Rating the Suburbs 2008: How We Did It

To assess the quality of suburban life in Dane County, we first identified a set of key, measurable characteristics—crime rates, home costs, school rankings and more—that are often compared from community to community. Then we turned to a survey of Dane County residents that Madison Magazine and WISC-TV had commissioned for our previous studies. The University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee designed and conducted the survey a few years ago, and it is still one of the best and most comprehensive we’ve seen—forty questions that yielded a ranking of which characteristic was most important to Dane County residents, followed by which was second-most important, and so on.

In conjunction with the results of this survey, we used a mathematical formula that had been constructed by demographers at UW–Madison’s Applied Population Laboratory for previous studies. As in past years, the formula took the results of the survey and applied the relative importance of each characteristic—adjusted to a standard measure—against the real numbers we'd gathered in each category.

Here’s an example: Nearly ninety-eight percent of the people surveyed said crime was somewhat or very important to them in choosing where to live. It ranked No. 2. The mathematical formula allowed us to assign a weight to crime, giving it slightly more importance than the next most significant factor. The formula applies that weight to our data.

Now, a couple of caveats. First, the rate at which homes appreciated—or didn’t—is only a snapshot of how homes here fared during the ups and downs of the nation’s real estate market. Normally appreciation would be a category you could count on for improvement. That’s changed, which is why we predict that this category will reflect the largest change next time we do this report given the incredibly volatile housing market.

Secondly, as everyone knows, numbers can both enlighten and deceive. Is the bottom-ranked suburb in Dane County really a bad place to live? We’d be the first to say not by a long shot. These are suburbs of Madison, after all, a city that needs its own trophy shelf when it comes to best-of awards.

Furthermore, we’d like to note that any of these communities could rank at the top of any number of lists and that some of them—take a bow, Middleton—already have.

Here, then, are explanations of how we gathered and used the numbers, along with the weight of each criterion and its rank according to the survey.

Population: This isn’t really a category; a community’s population didn’t count for or against it in the scoring system. We just thought you’d want to know, and since it's reported in this year’s survey, we thought we’d also tell you that we got our numbers from the Wisconsin Department of Revenue 2006 County and Municipal Revenues and Expenditures Report.

Housing: A real-world figure: the median price of homes actually sold in each community during 2007. Lower is better. Weight: 9.7. Rank: 3.

Appreciation: Looking at the median price of homes sold in each community during 2006 and 2007 gives us the average percent by which that community’s home values appreciated or depreciated during from one year to the next. The South Central Wisconsin Multiple Listing Service Corporation provided the raw numbers for this and the following category. Some of this year’s results were pretty shocking. Weight: 8.9. Rank: 8.

Crime: The Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance compiles statistics from police departments across the state on index crimes—violent crimes, property crimes and theft—committed in each jurisdiction. With three exceptions, we selected our data entirely from these reports; in the case of Black Earth, Cambridge and Mazomanie, we received our data from the Dane County Sheriff’s office. Figures from the currently available 2006 Office of Justice Assistance report were used and reflect the number of crimes committed per 1,000 population. Weight: 9.9. Rank: 2.

Property Taxes: Property tax rates compiled and reported for 2006 by the Dane County Treasurer’s office were multiplied by the cost of a $200,000 home. Now you know how much or how little you’d pay in property taxes on the same home in 21 different communities. Weight: 9.6. Rank: 4 (tied with government services spending).

Government Services: Local government spending is tracked in the Wisconsin Department of Revenue County and Municipal Revenues and Expenditures report. We used the most recently reported statistics of 2006 and excluded the amount spent on police, fire and other public protection, as well as the spending devoted to parks and green space, and culture and education. Then we divided by population, and applied the optimistic concept that the more money government spends on services, the better the people are served. Weight: 9.6. Rank: 4 (tied with property taxes).

Schools: The state Department of Public Instruction provides data on a myriad of school and student achievement measures. We used the most recent complete report, the 2006-2007 School Performance Report. To address our survey respondents’ concerns about academic quality, class size and more, we selected the following categories: student-to-teacher ratios; high school graduation and dropout rates; average scores on the ACT and the statewide 3rd-grade, 4th-grade, 8th-grade and 10th-grade knowledge and concepts exams, and the percentage of students who were suspended during that school year. First, student-teacher ratios may seem low, but all teachers, even teachers of physical education, art and music, are included. Second, an average of the percentage of 4th-, 8th- and 10th-graders who scored “proficient” or “advanced” on the knowledge and concepts exams is the number that appears on our schools chart, while the average score for the 3rd-grade test stands alone because it includes only two categories, while the other tests include five. All the data were standardized by the Population Lab and combined for an overall school score. Communities served by more than one school district reflect either the score of the dominant elementary, middle and high school, or an average that is representative of the different schools serving a community. Weight: 8.8. Rank: 9.

Safety: Using the Wisconsin Department of Revenue 2006 County and Municipal Revenues and Expenditures report, we divided the amount each community spent on police, fire and other public protection by population to get our per capita figure. Again, the theory is that the more a community spends in this category, the safer its citizens are. Weight: 9.9. Rank: 1.

Parks: It's not possible to track the exact acreage of which portion of our federal, state and county parks lie within which municipal boundary. We chose to look, instead, at the amount a suburb invested, per person, in parks and recreation, as reported by the Wisconsin Department of Revenue 2006 County and Municipal Revenues and Expenditures report. In this category, too, more is better. Weight: 9.2. Rank: 7.

Culture: This used to be our “libraries” category, the one where we reported whether a suburb had its own municipal library. We did so because 93 percent of our survey respondents said it was important that they live near a public library. The thing is, most Dane County suburbanites do live near a public library—their own community’s or one of Madison’s, or a satellite of the Dane County library systems. So we decided to expand this category to include not just libraries but spending that supports libraries and other types of suburban cultural and educational opportunities. This amount is tabulated in the Wisconsin Department of Revenue 2006 County and Municipal Revenues and Expenditures report. The more a community spent on this category, the higher they scored in it. Weight: 9.5. Rank: 6.

Mary Erpenbach is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine. She has researched and reported all four “Rating the Suburbs” articles we’ve published since 1999.

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