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A Puppet of the School Board?

by Jennifer Morales, 5th District Director, Milwaukee Board of School Directors

Imagine you are running for Mayor of Milwaukee and a state legislator sympathetic to your campaign points out that with one piece of legislation she could multiply the clout you would have: double the size of your budget, bring thousands more employees under your control, and shape the destinies of thousands of children. If that piece of legislation resulted in the disenfranchisement of every voter in the city, would you do it anyway to win? Tom Barrett would. In July, Barrett (former U.S. Congressman and mayoral candidate) and State Senator Shirley Krug announced proposed legislation that would abolish Milwaukee’s nine-member elected School Board, and replace it with a mayor-appointed, smaller board. The legislation would give the new mayor power to hire and fire the Superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools. Currently, the School Board consists of eight members elected from sub-districts of the city and one member elected citywide, giving each Milwaukee resident two representatives on the board. The School Board chooses the Superintendent, sets policy, and provides oversight for the District’s $1 billion budget, 100,000 students, and almost 18,000 employees. Barrett says that this measure will “increase accountability” by putting all responsibility for the welfare of the city on one person’s shoulders. This is illogical. Let’s say you like, just for discussion’s sake, Mayor David Clarke’s policies on economic development, but you hate what he’s doing with the schools. Do you vote for his opponent in the next election and lose the positive work he’s done on the economy in order to get some “accountability” on school issues? Barrett’s proposed arrangement will only create a job-security buffer between the new Mayor and the people who can hold him or her accountable. Our current division of responsibility means that citizens can target their efforts at accountability more precisely. Responsiveness is a concern, too. With institutions of the size of the City and MPS, a division of labor enhances the public’s access to their representatives. When was the last time the Mayor returned your phone call on a neighborhood issue like garbage pick-up? Will the new mayor have time to deal with the customer-service type calls that school board members receive every day? And will an appointed board care enough to call you back? Barrett’s proposal will create a puppet board. Right now, MPS board members represent 75,000 constituents each. As an elected Board member, I fully understand that my job is to advocate for the best interests of those 75,000 people. If I were appointed, my job would be reduced to pleasing one person: the mayor. And who does the mayor need to please? If she or he is a typical big-city mayor, it’s the rich contributors who paid for the campaign, not the average public school parent. I hope that Riverwesters will continue fighting for real representation in local government. Please let your state representatives and mayoral candidates know how you feel about this attempt to take away your voting rights. Jennifer Morales was elected to the Milwaukee Board of School Directors in April 2001. She represents the 5th District, which encompasses the East Side, the Third Ward, and Walker’s Point.Her two children attend La Escuela Fratney, an MPS bilingual school in Riverwest. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 9 – September 2003