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Could a Takeover of MPS Work?

Hurdles to overcome,and successes elsewhere are rare

Aug. 19, 2009
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Last Thursday Milwaukee Public Schools Board President Michael Bonds resigned from the appointed MPS Innovation and Improvement Advisory Council “immediately,” claiming that Gov. Jim Doyle, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and state Superintendent Tony Evers were meeting privately to discuss taking over the school district.

That forced Doyle and Barrett to disclose that they were seeking to take over the district. One scenario would allow the mayor to hire the next MPS superintendent and replace the elected school board with one he would appoint.

That would require a change in state law.

Patrick Curley, the mayor’s chief of staff, confirmed that Barrett had been in discussions with lawmakers about a change in MPS governance. “There’s nothing drafted right now,” Curley said last week.

State Rep. Annette Polly Williams (D- Milwaukee)—chair of the Assembly’s Education Reform Committee, which was set up to deal specifically with Milwaukee’s school system—said Doyle and Barrett have not discussed their plans with her. She said she would not support stripping the powers of an elected body, and doubted Milwaukee’s legislative delegation would support such a measure.

“If we don’t stop this, then we don’t deserve to say we represent Milwaukee,” Williams said.

The bill could be sent to the Assembly’s Education Committee if it were seen to affect school districts throughout the state, Williams said. Or Doyle may present the authority for a takeover in a larger education package to be delivered this fall.

Giving President Bonds a Chance

Curley said the fates of the city and the school system are so intertwined that the mayor should be accountable for both. But he cautioned that changes in MPS’s finances and academic achievement wouldn’t happen overnight.

“It would take a number of years to effectuate improvements and financial stability,” Curley said. “From a pragmatic point of view, changing governance isn’t waving a magic wand. Other things would have to be done.”

MPS is squeezed by an unsustainable school funding formula, money being siphoned to the private school voucher program, pressure on the board not to raise the property tax levy, declining enrollments and a significant achievement gap, especially for racial and ethnic minorities. Changing the governance of the district would not automatically change those factors.

Still, the April MPS board election has provided a ray of hope for the district. Three members are new to the board. Six of the nine members supported Michael Bonds for president, showing strong consensus for change. Bonds is seen as a technocrat; he has a doctorate in urban studies and an M.P.A. in public administration, and he’s served as a fiscal review analyst for City Hall.

John Ashley, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, which opposes a takeover, urged leaders to give the Bonds-led board a chance.

“Dr. Bonds is very adamant that he wants to make changes,” Ashley said. “He believes that the students in Milwaukee deserve better. Now that he has the opportunity to provide that leadership… Apparently if he didn’t get it done in four months, he doesn’t have any more time to work toward that outcome.”

Experiences Elsewhere

But do mayor-led school districts perform better than independent, elected boards? The evidence is mixed, said Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association.

“There really is no research to show that mayoral control leads to increased student achievement,” Bryant said. “What you do find is that when mayors work with the school board, whether elected or appointed, in partnership, [then] you do have some great improvements in administrative practices and in student achievement.”

Those types of partnerships vary, Bryant explained, and offered some examples.

The elected school board in San Francisco meets on a regular basis with that city’s mayor, Bryant said. Ditto for Atlanta. Boston’s mayor appoints the school committee, but he gets a slate of nominees from a committee of community members. In New Haven, Conn., the mayor sits on the school board and regularly attends meetings. In Norfolk, Va., the city council appoints the school board and meets regularly with them.

“Where it works, there is a strong partnership between the mayor and the school board,” Bryant said. “They are talking about how to make the city services work better to enhance students and their parents.”

In a recent study of school districts similar to MPS, the Milwaukee-based nonpartisan Public Policy Forum found that takeovers result after years of crisis and in a multi-step process. For example, Washington, D.C.’s mayor took over that city’s schools after a voter referendum approved the move in 2000. The city council re-established an elected board in 2004, only to have Congress pass mayoral-control legislation in 2007. In 1995, a federal court placed Cleveland’s schools under the state’s governance after the district failed to comply with a desegregation order and increase student performance and financial stability. Since 1998, the district has been under the authority of the mayor.

How did governance reforms turn out? The Public Policy Forum concluded that “the impacts of integrated governance on a district’s financial stability are positive to mixed,” but cautioned that a Milwaukee mayor working under the constraints of the state’s current funding formula “would not have much say in determining the amount of [state] aid.”

Although reliable data are scarce, student achievement can be raised under mayoral control, the Forum found, but “the achievement gap between high- and low-performing schools has not been shown to improve under a mayoral takeover.”


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