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Baffling Political Battle

Dec. 23, 2009
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Why would Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, running for governor, continue an apparently losing fight on a controversial local issue that doesn’t gain him any votes statewide and tears apart his political base at home?

Barrett’s attempt to seize control of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) from the elected school board failed to muster enough support in the Legislature last week to even bring up the issue after Gov. Jim Doyle called a special session. The Legislature adjourned without discussing mayoral control.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee School Board, under the leadership of President Michael Bonds, has narrowed its national search for a new superintendent down to three finalists—two African Americans and a Latino—all with experience in urban school districts.

Extending an olive branch, Bonds invited Barrett to personally interview the three finalists and make a recommendation to the board. He also named Barrett to a community panel advising the board on the selection. The diverse committee includes Alfonzo Thurman, UW-Milwaukee dean of education, state Rep. Annette Polly Williams, former Mayor Marvin Pratt, private philanthropist Julia Uihlein and prominent Latino, Hmong, American-Indian and union leaders.

The school board could select a new superintendent as soon as mid-January. Since the Legislature normally wouldn’t go back into session until late January, state legislation drafted to allow the mayor to name the next superintendent is fast becoming moot.

So far during this season of peace, Barrett has not accepted Bonds’ invitation to interview the three finalists, all with strong educational credentials, who have applied for the job.

Barrett rejected an earlier compromise on a total mayoral takeover of the Milwaukee school district even though, if Barrett’s campaign for governor is successful, he wouldn’t even be the mayor to control the schools.

State Rep. Tamara Grigsby and state Sen. Spencer Coggs provided the mayor a graceful way out by proposing compromise legislation that would create a partnership between the mayor and the elected school board.

The Grigsby-Coggs bill would create an executive-legislative system to run city schools following the same structure as the mayor and the Common Council, the governor and the Legislature and even the president and the Congress.

The mayor would be the chief executive with the power to propose school policies. The elected school board would serve as the legislative branch acting on proposals by the mayor or by their own members. The mayor would have veto power and it would take a two-thirds majority of the school board to override any veto.

The proposal would give Barrett more power than any mayor has ever had over Milwaukee schools, exactly the same power he has over every city issue that passes through the Common Council.

The legislation also had the advantage of keeping real power in the hands of an elected school board. After complaints that Barrett’s takeover was anti-democratic, denying voters the power to elect their own school board representatives, the mayoral takeover legislation retained a sham school board that would have virtually no power over important educational decisions.


Rejecting Compromise

Rather than embrace the traditional checks and balances the president and governors and mayors all over America operate under, Barrett insisted the mayor should be given total, unchecked power over the public schools.

To many, the hard line taken by Barrett seems totally out of character for a mayor whose conciliatory, nice-guy approach to politics is seen by his supporters as a strength and by his critics as his greatest weakness.

“That’s not Tom Barrett,” said one veteran politician on the opposite side of the school fight. Many believe the corporate leaders of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) are the ones calling the shots on the mayoral takeover.

The MMAC, never considered friends of public education, held private meetings for nearly a year to discuss giving the mayor control of MPS before Barrett himself publicly launched his takeover campaign.

Barrett has repeatedly denied any collusion with MMAC. But it added to the conspiracy theories when Barrett announced he might consider appointing a businessman as the next MPS superintendent rather than an educator.

Whatever was behind Barrett’s uncharacteristic power play, the longer the so-far losing battle continues, the less sense it makes politically. As soon as Barrett announced his candidacy for governor, no one could even say who the mayor might be who would be handed unprecedented power over the largest and most challenging public education system in the state.

Voters around the state, already suspicious of candidates from Milwaukee, see Barrett embroiled in a local controversy rather than leading on state issues. They hear he may not even move to Madison if he is elected.

And many of the Democratic activists at home whose energy and support Barrett needs to be elected governor have been needlessly alienated.

When a war is being lost anyway, wise strategists find a way to declare victory and withdraw.  


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