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Chris Rickert: List of targets could be long for leader of Boys and Girls Club

October 8, 2017 GMT

Boys & Girls Club of Dane County CEO Michael Johnson has made a point in recent weeks of identifying things the city of Fitchburg proposes to fund next year that aren’t his employer and the many low-income children of color it serves. Some of his allies have even launched an effort to recall the mayor.

It strains credulity to believe that the head of a major nonprofit doesn’t know how easy it is to go through a government budget and find money spent on things that arguably are not as important as some other things the government isn’t spending money on.

But just in case Johnson plans to subject other local municipal budgets to his fine-toothed comb, I thought I’d give him a few places to start.

It seemed appropriate to look at the Madison School District first, given that on Tuesday, two Madison School Board members, Anna Moffit and Nicki Vander Meulen, took to Facebook in support of Johnson’s Fitchburg grievance.

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Invoking Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation that “history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people,” Vander Meulen declared: “I’m done being silent.”

“I do not believe that this budget reflects the values and priorities for the community of Fitchburg and hope that it will be changed to make sure that the children come first, not last,” Moffit said. Although she told me she “would support Fitchburg establishing a consistent process for funding and evaluating non-profit partnerships.” That’s a good idea but one Johnson rejected last year.

It’s ironic to see two people who sit on the board of a school district that has consistently failed to close the minority achievement gap — and who seem in no hurry to implement any major changes that might — lecturing anyone to spend more money on services for minority youth.

It also didn’t take me more than a few minutes to find expenditures in the district’s preliminary 2017-18 operating budget that seem far less important than feeding and supervising kids at a neighborhood center located just on Fitchburg’s side of its border with Madison — which is what the Boys & Girls Club had been using the $50,000 in noncompetitive Fitchburg grant money to pay for.

For one, the district’s $390 million budget sets aside about $764,000 for employee travel, a 10 percent increase from last year.

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There’s also $120,000 in one-time funds budgeted this year for upgrades to the human resources outer office at the Doyle Administration Building. Other spending from the same account includes projects that are arguably much more kid-focused — $100,000 for “all-gender restroom and locker room needs,” for example.

Madison’s mayor and the Dane County executive have also proposed spending money on things that, on their face, seem less essential than caring for poor minority kids.

Madison’s proposed $313.9 million operating budget includes a 27 percent increase in City Council funding for items including a new chief of staff position and benefits for part-time council members. Dane County’s $537.6 million proposed operating budget includes $200,000 to study a “large scale composting operation.”

The school district has put more than $1.5 million annually into the AVID/TOPS college-readiness program run jointly by the district and the Boys & Girls Club. “So they are doing their part to invest in young people we serve,” Johnson said. Madison’s 2018 budget would also devote $240,000 in local tax dollars to the club.

Of course, investing in young people is pretty much a school district’s one and only job. And the city of Madison not only has the bulk of the county’s low-income children of color, its population is also nine times larger than Fitchburg’s and its budget 15 times larger than Fitchburg’s.

None of the county’s other 59 municipalities fund the Boys & Girls Club, whose reach ostensibly stretches to the county’s borders. Proposed Dane County funding consists of $15,000 for a county government internship program for club kids. The county Human Services Department also would continue an approximately $52,000 contract with the club for “basketball and recreational services for youth,” according to director Lynn Green.

All this parsing of budgets can miss the point, given that lots government expenditures are arguably “for the kids” — not just those expenditures for a specific agency led by a specific CEO.

Money like that in the Fitchburg budget to fix roads, provide ride-sharing and decrease the time it takes for an ambulance to arrive, for example, benefit kids — assuming their parents need to get places and would prefer timely medical attention when their kids fall ill.

Johnson and his supporters hope to deliver hundreds of people to lobby for Club funding at Fitchburg’s Tuesday City Council meeting.

Attendance was far lower at the city’s Finance Committee meetings last week, when Fitchburg officials spent almost five hours explaining the budget and the funding decisions behind it.

That’s not surprising. The devil is the details, after all, and who wants to bother with those?