the nation, but you don’t have to get ridiculous about educating poor kids. Just as outraged as politicians were the media. When only one citizen showed up to object at the first public hearing on that 16.4 percent property tax increase, the media couldn’t believe it.


Under the guise of a “news analysis,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote a front-page editorial demanding to know of Milwaukee residents, in essence: “What is the matter with you people!?”


Education reporter Alan Borsuk wrote that the media showed up at the public hearing “expecting a ruckus” over the big tax increase and were sorely disappointed by the shortage of outraged homeowners.


Because of the poor turnout, the Milwaukee School Board scheduled another hearing before voting on Andrekopoulos’s property tax proposal.


After being chastised severely by the media for failing to be sufficiently inflamed, an angry mob of citizens showed up at the second hearing waving torches and pitchforks. OK, it was just the rhetorical equivalent. But the media were happy to be able to report lots of angry conflict. The hearing lasted for hours before the Milwaukee School Board voted in early morning to cut the property tax increase from 16.4 percent to 9 percent.


Actually, there were some major reasons to be outraged that Andrekopoulos, a low-key education bureaucrat, would need to propose such an enormous property tax increase for Milwaukee schools. But very few in the media seemed to have a clue what was really responsible for that whopping increase.


Hint: It wasn’t local school officials.


Remember how conservative Republicans in the Legislature held up the state budget for months so they could posture interminably over how much they were opposed to increased taxes? Well, guess what? The need for that enormous property tax increase for Milwaukee schools was a direct result of actions taken, and actions not taken, by all those self-proclaimed tax heroes in the Legislature.


If a 16.4 percent increase in property taxes for schools is so outrageous, what would a more reasonable increase be? How about a 2.68 percent increase? That’s more like it, right?


Well, that is how much Andrekopoulos proposed to increase spending for Milwaukee Public Schools. So where did all the rest of that 16.4 percent property tax increase come from? The answer is from all those self-avowed opponents of taxation in the Legislature. Next year Milwaukee Public Schools will receive $19 million less in state aid than MPS did this year. In addition to that $19 million loss in state aid, Milwaukee property taxpayers also have to pay $4 million more as a result of the expansion of the voucher school program.


Ironically, Milwaukee taxpayers have to pay more for each child who leaves MPS to attend a voucher school than they would pay to educate those same children in MPS. Taken together, the Legislature’s failure to correct either of those funding disadvantages for Milwaukee shifts $23 million in school costs from the state to local property taxes.


Of course, Andrekopoulos did not have to propose raising property taxes to fill that enormous $23 million hole in his budget created by the Legislature. He could simply have further gutted the education of Milwaukee school children.


It is a familiar pattern in Milwaukee, the state’s only majority African-American and Latino school district. These are the children who have the greatest educational needs and the greatest educational obstacles. Not wanting to waste perfectly good tax money on children living in poverty, the Legislature perpetuates a school funding formula that benefits wealthy suburban districts where children already have every educational advantage.


The next time the media want to whip citizens into an outrage over taxation for education, they should start inflaming public opinion over blatant educational inequities that shortchange children with the greatest needs.



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