Almost immediately after my unexpected departure from Disability Rights Wisconsin, about 2 months ago, many friends and professional colleagues encouraged me to run for political office. While a number of opportunities became available, such as Dane County Judge and Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) School Board, given my nearly 18 years of school advocacy, and my lack of desire to be an objective judge, I have given serious consideration to running for the School Board seat which Beth Moss (who served admirably for 2 terms) is departing.
There are many good reasons to run for the MMSD school board. They include:
- Beth Moss’ departure will leave a void on the school board in terms of having a strong voice for the nearly 20% of MMSD students with disabilities, a voice I certainly could have filled;
- MMSD continues to struggle with closing the achievement gap, with students of color and students with disabilities lagging behind academically and failing to graduate in acceptable numbers. My work for the past 18 years involved advocacy to address this critical issue. Indeed, I was a key player in forcing MMSD to finally implement 4 year old kindergarten, a critical first step in closing the achievement gap.
- MMSD continues to struggle with how to handle discipline appropriately. Although it has begun to implement a system of Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) to address this problem, it has not done so with fidelity and suspension rates remain alarmingly high, especially for African-Americans and students with disabilities. My work in closing the Schools to Prison Pipeline has addressed this issue.
- The MMSD school board has often struggled with decision making. This was most clearly evidenced by last year’s debate over creating a charter school for African-American students, which led to the departure of Superintendent Dan Nerad. My 25+ years of experience as a non-profit Board member helps me understand both functional and dysfunctional methods of board decision making.
- MMSD has failed to establish a clear system of accountability, so that the public and all those who work within the school district have a clear understanding of where their responsibilities lay, and what the consequences are for failing to meet those responsibilities. I should note, that sadly, few school districts have such a system of accountability. The settlement I negotiated in my class action lawsuit against Milwaukee Public School (MPS) and the Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction had, at its core, a detailed system of accountability for improving the results at MPS.
Given all these compelling reasons to run for the open school board seat, readers may wonder why I have decided not to run. I certainly believe I am qualified to run, and the level of support I have received suggests that I would be a credible candidate.
Any time I make an important decision, I consult with friends, family, and professional colleagues. Amongst friends, I noticed an interesting dichotomy. Friends whom I knew mainly through my work uniformly supported my candidacy. I thank them for that support as their encouragement led me to give this serious consideration and it is certainly comforting that many people believe I would be a good school board member. But, my closest personal friends were, at best, neutral. They cautioned about the impact my candidacy might have on my precious family time, as well as the likely frustration I might encounter as a school board member.
My family was also neutral, and while I believe they would have supported any decision I made, for me to declare a candidacy without full support from my family has certainly impacted upon my decision.
Ultimately, however, my decision not to run is based on policy reasons. For over 20 years, Wisconsin’s method of financing school districts, a system known as revenue caps, has essentially emasculated school boards, by severely constraining the revenue which local school boards can raise. Instituted by former Gov. Tommy Thompson, this system was established as a 3 legged stool in order to keep property taxes from rising precipitously. The 3 legs were:
- Capping school district revenue by a fairly low rate of inflation, coupled with student enrollment, which severely harms declining enrollment school districts with fixed costs.
- Capping teacher salary growth.
- Providing 2/3 of public school funding from state general purpose revenues (GPR).
While there have been many critics of this system, one thing that EVERYONE agreed upon until Gov. Jim Doyle’s last term, was that the 3 legged stool would fall over if any 1 of the legs was removed. For reasons that can only be explained by short sighted allegiance to the teacher’s union, in Gov. Doyle’s last term, he eliminated the cap on teacher’s salaries, But, he did so while reducing state funding under the 2/3 promise. The result–an explosion in property taxes, which certainly helped lead to the accession of Gov. Walker and the passage of the now infamous Act 10 striking down collective bargaining, and a titanic $1.6 billion funding cut to public schools during the current biennium.
As one friend questioned me, “why would you want to sit on a school board when your hands would be constantly tied due to an inability to raise sufficient revenue?” He added that due to this dilemma, the school board’s role has largely been reduced to deciding who to say no to.
In starting Systems Change Consulting, I have made a commitment to help change systems in a progressive manner to try to raise the bar for our whole society, but in particular, for the neediest amongst us. In contemplating this run for school board, I have determined that right now, my role as a change agent is better utilized as an outside influence, rather than an inside decision maker.
How should our school financing system be changed to fix Wisconsin’s dysfunctional underfunded system?
- Establish an adequacy model for school financing. Although many politicians talk about running government like a business, in reality this rarely happens, because if it did, the starting points would be: a) determine your desired outcome; b) determine what it costs to achieve your desired outcome; and c) raise sufficient revenue to achieve your desired outcome. Wisconsin has simply failed to do this when it comes to educating its children and our longstanding achievement gap, poverty gap and incarceration gap are the sorry results for this failure.
- Reduce or eliminate public school reliance on the property tax. Wisconsin property taxes are too high and they are regressive. They penalize fixed income home owners, especially the elderly, people with disabilities, and couples who divorce. The answer? a) blend property tax rates with income, which means that those with higher income will pay proportionally higher property taxes that they can afford, and those with lower income will have their property taxes, which they can ill afford, reduced; b) raise income taxes on those with incomes over $250,000, and move school funding further onto the income tax side.
It has been stunning that while a vigorous debate is occurring at the federal level over raising taxes on the top 2% of income earners, progressive activists and the Democratic party have been silent in Wisconsin on this issue. This is especially troubling because Wisconsin has a virtually flat income tax barely differentiating the rate between lower and higher income earners.
So, I wish those running for MMSD school board well, and I will continue to advocate for progressive systems change such as the ideas I have outlined above, in my role at Systems Change Consulting.