MMAC beefing up opposition to MPS referendum

As the spring election rapidly approaches, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) is calling on, not just its 2,000 members, but voters city-wide, to vote against Milwaukee Public Schools’ $252 million property tax referendum.

After issuing a letter to its membership on March 8 urging them to “vote no,” the association has launched an ad campaign dubbed “Enough is Enough. Vote No,” calling on all city residents to reject the district’s request to raise taxes when they go to the polls on April 2.

The increase in the MPS levy is expected to amount to an extra $2.16 per $1,000 of valuation, which would result in an extra $432 in taxes on a home assessed at $200,000. The increase would be far higher for larger, commercial buildings. For example, Irgens’ 833 E. Michigan St. office building, which was last assessed at roughly $90.45 million, could see the MPS portion of its tax bill increase by more than $200,000.

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MPS officials say the funding increase is needed to prevent about $200 million in budget cuts – cuts they say are due to state-imposed property tax caps that have made it impossible for the district funding to keep pace with inflation and have enough resources to compensate and recruit teachers and serve students.

The MMAC-supported political ad, which says the district has squandered previous funding increases and shouldn’t get any more money without a firm plan in place, began airing on local TV and radio stations on Tuesday.

Focusing on renters

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In his March 8 letter to members, MMAC president Dale Kooyenga notes that the district’s latest ask comes less than five years after the district’s successful 2020 referendum, which saw it seek and receive an $87 million increase in its levy. Around that time the district also received $800 million in one-time federal pandemic relief aid.

“This referendum is being brought forward less than five years after passage of an $87 million revenue limit increase without a clear plan on how to improve educational outcomes, even as academic performance continues to be at or near the bottom of all major city school districts. We cannot continue to perpetuate the same strategies and expect different outcomes,” Kooyenga writes in the letter, adding that the increased tax burden on residents and businesses will hurt the city’s efforts to attract more residents and workers.

On Tuesday, the organization followed up that letter and ad campaign, with a new post on its website stating that it has polled 50 local property managers about the referendum, and that 45 of them said they would “pass costs” associated with tax increase on to tenants if the referendum passes.

“No one is immune from increased housing costs should this massive tax increase pass,” Kooyenga states in the post. “Area landlords have spoken loud and clear. Rents will spike if this measure is approved.”

Growing opposition

MMAC’s opposition to the referendum has been steadily growing since MPS School Board members voted on Jan. 11 to put the question on the ballot. In a message to members on Jan. 24, Kooyenga noted that the association had “significant concerns” about the size of the referendum.

“MPS is a critical part of K-12 education in the city of Milwaukee. We also recognize that more than 40% of city students receiving public funding attend schools outside of MPS,” Kooyenga said, referring to charter and choice schools in the city. “A comprehensive effort to improve student outcomes is critical to the region’s future, however the proposal to raise an additional $252 million from taxpayers in this MPS proposal raises more questions than answers.”

Kooyenga also expressed opposition about the referendum at BizTimes Media’s annual Milwaukee Education Spotlight event on Feb. 28.

“A quarter billion dollar increase in property taxes will put Milwaukee among the highest property tax cities in the Midwest. Google how much the average American has in savings. It’s $400 (tax increase) for the medium family home in Milwaukee,” Kooyenga told event attendees. “Milwaukee needs a middle class. We need a middle class, and our middle class cannot afford those types of property tax increases. It also doesn’t welcome businesses.”

MPS response

MPS officials did not respond to a request from BizTimes Milwaukee asking for their response to MMAC’s criticisms, but in a statement posted to the district’s website on Tuesday – the same day MMAC’s ads began airing – district leaders said failure of the referendum could jeopardize strides the district has made.

“Milwaukee Public Schools is one of over 90 Wisconsin school districts putting referenda on the ballot this year because of the state’s continued underfunding of public schools. The MPS tax rate has been declining since 2011, even after voters approved a referendum in 2020. The 2020 referendum was used to make substantial improvements for students at MPS, primarily by hiring additional teachers and other staff and modernizing equipment,” the statement reads. “The revenue-limit increase that MPS is seeking in April would be used to continue the strides made by the district since 2020 — in achieving smaller class sizes, attracting and keeping high-quality teachers, and expanding student access to music, visual arts, physical education, libraries, career and technical education, and more.”

Lingering questions

The failure of the referendum, the statement goes on to say, would find MPS facing a budget shortfall “of at least $200 million in fiscal year 2025,” one it says would “lead to larger class sizes, cuts to teaching positions, reductions in educational programming, and less support for student mental health.”

But in a recent analysis of the referendum, researchers with the Wisconsin Policy Forum (WPF) have determined that it isn’t really clear whether the failure of the referendum would result in actual cuts to staff and programing.

“Ultimately, the report finds that it remains difficult to judge if ‘a failed referendum would mean $200 million of cuts, forgoing $200 million of hoped-for service expansions, the need for immediate steps to right size positions and facilities, or a combination of all of the above,’” a WPF press release summarizing the report states.

It is clear that MPS finances have been constrained by tax caps, the report states, noting the state formula bases the amount the district can levy on the size of its enrollment. In the last 20 years, MPS has seen its enrollment drop by 31.5% — from 98,663 students in 2004 to 67,577 this year. During that same period the number of students attending state-funded voucher schools as part of the the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, more than tripled from 8,591 students in the 2003-04 school year to 29,003 this school year. Enrollment in publicly funded charter schools in the city has also grown exponentially in the last 20 years.

MMAC has been an ardent supporter of school choice for decades, recently celebrating a public policy win of its own following the signing of legislation in June that boosted state per-pupil funding for choice and charter schools.

While the Policy Forum report does not directly address MMAC’s political allegiances and policy priorities — the report is not a response to the association’s stance but a standalone study of the questions before voters — its authors concede that  “legitimate questions can be raised about how well district leaders have set the stage for such a big ask from voters.”

WPF suggests MPS leaders might strengthen their cause by “sharing a formal plan for continuing to adjust facilities and staffing levels in accordance with reduced enrollment.”

“Local residents and businesses should know whether the extra amount they are being asked to pay might be a pathway toward improved offerings and outcomes,” the report states, “as opposed to simply another effort to stave off programmatic reductions and financial instability.”

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