Inspired by the Battle

Over twenty years ago, I represented 3 clients in a high profile fair housing case in Madison that became known as the drive by landlord case because the landlord would drive by to look at the race of prospective tenants and refuse to rent to African American tenants under a pretext. Although we lost the trial in front of an all white jury, I learned recently that one of my clients, Tomika Gray-Vukovic, was inspired by our battle for justice despite the loss.

I had not seen or heard from Tomika in many years, but fortunately met her recently when Sen. Bernie Sanders came to Madison in October to campaign for Russ Feingold and Hillary Clinton. Tomika was working for Russ Feingold’s campaign at the time and recognized me when I entered the building. She greeted me with a big smile and reintroduced herself and let me know that her housing discrimination lawsuit inspired her to make a career out of progressive social change.


Shortly after Tomika and her family moved to Glendale, she made a point of getting involved in the public schools. Due to her involvement, she was asked to run for the Glendale-River Hills School Board and was elected in April 2016. She loves working to make sure that the children of her community have the best public schools that can be provided for them.

Tomika was also approached to serve on the city’s Planning Commission. With a background in accounting, she brings a business perspective, as well as the perspective of a parent, progressive, and experienced community advocate to the Commission. She is committed to a vision of continued sensible and planned growth in her community. She wants to continue successful economic growth by developing relationships with new businesses and connecting them with numerous vacant property development opportunities.

Her involvement in the schools and in city government has opened her eyes as to how things operate, and how she thinks they should operate. She has noticed that many of Glendale’s alders are unknown to community members because they are not seen out in the community. She wonders how can they know what the community wants if citizens do not know them. This is what has propelled  Tomika to run for a seat on the Glendale city council.

Tomika has taken very seriously President Obama’s admonition to “pick up a clipboard and run for office.” In truth, however, Tomika was one step ahead of the President as she had already committed to run for the city council (in addition to her school board seat) before President Obama gave his farewell address.

When one is engaged in progressive systems change, there are many obstacles. It simply is not for the faint hearted. Losing battles will happen regularly. How those who desire to make this world a better place respond to such losses reveals whether one has the stamina and fortitude to stick with it and achieve positive outcomes eventually. Tomika is a shining example of how losing a civil rights battle propelled her into the fray instead of scaring her away. I am thrilled to see the great work she is doing and I am honored to have had a small role in helping her on her way. I look forward to seeing what she accomplishes in the years to come as she clearly has a very bright future.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.


Close the Achievement Gap: Increase Intensive Support

As the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board of Education reviews the budget which its administration has prepared for the coming year, it would be wise to take a close look at its continuing problem with the ongoing racial, disability and poverty achievement gap and focus on how appropriate staffing can help to close that gap. While some improvements have been made, persistent gaps remain.

Students simply will not succeed if they are not in school. During the 2014-15 school year 2,477 MMSD students were habitually truant (meaning 5 or more days of unexcused absence from school) representing 9.8% of all MMSD students. But 1,235 of those students (nearly half) were African-American, representing 26.9% of all MMSD African-American students.

During that same year, MMSD suspended 1,713 students. But, 1,069 of them were African-American representing well over half of those suspended students. 402 of MMSD suspended students had disabilities, representing 10.9% of all MMSD students with disabilities, nearly half of all MMSD suspended students. While the data does not reveal how many African-American students with disabilities were suspended, when one adds the African-American suspended students and the suspended students with disabilities, that number almost equals all MMSD suspended students so it is safe to assume that African-American students with disabilities have the highest rate of suspension in the district.


That MMSD’s discipline data reveals troubling racial and disability disparities is consistent with national data. But that should come as no solace to anyone, as nobody should admire the data. Instead, we need to apply solutions that we know will work to solve the problem.

While MMSD’s Behavior Education Plan has succeeded in significantly reducing the total number of suspensions, it also reveals another glaring gap for children in poverty. While 48% of MMSD students qualify for free or reduced lunch, a shocking 89% of MMSD suspensions were doled out to low-income students.

Finally, graduation rates also reveal a troubling achievement gap. At the end of the 2014-15 school year, 80.1% of MMSD seniors graduated in 4 years. But only 57.8% of African-American students; 56.8% of students with disabilities; and 62.1% of low-income students graduate in 4 years.

