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Standing by our Record

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By Peter Blewett, Michael Bonds, and Jennifer Morales

-The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel suggests, to our puzzlement, that Tim Sheehy of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, a supporter of Neighborhood School Initiative (NSI) advocates in MPS School Board elections, can help shape yet another MPS reform initiative.

But then the Editorial Board also neglects to mention its enthusiastic support for NSI in editorials over the years, including in endorsement editorials for MPS board candidates.

However, it's another omission that most damages the editorial's case. Although the editorial acknowledges that most of the NSI supporters are gone (only Jeff Spence and Bruce Thompson remain on the board), it never takes a look at the new School Board's accomplishments.

We say, "Enough."

It's time to play fair.

Under the leadership of NSI critic and Board President Peter Blewett and Vice President Michael Bonds, the board is examining the operations of the entire district, calling for a full financial audit, a study of central office efficiency, a fringe benefit analysis and an evaluation of all high school programs.

When Blewett appointed Bonds chair of the Finance and Personnel Committee, they agreed to make fiscal transparency and greater accountability top priorities. Bonds has already brought a higher level of scrutiny to district contracting procedures by insisting on separate consideration of sole-source contracts. Virchow Krause has awarded MPS unqualified audits for the past three years.

Months before Barrett called for an audit of MPS, Bonds proposed a thorough independent audit of district finances, which the board approved. Although we welcome input from the mayor, we think that the city, with its many cost overruns (City Hall renovation, police overtime and police communications center) might start with a look at its own finances.

When first campaigning for mayor, Barrett pitched mayoral control of MPS, arguing that he wanted to close Milwaukee's "revolving door" of superintendents. However, Superintendent William Andrekopoulos has served more than six years under four different board presidents. In the last 30 years, only Lee McMurrin served longer.

In addition to providing leadership stability, the board has returned millions of dollars to the classroom, achieved consistent growth in the MPS graduation rate, narrowed key achievement gaps and expanded creative programs and partnerships.

Recent accomplishments include:

- The board engaged the teachers union, business community and general public as members developed a comprehensive five-year strategic plan. Unfortunately, the mayor chose not to get involved until after the plan was adopted.

- The board instituted outcomes-based budgeting to show how every dollar spent affects children's learning experience in the classroom.

- Inheriting a Head Start program at risk of losing federal funding in 2004, Blewett dedicated himself to reforming the program. After much hard work, the district became, for the first time, compliant with federal law. Unlike other school districts facing similar scrutiny, the board preserved federal funding for Head Start.

- The board undertook a "greening initiative." Through this initiative, Blewett hopes to unroll strategies to significantly reduce future MPS energy expenses.

- The board has invested millions of dollars in arts education. Director Jennifer Morales proposed the MPS Arts Partnership, a program that has brought millions of dollars of private investment for arts education to the district. The board's support for arts education spurred the Helen Bader Foundation to invest $1.3 million to create a districtwide Arts Education Collaborative.

- The board has invested heavily in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education that students need to access the broadest range of higher education and employment options.

- The current board overturned a midnight effort by the previous board to allow staff to handcuff students, creating instead a task force on school safety that is working with the administration to bring forward the district's first-ever comprehensive safety plan. Despite a personal invitation from Blewett, Barrett has yet to nominate someone from the city to serve on the task force.

- After calls for help by judges at Children's Court went unheeded by the mayor and the MPS superintendent, Blewett listened and proposed an MPS liaison position at Children's Court to help judges, advocates and families work together to keep youths connected to schools even as these youths go through the judicial system. The MPS liaison has won enthusiastic reviews from judges during the program's first year.

- In an effort to reduce suspensions and expulsions, Morales worked with the district attorney's office to create a restorative justice program that the board approved. This year, the board approved another million for a complementary suspension reduction program. The board also approved a school for adjudicated students, instead of dumping those students into schools mid-year, where they cause major disruptions.

These examples are by no means complete. Nor is our job finished. Our children face steep social and economic odds. They need leadership, which we believe is demonstrated by creative collaboration.

According to the Journal Sentinel, the mayor has been working behind the scenes to improve education. We invite the mayor to join us on the front lines. We think he'll find our willingness to explore new ideas refreshing.

Barrett has praised our Summer Youth Employment Program, which placed 300 youths in the city's "Learn to Earn" program (and another 330 youths with Milwaukee County). Barrett also mentioned the "I Have a Dream" program, a partnership with private foundations that guarantees a college education for two classes of students from Clarke Street School, in his "State of the City" address.

We stand eager to do more.

We believe that great schools spur economic growth. We should work together to create schools that offer hope to Milwaukee's students and that attract families to Milwaukee.

Phone home, Mayor Barrett. If we're too busy in the trenches to hear the phone ringing, we'll check the messages when we come in. Let's stop wasting time throwing blame, and build a better Milwaukee.

Peter Blewett, Jennifer Morales and Michael Bonds are members of the Milwaukee School Board; Blewett is board president.


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Peter Blewett teaches creative writing, multiculturalism, and drama of the English Renaissance at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Blewett serves as President of the Milwaukee Public Schools Board of Directors and on the Board of the (more...)

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Standing by our Record