MILWAUKEE -- Republicans and union officials are turning up the pressure on the Milwaukee School Board with five weeks to decide whether the district will go along with a turnaround plan for failing city schools.
County Executive Chris Abele and his appointed commissioner, Demond Means, have offered the board a proposal that would give Means control of one yet-unnamed school in the 2016-2017 year. The plan would allow MPS to operate the school and continue to receive a reduced amount of funding for each student at the school.
Teachers argue that the proposal will starve the district financially. Republicans -- who mandated the so-called "opportunity schools" program last year -- say the Legislature will make more dramatic changes next year if the board doesn't join onto the current proposal.
"What we could do is appoint a different governing structure or increase the number of schools every year," said state Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield. Kooyenga co-created the legislation requiring the initiative in Milwaukee.
Kooyenga debated Lauren Baker, executive director of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, on the merits of the initiative during a Marquette University Law School forum on Tuesday, May 17.
Under the Abele-Means proposal, the school's teachers and staff would remain MPS employees and union members. Students would stay enrolled in the district.
MPS would continue to get state funding for each student. However, it would be at the lower rate that charter schools receive, a difference of about $2,000 per student.
Baker said the funding cut would amount to $41 million over three years if Abele and Means add three new schools each year to the "opportunity schools" program.
"You take $41 million out of that organization in three years, and we’re going to see repercussions that this city has never seen," Baker told reporters. "This is not the kinder, gentler plan. This means death."
The school board has until June 23 to decide whether to take part in the Abele-Means proposal. If the board stays away, Means could seek another operator and the district would lose all control and state funding for the school.
News reports indicate that the district has 55 underperforming schools.
Through a spokeswoman, Abele said he is working within the law created by the Legislature.
"Milwaukee Public Schools has a choice," Melissa Baldauff, Abele's spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement. "We presented them with a solution that minimizes financial damage and protects teacher jobs and enrollment within MPS. We asked them to work with us to create an agreement that will allow us to protect a significant amount of funding from leaving MPS."
Kooyenga said the Abele-Means plan allowed MPS to retain too much power over the failing school, but said he still supports what they're doing.
The forum between Kooyenga and Baker took place in front of a packed room at Marquette's Eckstein Hall. The event sold out within four hours, a school official said.
The majority of the audience was against the initiative, cheering when Baker spoke. But Kooyenga said the union was not considering students at the failing schools.
"Let’s turn down the volume on this friction in education – the signs, the clenched fist," he said afterward, referring to the teachers' demonstrations during the battle over Act 10, the law that took away most of their collective bargaining rights. "In education, why do we need a clenched fist? We’re teaching kids. Children"
He said he would advocate for additional per-pupil funding for charter schools, voucher schools and public schools during negotiations over the next two-year budget in the spring.
Baldauff said Abele has committed to lobbying the Legislature for additional school funding.
MTEA's Baker said the union was focused more on the current plan than on future versions that could be more dramatic.
"To say, could something worse come down the pike? I`m sure it could," she said. "But as it stands, this plan takes over such a significant amount of MPS that I cannot imagine how the system could survive it."