Wednesday, December 17, 2014

GOT YOUR CITY PROPERTY BILL? CATCH THE LIE ON MPS?

By Dominique Paul Noth

I seem to  have  a higher standard of truth than either  the current Wisconsin government, whose bureaucrats deliberately  throw up one barrier, or the Milwaukee city government, which has  never forcibly challenged that barrier for what it is -- an offense to honesty.  

Such willingness to dissemble became visible to all city of Milwaukee property owners on their year-end tax bill – that so-called 2014 Combined Property Tax report.  Prominent in a graphic tearing apart a dollar bill to show which units of government cost the most,  it assures you that city services are only 34 cents on the dollar, the county only 17 cents, the sewerage district (MMSD) 6 cents and the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) a mere four cents. 

But the No. 1 villain of the tax levies according to the dollar  breakdown is MPS,  the Milwaukee Public Schools at 39 cents on the dollar, supposedly 5 cents more than the city. 

This is the first piece of dishonesty brought to you by Comptroller Martin Matson, responsible for the information. Because it actually should be the city first (and only cunningly is that suggested in an inside tiny green chart on comparative tax rates). Deliberately putting the MPS first on the more prominent dollar bill piles on for the taxpayer those news and right-wing reports orchestrating the attitude that MPS is a failure.

In reality that’s a hard sell considering MPS top high schools are among the best in the nation and serve as  national models. It becomes an easier sell if you neglect as so many reporters do the extreme central city poverty, the displaced populace, the persistent pockets of runaway unemployment and then blame the schools and their struggles with reading rates for all that – as opposed to recognizing as many national experts do that MPS is actually rising against a horrible tide and doing better in broad terms than its opposition.

Add in the constant chorus that the number of students within MPS keeps shrinking while the system seems the No. 1 growing cost to property owners, thanks to Matson’s misleading dollar bill, and you’ll understand why so many swallow the hype and think as deserved comeuppances all the efforts to weaken MPS, take over its buildings and attack its veteran teaching corps. 

Except it’s an economic lie, a P.T. Barnum myth that puts a price tag on children as a way of attacking their most devoted professionals. In the current environment, where penny counters rule, the misconception on the tax bill on who gets the most property tax revenue carries ugly weight.

I hate to attack Matson who is known for general accountability competence, except this is an example of how fidelity to tradition is not the same as honesty.  It’s a damnable lie when you consider all the politics and the funding cuts as well as the ignorant attitudes standing in the way of public schooling. MPS is far from perfect, but now your friendly property tax bill has magnified the partisan bullying.

Part of the success of the lie is a defective state education funding formula  compounded by an antiquated Milwaukee property tax method conceived in the days when most families with kids owned homes and the property tax seemed a fair way to pay for the third of the costs the state’s income tax  didn’t cover. 

Except today’s state is not even paying two-thirds of K-12 public education as once promised.   In Milwaukee, more and more parents with kids live in apartments or rent houses from landlords. Home-owning retirees who once valued the schools their now grown kids attended are paying for the schools on fixed incomes surrounded by publicity that makes them question the value of that outlay, which hits them in a lump at the end of the year. So that bill can stir anger at the schools -- especially if people don’t know what they’re paying for and don’t recognize how accounting tricks have created a nearly $100 million slander against what MPS is actually costing taxpayers.

Looking at the language and largest graphs within the bill, the home owner thinks the levy cost for MPS has grown 1%.  It  actually dropped 0.6% in one year.  What actually has grown by 8.5% is  the levy for a hidden school district, the second largest school district in the state,  the voucher program. And since Madison makes sure those costs can be fobbed off on MPS, which never sees a dime, it is MPS that looks poorly run and overly expensive, not the voucher school program, known as the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).

MPCP is  actually the sixth unit of local government on a tax bill that only reports five  units.  About 20% of what is blamed on the MPS it never sees, thanks to bureaucratic accounting finesse in Madison. 

If this was about truth it would be the city of Milwaukee that would lead the cost figures  in the  levy parade and MPS would drop to second place. The voucher school district known as Milwaukee Parental Choice Program  would be tucked into any pie graph  just behind Milwaukee County and ahead of the MMSD and MATC.  Nor has the state added a single dime in a year to the High Poverty Offset Aid used to sell the voucher program in Milwaukee though state tax credits and offsets have reduced the MPS portion of the so-called MPS levy.  

In fact that entire dollar bill dissection would have the city first at 34 cents, followed by MPS, the county and the MPCP. 

To put it another way that would spell it out for the bean counters, the city’s tax levy has gone up a modest 1.2% since 2013 (and the city has been a responsible steward of the public money)  but the MPS, listed as rising 1% in costs, actually dropped by .06%. It was the MPCP  that actually went up 8.5%, so while MPS is spending less this year it looks like it is spending more.

But it is the city that creates this bill and furthers the illusion that does an injustice to reality.  

