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MPS Mayoral Takeover Opponents Say They’ll Fight On

Plus: Board President Bonds releases an accountability report

Aug. 26, 2009
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Opponents of a mayoral takeover of the Milwaukee Public Schools said the change would not help the district compete for federal money, nor would it improve student performance or accountability.

At a press conference at City Hall on Monday, opponents of the takeover said the attempt to replace the democratically elected school board with one appointed by the mayor threatens the gains made by the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The governance change would require a modification of state law enacted by the state Legislature and the governor. It’s unlikely Milwaukee residents would have the opportunity to vote on the takeover.

Milwaukee Alderman Tony Zielinski, who organized Monday’s press conference, said what’s at stake is “the fundamental right to vote.”

Jerry Ann Hamilton, head of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP, said the takeover must be placed in the context of the black community’s long struggle to obtain equal voting rights. The proposed takeover would have the effect of disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of Milwaukee voters.

“We are disappointed that the governor, the mayor and the superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction conducted little outreach to the affected communities before proposing such radical reforms,” Hamilton said.


Bonds Says Votes Are Not for Sale

MPS Board President Michael Bonds, who resigned from the mayor’s MPS advisory council because he refused to go along with the governance change, said Gov. Jim Doyle, Mayor Tom Barrett and state Superintendent Tony Evers were “misleading the public” by implying that a mayoral takeover of MPS would make Wisconsin more likely to receive federal “Race to the Top” money.

Bonds pointed out that Wisconsin’s education system doesn’t fit the criteria for these funds, which will be distributed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

“Milwaukee votes are not for sale,” Bonds said. State Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee), a former MPS board member, said that elected representatives would be more responsive than appointed board members to the needs of constituents.

Sinicki, vice chair of the Assembly’s Education Reform Committee—which is chaired by state Rep. Annette Polly Williams (D-Milwaukee), who also opposes the takeover—said she would block any bill that would change control of MPS to an appointed board.

“If a bill is drafted, it’ll die,” Sinicki said. “If it doesn’t die, I’ll amend it to include all districts in the state.”

Williams said the state Legislature would not vote to strip away the power of another democratically elected body. “There are not the votes in the state for this,” Williams said.

It’s About the Kids, Mayor Says

The City Hall press conference took place on the first day Mayor Barrett returned to work, following his attack after leaving the State Fair.

Barrett issued a response after the press conference: “To show up at an organized press event and summarily dismiss MPS governance reform without acknowledging our children’s educational needs or the facts about MPS educational outcomes is either a sad sign of self-interest or a deliberate attempt to run from the facts.”

Barrett said MPS leads the nation in the racial achievement gap, has an “unacceptably high” high school dropout rate and is facing huge financial challenges.

But MPS Board member Terry Falk said that mayoral takeovers in other cities “are not a panacea.”

He pointed to Chicago’s school district, which had been led by Mayor Richard Daley appointee Arne Duncan, now the secretary of education.

A study conducted by the Commercial Club of Chicago found that academic gains made by elementary students in the mayor-controlled Chicago Public Schools “appear to be due to changes in the tests made by the Illinois State Board of Education, rather than real improvements in student learning.” The study called the performance of Chicago’s high schools “abysmal.”

Falk said mayor-controlled school districts are more likely to shift resources from low-income students to middle-class areas, so a city can attract more middle-class residents.

Increased Accountability Measures

The Monday press conference wasn’t the only movement made on MPS reform. While the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin announced their support for a mayoral takeover of MPS, Congresswoman Gwen Moore issued a statement decrying the takeover.

Moore wrote: “We will not rectify the challenges facing MPS unless we talk about poverty, teen pregnancy and the perverted policy initiatives that have exacerbated this problem for our city’s public schools. MPS is working with a flawed state funding formula that sends our public dollars to private schools outside of the city. … I fully believe that the governor and the mayor have the best intentions for MPS; however, I have yet to hear a credible explanation of how these difficult challenges get fixed by simply changing the way that our school board is chosen.”

On Tuesday, MPS Board President Bonds announced more details about the board’s recently established Office of Accountability, which is responsible for increasing transparency, oversight and accountability of MPS’s finances. The office will oversee the district’s accounting, conduct an annual systemwide analysis and make financial forecasts, monitor all contracts—including charter school contracts— and oversee all grants, endowments and donations made to the district.


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