Fortunately, MMSD has a program designed to address the needs of its students with the most intensive needs. The Intensive Support Team (IST) takes requests from MMSD staff to address the needs of students in crisis. As of May 2, 2016, during this school year, there were 455 requests for support to IST. Of these, 411 were served by the team in one of several capacities (consultation, intake/assessment, professional development, short term stabilization), 250 were closed and the rest still active. This means that nearly 10% of referrals were not served and over 1/2 of all referrals are still receiving intensive supports.

Unfortunately, staff cuts were made to this team last year and the administration’s proposed budget does not propose to fill those cuts. The good news is that the budget is still in the discussion stage. School board member Anna Moffit has proposed to increase the IST staff by 3.5 FTE staff to address the unmet need for these students at a cost of approximately $250,000. In an era of tight budgets and state imposed revenue caps, Ms. Moffit recognizes that the money must come from somewhere so she has identified the following reasonable places where this money can be found: reduce spending on Technology Plan; reduce spending on Educational Resource Officers; or utilize funds saved from not filling the position of Special Assistant to the Superintendent ($125,000 dollars).

The school board and our community must recognize that failing to meet the needs of these students has a significant cost both to these students and to society at large. A recent report by the UCLA Civil Rights project from which I extrapolated the high cost of suspensions in Wisconsin, reveals that each suspended student who fails to graduate results in:

  • $19,572 in fiscal costs; and
  • $60,962 in societal costs.

Thus, if the IST is able to help only 5 more students at risk of suspension to graduate, it will have saved our community far more money than the additional cost which Ms. Moffit proposes spending on this worthy program. Thus, her proposal makes senses for educational, equitable, social and economic reasons and should therefore receive the support of the full school board.

Residents of MMSD who support Ms. Moffit’s proposal should e-mail the school board to encourage them to approve her amendment at:


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.


The Synergy of Individual Advocacy & Systems Change

Recently, I had the opportunity to demonstrate, once again, the synergy of individual advocacy & systems change.  For nearly 20 years, I have been combating the schools to prison pipeline, as I wrote about over a year ago.  In January, I started writing a series of blogs and submitted them to the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) school board as its administrators developed a series of 4 drafts of what started out as a proposed revision of its discipline plan, but on my advice, became the new Behavior Education Plan, which will go into effect on September 1, 2014, and you can review here.  That plan had been sailing under the radar with relatively minimal public input, until my clients and I recently went public with an expulsion case which was a classic  example of zero tolerance run amok.  Fortunately, in one night, the school board ended my client’s expulsion, and then proceeded to approve the new Behavior Education Plan, in front of a packed auditorium, putting 2 nails in the coffin of zero tolerance.

As I testified to the school board that night, MMSD’s new, improved plan is not perfect, as it fails to set specific goals for reducing out of school discipline such as suspensions and expulsions, and accordingly fails to set specific goals for reducing the racial and disability disparities in both discipline and academic achievement which the district has long struggled to overcome.  In addition, I encouraged the school board to place advocates in each school to assist students and their parents through the discipline process as well as other challenges, including academic, which students may encounter.

Unfortunately, after I made that suggestion, the President of the MMSD School Board, publicly criticized my suggestion, as he does not view the discipline process as “adversarial,” which is fairly remarkable given his work as an attorney, but even more remarkable given that he truly does not understand the role that advocates actively play not only to improve outcomes for the children for whom they advocate, but to help change flawed systems for the better.

For nearly 30 years, my career as a civil rights attorney has involved taking individual cases and evolving them, when appropriate, into positive systems change.  This includes the struggle to finally pass a new law prohibiting the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint, which only occurred after representing many students harmed by this horrific practice and shedding the bright media light on it.

Any system that desires continuous improvement should recognize the value of advocacy as both an individual corrective tool, as well as a vehicle for identifying systemic problems. Dane County, Wisconsin, has recognized the value of having an internal ombudsman in its human services department to “ensure that people are getting appropriate services.”

While it is unclear whether MMSD can afford to place ombudsmen or advocates in each of its schools, it should certainly examine its budget to pilot such a program in schools with the highest discipline and academic problems.  Moreover, it could partner with outside agencies, which have existing advocacy services, such as Wisconsin Family Ties, which uses non-lawyer professional advocates, Wisconsin FACETS, which uses non-lawyer paid and volunteer advocates, and Disability Rights Wisconsin, which uses non-lawyer advocates with legal back-up and occasional direct lawyer involvement.  However, all of these agencies only work with children with disabilities, and I know of no agency providing school advocacy services to non-disabled students.

