September 6, 2013
by James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute
In his profile of Mary Burke for the Wisconsin State Journal, Matthew DeFour began with a quote from one of her colleagues at Trek saying she is “so not a politician.” Perhaps not yet. But with her recent flip-flop on taxes and spending in the Madison school district, Burke is looking more like a politician every day.
Burke’s only elected office is her current one, a member of the school board for the Madison Metropolitan School District. The school board recently passed a new budget that increases local property taxes by 4.47 percent. The two votes for the budget and the tax levy were 6-1, and Burke was the lone dissenter each time.
Burke gave few explanations for voting no on the tax levy and the budget. In an email to the Wisconsin State Journal, she wrote, “The superintendent is on the right track and I’m impressed by the progress she has made, but given the projected cut in state funding and the increase in the local tax levy, I don’t think this budget meets that test of balance.”
The Wisconsin State Journal reports Burke “didn’t respond to a follow-up question about what she wanted done differently.” Burke also did not respond to an email request for an interview for this article.
Her position is a reversal from last year when she supported a 4.95 percent increase in the tax levy. Of the previous budget, she even expressed concern that the district was pushing spending into the future. She said at the meeting, “I think we’re sort pushing a lot into the future that we are going to have a very hard time dealing with next year.” (The tax levy in the 2012-2013 budget only increased by 1.75 percent after an increase in state aid, but that was after Burke voted for the 4.95 percent increase.)
It’s hard to judge Burke’s vote this year without an understanding of what she meant by a, “test of balance.” However, earlier this year Burke was quoted in the Capital Times saying she did not want the proposed tax increase to be more than the rate of inflation.
“I think in an environment where we’ve seen real wages in Dane County decrease, and a lot of people are on fixed incomes, we have to work as hard as possible to limit any increase to the inflation rate.”
So if she had a hard time cutting the budget last year and feels that spending was pushed into this year and the future of the district, what did Burke want to cut out of the budget to meet her supposed goal of a tax increase less than inflation?
Burke did say to the Capital Times that she wanted to hold off on any salary increases until October when the final aid numbers were known. She also said that the increases should be part of the collective bargaining process, and that she was opposed to an across the board increase.
There was no indication of what else Burke would have cut from the district budget to meet her goal. Nor is there any explanation why this year was different than the previous year when she supported higher taxes.
Compare Burke’s backtracking on taxes and spending, and her refusal to explain her new position, with the recent controversy over whether Governor Scott Walker’s job pledge was a promise or a target. Will other media outlets continue to press Burke on what she would have done differently with the school district budget? Or will the state media just focus on splitting hairs with the Walker Administration?
The Madison school district faces many challenges. It is behind the rest of the state in implementing the cost savings of Act 10 because the teachers union is still fighting the law in court. The district has a racial achievement gap that is worse than Milwaukee’s. The district is suffering from declining enrollment issues because of the state’s open enrollment policy allows parents to have more educational choices. The district also has to deal with private school choice for the first time.
Regardless of whether Burke decides to run for governor or if she remains a school board member, she needs to explain what she would have liked the district to do differently to cut spending. Because the budget votes were six to one, her vote may not have mattered. But to her constituents, her reasons for voting do matter.