The false arithmetic that allows this was concocted in Madison fine print but has been encouraged by the misnamed “school choice” organizations, several led by chamber of commerce lobbyists living outside the city and by former felons like Scott Jensen and Katy Veskus.


There are several consequences  of this deception, but the foremost dupe is the state taxpayers. Many  still believe the state income tax  is funding the voucher school program, but the legislature made sure counties outside Milwaukee wouldn’t face such a “voucher tax” burden (they would have rebelled).  In fact, $56.3 million a year – much more than a quarter of the statewide voucher  program – comes directly from the Milwaukee property tax.

City taxpayers are the second dupe, and you can’t help wondering if the city’s laziness in fighting the state bureaucrats on this is also a bit of PR. Agreeing to the lie allows the city to appear only the second highest cost on the bill as opposed to the first. 

MPS has long been angry at this dissembling, and frankly the city leaders agree in principle, especially a sympathetic city treasurer, Spencer Coggs. Or so he personally assured me.  But so far the city has only taken feeble feints to correct the impression, despite negotiations by MPS and others.  It will take pressure from the mayor and common council to change the internal thinking.

Two years ago MPS got the city to at least insert a yellow slip inside the bill, outlining in small print the technical facts, including that “MPS is the only school district in the state compelled” to include in its levy tax money it doesn’t get. That was a baby step toward full transparency.  The yellow slip, one of several inserts in the mailing, states flatly that MPCP gets $56.3 million this year from city property tax payers and that MPS sees none of that.

But more prominent and larger  on the bill is that dollar bill deception and the list of tax levies in a three-way green foldout  that fails to mention MPCP in any fashion. The city has refused to correct the major explanation, with curious debates about ink and paper costs and the need to change a state subset regulation, or even saying the public would be confused by sunlight.     “The voters aren’t economists,” one city bureaucratic told me to justify the evasion – a curious echo of the thinking of the GOP senators who claim that they can’t believe in climate change because they are not scientists.

The political reality seems the city doesn’t want to go to bat on this one. They have enough trouble with Madison on many other fronts. So why should the city fight to correct a property tax lie involving the public schools it once tried to take over? Indeed why own up that the city is helping spread the falsehood rather than tackle the business types and voucher-charter conduits the city works with?  

Incidentally, the press on the right constantly conflates voucher schools, which can be religious, with charter schools, which by definition are public schools free of following some rules. But most charter schools in Wisconsin are run and monitored by public school districts, certainly the good ones untainted by scandal, something most advocates of school choice don’t emphasize.

Yet influential choice organizations have also fought acknowledging the lost levy unit on the Milwaukee property tax bill, in confidence the Madison legislature will resist spelling out the true cause of excess education costs – and the city won’t readily tilt against chambers the city does business with.   The era of Don Quixote is long past.

Meanwhile academic researchers and investigative reporters -- even at newspapers friendly to the voucher movement – may be changing the landscape and force politicians to get on board before they are burned. It may be time the city stood up against the false crowing that a voucher school education only costs $7,210 per K-8 student and $7,856 for high school – note how that cost to the state taxpayers has crept up over the years and no one knows the full expense – compared with some $11,000 for MPS students. The comparison is another part of the deception of school choice, which attacks criticism of its own figures with its  own set of misinformation.  

The cost differences are questionable because of all the clever ways most voucher schools have cherry-picked students and dumped the most expensive special needs children – emotional, cognitive and disabled – back on MPS and its highly trained specialists. The prize-winning experts have begun digging around as the government should have at all the hidden money and grants the voucher and independent charter movement has been receiving beyond taxpayer support to justify cost figures and weak results.

Factual evidence is growing that the school choice movement is aswim in less accountability, more corruption, nepotism, untrained or rapidly departing teachers and hidden funding from people with an ideological agenda who could quickly abandon these schools and neighborhoods for greener pastures. 

There are sincere people in the voucher movement and the independent charter movement who believe their experimentations contain values, especially religious values parents cling to, and that on grounds of morality and discipline they can make a good case for their programs if you accept the dressing and don’t check under the hood for long-term results.

It is honest “choice” trumpeters, hardly liberal in leanings,  who admit disgust at how the voucher school movement and the privateer advocates can’t separate a moral noble purpose from the  fly by night operators and  questionable funding sources that dominate exposes on rip-offs and failures. In conversation if not in public, they worry that it is wrong to not fight it out directly on accountability scores, student success  and apples-to-apples funding. 

But making their case on merit requires openly discussing the costs of different sorts of schools and comparing results, which brings us back to an honest tax bill.

If the city, even down to its tax mailing, blocks understanding of how education is funded and where your hard-earned money goes, it destroys the reliable financial measurement that should be the cornerstone of good Milwaukee government.  For the mayor and common council to allow this sort of deception on the very tax bill they produce  has become a yellow stain that raises questions about their own integrity and guts. 

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its famous entertainment Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com