If the MMSD truly wants to ensure that its new Behavior Education Plan succeeds, it should actively engage with existing advocacy organizations, and work to obtain foundation support to fund advocates for non-disabled students.  Working together with the school district, on behalf of students, these advocates can correct natural human errors in the new system, and provide useful data to the MMSD administration so it can take corrective measures when repeated problems inevitably crop up.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Put the Last Nails in the Coffin of Zero Tolerance

Tonight, the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board will consider a so-called final draft of a Behavior Education Plan for possible adoption with proposed implementation in the beginning of the 2014-15 school year.  Consistent with the 3 prior drafts, about which I have reported previously, this version goes a long way to end antiquated zero tolerance discipline policies in Madison, if the Board adopts it.

The school board will consider the new plan after it decides whether to expel my client from school for 1 1/2 years as originally proposed by Superintendent Jen Cheatham, and ultimately adopted by the expulsion hearing officer after a nearly 5 hour grueling hearing. This case has received significant media attention as an instance of zero tolerance run amok, since my client made the only behavioral mistake she has ever made in her nearly 10 years of public school education in Madison by succumbing to peer pressure and bringing a small amount of alcohol in a water bottle to school, and giving a small amount to a friend (neither of whom drank any of it).  Fortunately, Superintendent Cheatham has subsequently recommended that the School Board apply the proposed Behavior Education Plan to pending expulsions for the remainder of this year, under which my client would not have been expelled.


Thus, the MMSD School board has multiple opportunities tonight to put the last nails in the coffin of zero tolerance and shift the school district’s focus to the far more appropriate education of its children when misbehavior happens.  However, prior to the vote, it is important to understand both the strengths and weaknesses of the final draft.

In terms of strengths, the final draft makes quite clear that, as Superintendent Cheatham’s introductory message states,

  • zero-tolerance policies that result in frequent removal from school are ineffective in changing student behavior and in fact have  negative impact on student outcomes–lower academic achievement, drop out rates and increased likelihood that a student will enter the criminal justice system.” and
  • “these policies disproportionately affect certain groups of students, especially our African American students and students with disabilities.”

The final draft continues to specify important rights and responsibilities of students, parents, teachers, administrator and the school board.  The final draft adds important provisions that:

  • require school administrators to not only keep good records on inappropriate student behavior, but adds a requirement that they also record behavioral interventions and responses;
  • requires the school board to use qualitative and quantitative data to create and evaluate policies that promote thriving school environments that are respectful, engaging, vibrant and culturally relevant.

The main thrust of the plan is to:

  • institute district-wide systems of positive behavior support (PBS);
  • implement a system of progressive intervention & discipline;
  • and reducing the offenses for which expulsion will be recommended to very few and only those that involve actual violence or possession of a gun or firearm.

Implementing such a plan effectively will involve both a cultural shift in practice as well as addition of staff resources for training and support.  To that end, Superintendent Cheatham is proposing allocating $1.6 million to 17 district schools, including all district high schools, which have records of challenging discipline practices.  Adopting of this recommendation will be critical to successful implementation of the plan.

Of course, like any major change in policy, the plan is not perfect.  As I have stated before, despite statements within both the plan and the Implications for Practice document that accountability is part of the plan, there are absolutely no measurable goals set forth in the plan! How can anyone be held accountable if the plan has no measurable goals?

Moreover, the entire Plan continues to fail to adopt these key provisions:

  • A commitment that no educational time will be lost due to disciplinary removals;
  • Elimination of racial and disability disparities in the district’s disciplinary practices; and
  • although the plan continues to trumpet the “rights and responsibilities” of students, parents & guardians, teachers & staff, administrators, central office staff and the Board of Education, the plan remains silent regarding the consequences of any failures to honor those rights or fulfill those responsibilities.

Despite these flaws, I urge the Board to adopt the final draft of this plan tonight, and to work to remedy these flaws as the plan moves forward in the future.  Doing so, and readmitting my expelled client so she can go back to school tomorrow will go a long way to put the last nails in the coffin of zero tolerance in Madison, which will likely lead to the kind of success Colorado is now experiencing after that state passed a new law in 2012 limiting the use of zero tolerance practices and emphasizing restorative practices.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Still Waiting for Genuine Accountability: Madison Issues Third Draft of Behavior Education Plan

The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) recently issued its 3rd draft of its Behavior Education Plan, and given my current experience representing clients who are suffering due to the school district’s current inflexible zero tolerance discipline policy, the school board should act as quickly as possible to adopt a new approach.  This version was accompanied by the first draft of a document entitled, Implications for Practice, which has not been posted to the MMSD’s web site, but I can e-mail a copy to you at your request.

