Barrett Aide Pat Curley on MPS Takeover Attempt

Aug. 13, 2009
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MPS Board President Michael Bonds resigned from Mayor Barrett’s MPS Innovation and Improvement Advisory Council yesterday, which seemed to catch Team Barrett off guard. Bonds’ abrupt announcement was to protest private conversations the mayor, Gov. Jim Doyle and state Superintendent Tony Evers have been having over taking over the elected MPS board—and selecting the next MPS superintendent.

Bonds’ resignation, which broke on, may also have forced Barrett, Doyle and Evers to go public with their plans before they were ready to do so. (And it makes today’s press release from City Hall look like a joke.)

I spoke with Barrett’s chief of staff, Pat Curley, about Bonds’ resignation yesterday. In the spirit of full disclosure—a sentiment apparently not shared by our elected officials—here’s the full transcript of our conversation. I’d love to get your responses to Curley’s remarks, since it doesn’t look like the public will have a seat at the table during this attempted takeover.

Read on:

Shepherd: What’s your reaction to Michael Bonds resigning from the mayor’s advisory council?

Curley: I haven’t seen the resignation letter. I know that he didn’t attend this morning’s meeting [of the advisory council]. If it’s true, the mayor would be very, very disappointed. We’re very, very disappointed if that were the case. The working relationship with Michael, on both a personal and professional level, has been very valuable not just to the council but to the whole school reform process.

Shepherd: Bonds is claiming that Barrett, Doyle and Evers are working to take over MPS.

Curley: It’s not a secret that there have been conversations that have been taking place for months now about school reform as it relates to MPS. Governance has always been part of that. The mayor has made that quite clear to Michael and has had conversations about that with Michael.

Shepherd: Is the mayor working with any state legislators to change state law?

Curley: The mayor has talked to a number of state legislators.

Shepherd: Care to elaborate?

Curley: [long pause] No. They were private conversations about relaying the conversations between him and the governor and getting their thoughts on it.

Shepherd: Are they working on any legislation?

Curley: There’s nothing drafted right now. But clearly any changes in governance would have to be done through the Legislature, as well as the reform initiatives needed to comply with the guidance for Race to the Top money.

Shepherd: Why would the mayor want to take over MPS?

Curley: I think—the conversations are how best to overhaul and reform the system. We’ve had as many board presidents in the last decade as we’ve had superintendents in the last decade. I think in terms of accountability and being able to bring in a superintendent and a team that focuses on the educational outcomes of the kids of Milwaukee, at this point in time [that] needs to be directly linked to the future of the city. They’re intertwined and we can’t get around that any more. We have this large achievement gap, which is personally nagging to the mayor. It’s frustrating. And that ties into the future workforce and the ability to attract families and sustain the city and to compete. To have these kids compete globally. So it’s a good place to live and work in. It’s really important to the big picture.

This shouldn’t be about personalities, about who the superintendent is, who the mayor is, who the school board president is. This is about how if you agree that there have to be changes made—and I don’t think anyone would agree that things are going swimmingly—and how best to accomplish what we need to accomplish.

Shepherd: What experience does the mayor have in education?

Curley: The mayor has lots of experience in management. He visits schools all the time. And that would be like saying, what experience does the mayor have in law enforcement? He went out and hired a police chief.

Shepherd: With the help of the Bradley Foundation…

Curley: But why wouldn’t we count on outside expertise to bring in a new superintendent? The school board will [hire a consultant].

Shepherd: Why should the mayor have a say in picking the next superintendent?

Curley: The future of the schools and the future of the city are intertwined. It’s so important to make those connections and hold the mayor accountable. Hold the mayor accountable for the schools.

Shepherd: When the advisory council was appointed a few months ago I was told point blank by the mayor that this was not a first step toward taking over the district. Now I’m hearing that there are conversations with the governor and new state superintendent….

Curley: That’s true. The advisory council wasn’t established to do that.

Shepherd: So he’s exploring changing state law to take over the state schools instead.

Curley: Yes. But that’s completely divorced of the advisory council.

Shepherd: Do the people of Milwaukee have any say in this?

Curley: We hope to engage teachers and parents and legislators. Absolutely.

Shepherd: What does that mean? Would it go to referendum?

Curley: I don’t know that.

Shepherd: In other cities, they’ve had a referendum before a mayoral takeover…

Curley: Some have gone to referendum. Some didn’t go to referendum. We’re looking at all of those models.

Shepherd: We just had an election for state superintendent, and one of the candidates, Rose Fernandez, wanted to take over the district for three years. The other candidate, Tony Evers, wanted to work with MPS instead. Evers trounced Fernandez. Doesn’t that mean anything?

Curley: But that was a state takeover.

Shepherd: So this would be strictly a mayoral takeover?

Curley: It would be a change of governance.

Shepherd: With the mayor in charge?

Curley: With the superintendent of schools reporting to the mayor, yes.

Shepherd: So the mayor would ultimately take responsibility for MPS?

Curley: The mayor would ultimately—no matter who the mayor is—would be held accountable. Exactly. But there is a whole set of other issues. I think divorcing the politics of school governance from the reforms or how to turn around districts financially, or turn around performance-wise, are linked. Just by changing the model of governance doesn’t guarantee that schools are going to turn around overnight. The financial problems aren’t going to be fixed in a day. This would be a relatively lengthy process. It would take a number of years to effectuate improvements and financial stability. From a pragmatic point of view, changing governance isn’t waving a magic wand. Other things would have to be done. Just as it’s taken years and years and years to get to the point we’re at…

Shepherd: Milwaukee’s not unusual in that. Urban school districts have a lot of challenges.

Curley: Absolutely. I don’t think you can use those challenges as an excuse to say we shouldn’t do anything. If you really believe in this strong link between the school system and the vitality of the community, then we owe it to be exploring other options to improve the school system, which in turn would make the city stronger.

Shepherd: We could go on about this for hours, but is there anything else you want to say on this topic?

Curley: No. If in fact Bonds did resign we would be very, very disappointed. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t make a phone call.


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