The Madison School Board approved the 2022-23 budget Monday night.

Passed the budget, the Madison School Board did.

Board members, including one dressed as "Star Wars"’ Yoda for Halloween, approved the 2022-23 budget on a 6-1 vote Monday night, treating property taxpayers to a reduced tax rate while acknowledging a tricky road ahead.

Nicki Vander Meulen, dressed as Yoda, was the lone vote against after her unsuccessful amendment proposal to create a timeline for extending an hourly wage increase to custodial staff.

The new budget totals $597.9 million in spending, up from the $515.7 million spent in 2021-22 and the $482.9 million the year prior. It’s also up from the June preliminary budget, which called for $561.3 million in spending.

The tax rate, however, is down to $9.97 per $100,000 of property value from the $11.40 rate in 2021-22 amid an increase in the tax base and a boost in state aid. That means a reduction of $62.16 on an “average home” in the district.

A significant piece of the spending increase from previous years comes from $42.9 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding plus additional one-time funding from the state and for specific initiatives like mental health.

“We made some really intelligent and thoughtful investments in our buildings, in the safety of our students and our staff using those one-time resources,” board president Ali Muldrow said. “However, in the long-term, I think we have a lot of work ahead of us in that one-time resources have really set us up to be incredibly agile in terms of our next budgets.”

A major initiative in the months since the June preliminary budget vote gave a $5 an hour raise to hundreds of hourly staff members in the district. Board members also expressed an interest in extending that raise to custodial staff, who have asked for such a move since it was given to other hourly staff, but they weren’t able to include it in this version of the budget given its complexity.

The budget also includes a 3% base wage increase along with “step and lane” advancements for experience, though that is below the maximum 4.7% increase that Madison Teachers Inc. had pushed for earlier this year.

The approval came amid some trepidation from board members and district leaders throughout the budget process, as they prepare for a “fiscal cliff” when the COVID-19 relief funding runs out. Given the uncertainty of the next state budget and what aid it will provide school districts, board members acknowledged challenges ahead even as they celebrated what they were able to do this year.

“We do have a lot of work ahead of us to make the structural changes we indicated would be necessary to get us back to balanced in forthcoming budgets,” board member Christina Gomez Schmidt said.

While it did not come up Monday, in past budget discussions, board member Savion Castro has suggested that another referendum may be needed if the district wants to continue initiatives started during the pandemic, or even maintain programming that existed pre-COVID.

That programming includes the expansion of full-day four-year-old kindergarten, mental health initiatives and a series of “Big Idea” projects suggested by staff that are in the middle of being tested.

In November 2020, MMSD voters approved two referendums. One funded renovations to the four comprehensive high schools and construction of a new elementary school, while the other allows the district to spend more than the state otherwise allows for operational purposes.

School districts around Wisconsin have increasingly gone to referendum to fund operations in recent years, including 42 operating questions on ballots this November. There are 39 capital referendum questions on ballots, as well.

The Nov. 8 election could have a significant effect on the future of public school funding, with incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers calling for large investments while opponent Republican Tim Michels has suggested expanding school choice among his main education policy items. That would likely negatively impact public school funding, though Michels has not offered specifics on how he would pay for a universal school choice program.

While the legislative branches are expected to remain in Republican control, a few seats could determine whether Republicans will have a supermajority and be able to bypass the veto pen if Evers is reelected.

Superintendent Carlton Jenkins explained the difficulty of the 2022-23 budget with a well-used refrain he has gone back to throughout the budget process, while touting the district’s “commitment to equity and excellence.”

“We’re forced to make decisions in this budget between what’s right and what’s right,” Jenkins said.

He encouraged anyone watching to vote on Nov. 8.

“When you look at this budget, you take all of the things that we have in here, I’m proud of it, but I’m not done and we’re not done,” he said.

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