Like the 2nd draft, there are separate plans for Elementary School Students and Middle & High School Students.  As I mentioned when I analyzed the 2nd draft, there is very little difference between these two plans, and I continue to urge the school board to consolidate the plans and simply identify different treatment for different ages if and when appropriate.

The good news about the 3rd draft is that all of the positive elements from the 2nd draft remain intact which should result in moving the school district

away from zero-tolerance policies and exclusionary practices toward proactive approaches that focus on building student and staff skills and competencies, which, in turn, lead to greater productivity and success.

The 3rd draft goes one step further by stating that the school district believes

that children learn by pushing and testing limits, getting feedback about their behavioral choices and making the changes needed to become contributing members of a community of learners.

This version continues “to reflect a district commitment to student equity,”  and sets forth many positive purposes behind the Behavior Education Plan.

Sadly, however, despite my urging, and despite statements within both the plan and the Implications for Practice document that accountability is part of the plan, there are absolutely no measurable goals set forth in the plan!  How can anyone be held accountable if the plan has no measurable goals?

Moreover, the entire Plan continues to fail to adopt these key provisions:

  • A commitment that no educational time will be lost due to disciplinary removals; and
  • Elimination of racial and disability disparities in the district’s disciplinary practices.

Unfortunately, although the plan continues to trumpet the “rights and responsibilities” of students, parents & guardians, teachers & staff, administrators, central office staff and the Board of Education, the plan remains silent regarding the consequences of any failures to honor those rights or fulfill those responsibilities.

The Implications for Practice document clearly states that,

Every school will be held responsible for quality implementation of the BEP.

But there is no mention of how each school, and more importantly, each individual who is responsible for implementation of the BEP will be held responsible.

The best way to hold the district and each school accountable is to set forth specific measurable goals.  For example, the most recent available discipline data is for the 2011-12 school year.  It shows the following disturbing statistics in MMSD:

  • 2,169 students were suspended (8.1% of all students)
  • Over half of those suspended students, 1,278, were African American (23.7% of all African American students)
  • Nearly half of those suspended students, 902, had disabilities (22.7% of all students with disabilities)

If the district is serious about changing its practices, it should set district and school specific goals for reducing all of these numbers and these gross disparities.

Similarly, since more time in school is directly related to improved school performance, the school district should also set forth specific district-wide and school specific goals to improve these dismal graduation rates, which in the most recent reporting year of 2011-12 shows:

  • Only a 74.6% 4 year graduation rate;
  • A 63.2% Latino 4 year graduation rate;
  • A horrific 53.1% African-American 4 year graduation rate; and
  • An even worse 46.2% 4 year graduation rate for students with disabilities.

If the MMSD School Board and Administration is serious about accountability for implementing a new progressive Behavior Implementation Plan, it will set forth 1, 3 and 5 year goals for reducing its horrendous suspension rates and increasing its dismal graduation rates. They should then bask in the community’s praise for achieving those goals, or accept full responsibility for failure to achieve those targets and adjust their actions accordingly in order to improve the district’s performance.  If the school board and administration fail to set specific goals for improvement, then community advocates must set those goals for the district and hold the district and its leaders accountable.  Failure to do so will perpetuate the MMSD’s continual feeding of the schools to prison pipeline.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Setting Goals is Critical for Effective Systems Change

Regardless of the type of systems change in which one is engaged, success can only be measured if goals for such change are established.  A good example is the Madison Metropolitan School District’s (MMSD) current effort to revise its discipline policy (the current draft is now dubbed the “Behavior Education Plan).”  While it appears that these important revisions represent an effort at systemic change away from zero tolerance disciplinary practice, it is impossible to tell whether the changes will truly result in the desired systemic change because the current draft does not establish specific short or long-term goals.

A good place to start is with an examination of the most current available discipline data for MMSD which is from the 2011-12 school year.  That data reveals the following for that year:

  • 8.1% of all students were suspended.
  • 10.4% of all boys were suspended.
  • 10.2% of all Native American students were suspended.
  • 23.7% of all African American students were suspended.
  • 22.7% of all students with disabilities were suspended.

The problem with excessive suspension peaks in MMSD’s middle schools as:

  • 13.7% of all 6th grade students were suspended; and
  • 18% of all 7th grade students were suspended.

Interestingly, during that year, the largest single category of suspensions resulted from violations of school rules which were not weapon, drug, or assault related.

So, as we grapple with a significant overhaul of the school district’s behavior policies, the question for the MMSD administration, school board, and community is:

How should these numbers change in 1 year,  3 years and 5 years?

If goals for improving these dismal numbers are not set, then it will be impossible for the school board, administration and Madison community to determine if the new behavior policies are having their intended effect.

If the school district fails to set those goals, those of us who want to see Madison truly progress beyond zero tolerance policies and into genuine behavior education that leads to academic success, will need to set those goals for the school district and hold the MMSD school board and administration accountable for the success or failure of achieving those goals.

Studies show that increased time in instruction driven by implementation of school-wide behavior support instead of punitive zero tolerance practices, leads to increased academic success.  

Accordingly, MMSD should also set reasonable goals to improve the academic performance of its students so that we move beyond this dismal graduation rate data from the 2011-12 when:

  • 86.7% of white 12th graders graduated in the expected 4 years; but
  • only 63.2% of Latino 12th graders graduated in 4 years;
  • 53.1% of African-American 12th graders graduated in 4 years; and
  • 46.2% of students with disabilities graduated in 4 years.

So, let’s set realistic goals to keep students in school and improve their academic success. Failure to do so will result in further behavioral and academic failure which continues to fuel the schools to prison pipeline.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Madison takes Positive Steps towards Improved Behavior Plan

The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) has issued its 2nd draft of its proposed new student discipline policy, which shows great improvement over the first draft.  A feedback session for community members is scheduled for tomorrow (Feb. 27th) for the 2nd draft.

The 2nd draft exhibits a significant improvement over the first draft, including adopting a number of the suggestions I made in my comments on the first draft. These improvements include:

  • The name has changed to the Behavior Education Plan which appropriately reflects the newly stated purpose of:

Creating Safe, Supporting and Thriving Learning Environments…where all students are able and expected to learn.

  • A stated Shift in Practice which:

moves us away from zero-tolerance policies and exclusionary practices toward proactive approaches that focus on building student and staff skills and competencies, which, in turn, lead to greater productivity and success.

  • An explicit recognition of racial and disability disparities in discipline which exist both nationally and within MMSD.
  • Clear stated purposes of the plan.
  • A strong emphasis on Positive Behavior Support and other pro-social interventions with a stated expectation that all school staff establish positive relationships with students.
  • Students are granted the rights to:
  • Attend school and be valued members of the community; and receive instruction to learn school behavior expectations and social and emotional skills.

  • Emphasizing that:

Understanding student behavior as an opportunity for learning is fundamental to a positive and progressive approach to discipline….Every reasonable effort should be made to correct inappropriate student behavior using Intervention Strategies and the least severe Discipline Responses possible….Because inappropriate behavior may be symptomatic of underlying problems that students are experiencing, it is critical that all staff be sensitive to issues that may influence student behavior and respond in a progressive manner that is most supportive of student needs.

  • Acknowledging that:

Foundational to supporting positive behavior in all students is the use of effective, culturally-relevant instruction.

Together, these positive steps, if adopted by the school board, would place Madison along with progressive school districts such as San Francisco, which recently approved a policy favoring alternatives to suspension.

While these are huge steps forward, more room for improvement remains.  Further steps forward should include:

  • The 2nd draft includes separate plans for elementary school students and middle and high school students, but the differences between these plans are so minor that they are likely to cause more confusion than clarity.
  • While 6 good purposes of the Plan are set forth, at least 3 should be added, including:
  1. Teaching appropriate behavior to all students;
  2. Ensuring that no instructional time is lost due to disciplinary practices; and
  3. Eliminating racial and disability disparities in disciplinary practices.
  • While many “rights” are set forth, it remains uncertain what the school district’s response will be if those “rights” are not granted.  For example, the “right” to “attend school” should trump suspension and expulsion.  Furthermore, if the “right” to “receive instruction to learn school behavior expectations and social and emotional skills” is denied, will the school district refrain from punitive disciplinary practices?
  • Adding clear annual school specific and overall district numerical goals with clearly stated accountability for implementing the pro-social interventions, reducing the school to prison pipeline, and eliminating racial and disability disparities in disciplinary practices.

While it is unlikely to be placed within the Plan, in order for MMSD to implement a progressive Behavior Education Plan, it needs to put significant resources into staff and student training.  Advocates will need to encourage the school board to pass an improved version of this plan, but to provide the necessary funding for its successful implementation. It is time to adopt a policy which has zero tolerance for failure to educate all of our children.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Reforming School Discipline in Madison: Seize the Educational Opportunity

The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) is currently engaged in drafting a new Student Conduct and Discipline Plan, with the school board’s goal of implementing that new plan in the 2014-15 school year.  Recently, the ad hoc committee working on revising this plan released its first draft.  For reasons that remain unclear, neither the school board, the ad hoc committee, nor the district administration has made clear how and when the public will have an opportunity to provide input into this important plan.  However, since systems change rarely happens for those who wait, it is important for advocates who want to seize the educational opportunity to end Madison’s schools to prison pipeline and eliminate racial disparities, to engage in this plan now.  It is in that spirit that I offer the following input on this plan.

At the outset, it is important to note that our public schools can and must teach appropriate behavior.  Therefore, the Student Conduct and Discipline Plan, would be better named the Student Conduct and Education Plan. Only when educators recognize that the mission of all behavior management should be education, will we improve the educational results for all children.  It is time for MMSD to embrace a mission that no student should ever be denied an education.  While some students may have such highly challenging behavior that they need a specialized setting for their education, if anything, those students need more education, not less.

In addition, the draft plan does not list any goals.  Without goals, how will we know if the plan is working?  Laudable goals that should be applied to this plan include:

  • reduction in the number of students suspended;
  • reduction in the number of students expelled;
  • increase in the overall safety of students and staff;
  • reduction in the racial and disability disparities in suspensions and expulsions;
  • increase in the educational performance of the student body;
  • decrease in racial and disability disparities in educational performance;
  • decrease in truancy;
  • decrease in drop out rate;
  • increase in graduation rate;
  • increase in college acceptance rate; and
  • increase in post-high school employment rate.

These lofty goals will certainly not be achieved at once, so a 5 year plan for gradual improvement in each area with specific targets for each year should be embedded in the plan with built-in review and accountability measures put in place.

Next, the draft states the purpose of the plan.  While the purposes listed are fine, and fortunately include “support positive behavior change in students,” additional purposes should be added, including:

  • Identifying home and community issues, including health issues that could be contributing to behavior challenges and connecting families to appropriate resources to assist with those issues;
  • Adding data review to the already stated purpose of ensuring that “students are treated fairly and without discrimination,”
  • Connect quality education with behavior improvement, as it is well known that frustrated students often misbehave out of frustration in the classroom;
  • Identifying strengths and weaknesses at the classroom, school and district-wide level on an ongoing basis to improve on weaknesses by replicating promising practices; and
  • Using behavior challenges to engage in the child find obligation of state and federal special education law to evaluate whether these children may qualify for special education supports and services.

The next section of the draft lists various Rights & Responsibilities.  These rights and responsibilities will only become a reality if those responsible for enforcing them are held accountable for doing so.

The Student Rights & Responsibilities include many good things.  However, they are missing this all important right:

  • Access to appropriate supports and services to succeed in school.

The Parent/Guardian Rights & Responsibilities also includes many good things.  However, they are missing:

  • An in-school ombudsman to help parents resolve issues as quickly as possible.
  • Reasonably quick response time from the school district when parents express concerns.

The draft School Administrator Rights & Responsibilities is a good start, but critically it fails to include the responsibilities to:

  • Be held accountable for the successes and failures to achieve the goals of the plan at both the school building and district-wide level.

The Central Office Rights & Responsibilities must also include accountability measures. In addition, it should include:

  • Clearly defined purpose of police presence which should be to carry out the goals of the plan, including reducing the school to prison pipeline, not increasing it.
  • Clearly defining lines of authority between school based staff and central office based staff when handling behavioral challenges, which is currently quite muddled.

Finally, the Board of Education Responsibilities must include holding those responsible accountable for identified success and failures in achieving the gold of the plan.

The best part of the draft is the inclusion of many proactive strategies to improve behavior such as Positive Behavior Support (PBS), but even here the draft remains unclear as to how PBS will be applied; who will be accountable for its successful implementation, what are the lines of authority in its implementation, and will it be implemented district-wide.

The draft identifies many good Intervention Strategies, but misses the mark by failing to connect Effective Classroom Management with Quality Teaching.  In the draft’s list of many pro-active intervention strategies, Trauma Informed Care should be added.  In addition, it remains unclear how these strategies will be applied, who decides when they will be applied, who will be held accountable for their application, and what resources will be provided to ensure that they can be successfully applied.

It is good to see the draft acknowledges the obligation to follow state and federal special education law.  However, as mentioned above, one aspect of that law that is left unmentioned is the child find obligation to use repeated behavioral challenges as a trigger to evaluate students for potential special education supports and services.

The draft concludes with a complex behavior response chart about which I will save in-depth comment for a future draft, other than to mention four critical missing factors:

  1. Identification of specific staff support when assistance is needed;
  2. Interventions should include support for academic challenges the student experiences;
  3. As interventions move up in intensity, review should include whether prior interventions were applied appropriately;
  4. No loss of educational time should be allowed even if removal from the classroom or traditional school building is absolutely necessary.

In sum, it is laudable that the MMSD school board has taken some initial good steps in revising its Student Conduct and Discipline Plan.  Now is the time for advocates and the MMSD to come together to polish the plan and improve educational outcomes and safety of all of our students.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Strong Governing Boards: Critical to Long Term Organizational Success

All corporations, as well as many governmental bodies (e.g. school districts) have governing boards.  While the nature of small non-profits, large multi-national corporations and school boards vary widely, they all have one thing in common. Failure to create, maintain and sustain a strong governing board will ultimately lead to the long term failure of the organization, large or small.

All too often, organizations that appear successful, if for-profit, by making money; if non-profit, by successfully fulfilling their non-profit mission, overlook this critical aspect of their Boards of Directors, because they view their boards as mere advisory committees, and their CEOs, Executive Directors and Superintendents, prefer to work without interference.  Sooner or later, either when problems arise, or when the need to replace leadership (whether suddenly or with plenty of notice), the Board is faced with critical decisions which only it can make that are essential to the long term success of the organization.

Three cases in point will exemplify how important a strong governing board is to the long term success of any board governed organization.

Congress received an extensive report about the wide variety of Board failures involved in the Enron scandal.  The Permanent Committee on Investigations found the following major Board failures:

  • Fiduciary Failure
  • High Risk Accounting
  • Inappropriate Conflicts of Interest
  • Extensive Undisclosed Off-The-Books Activity
  • Excessive Compensation
  • Lack of Independence

Sadly, over 10 years later, the lessons of Enron go unheeded, despite the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley.  Thus, there is no reason to believe another Enron cannot happen.

In Madison, Wisconsin, the School Board is engaged in a search for a new Superintendent.  The Board just announced that it has reduced the candidates down to 2 finalists.  Yet, one day after this announcement, it has become apparent that the Board’s search process was severely flawed as one of the candidates has been involved in numerous scandals, which the current School Board President stated he did not know about until informed by a reporter.  Clearly, the Board was not sufficiently involved in the hiring process to let it go this far without adequately vetting the candidates before deciding upon the finalists.

Finally, on a personal note, as many of my readers know, I spent 17 highly productive years at a non-profit which was governed by an intentionally weak and distant Board.  The Board was so weak and distant that when the prior Executive Director retired after 31 years of service, it could not post the the job until a head hunter interviewed 20 staff to determine the needs of the agency, which the Board simply did not know.  This lack of Board knowledge was created by the fact that the Board had never evaluated the prior ED during his entire 31 years of service.

The result?  The Board hired a new Executive Director without any management experience who was simply not qualified for the job.  He fired me about 8 months after he started and then recently resigned after just over a year on the job, and has left the agency diminished and in disarray.  Sadly, the Board has failed to acknowledge its own responsibility for this debacle. After failing once again to evaluate the short-lived ED, it has announced that it will use the same flawed process in its next ED search.

The lesson is really quite simple.  Boards need to exercise their required statutory fiduciary duties.  They cannot do so without sufficient knowledge of the inner workings of the entity which they govern.  That requires, at a minimum, an full 360 degree evaluation of the Executive Director/CEO/Superintendent, on an annual basis.

Having served on and led successful Boards of Directors, I am quite familiar with how this can be done both the right way and the wrong way.  The best organizations do it the right way.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Why I Decided NOT to Run for School Board

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Capping teacher salary growth.
  3. 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.

For more information e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.