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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Election to Decide Citywide MPS Board Seat

Terry Falk will face Susan Schmidt on April 5

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The Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) will lose an estimated $200 million in funding for the next school year at the same time Gov. Scott Walker is proposing changes that will weaken the system. Walker plans to open up the voucher program to all students in the city, regardless of their parents' income, as well as allow private and religious schools throughout the county to participate in the program. Teacher licensing and the city residency requirement would be eliminated as well.

Two candidates—MPS board member Terry Falk and aesthetician and activist Susan Schmidt—are on the April 5 ballot for the at-large seat on the MPS board of directors. Ken Kraucunas is mounting a write-in campaign for this seat.

Falk and Schmidt spoke with the Shepherd about their views on the future of MPS and Gov. Scott Walker's education proposals.

Terry Falk: We're Going to Fight

Terry Falk is a former high-school teacher who is finishing his first four-year term on the MPS board, where he represents District 8, which covers Bay View and the southeast side.

He said he's gotten heat for being ahead of the curve on some reforms, such as when he argued for merging two elementary schools in his district, Tippecanoe School for the Arts and Humanities and Dover Street School, against parents' wishes.

"There was so much animosity we couldn't do it," Falk said. "Well, guess what? The two schools are coming to the superintendent and saying that they want to merge now for economic reasons."

Falk said that he wants to ensure that all MPS students receive a high-quality education, not just those that attend elite schools within the system.

"The problem is we've created a free-market type of system," Falk said. "We think that the schools are competing, but in reality the children are competing. We're winding up with children who are winners and children who are losers."

He said that he's considering a legal challenge to Walker's expansion of the voucher program, since, Falk said, voucher schools systematically turn down children with disabilities. Less than 3% of voucher students are special-needs students, while more than 20% of MPS students require special education. Falk argued that voucher programs accept special-needs students who are relatively easy to teach—those with dyslexia, for example—while MPS educates students with more severe emotional, physical or cognitive disabilities.

"I think it violates federal law," Falk said.

Falk said the tight budget would require MPS to think outside of the box and perhaps merge programs and close schools to save money. But he said the reports of MPS's death are greatly exaggerated.

"We know we can move past this and we're going to fight to make sure that we have the best quality education in MPS," Falk said.



Susan Schmidt: We Must Invest in Our Children

Susan Schmidt is a Bay View resident, the parent of two MPS students, and the founder of the nonprofit Scooter Foundation, which sponsors recreational activities for at-risk kids who attend the Oliver Wendell Holmes School. The foundation helps these students learn nonviolent ways to resolve conflict and build interpersonal skills. Schmidt created the foundation in 2006, in honor of her late brother, Scott ("Scooter") Schmidt.

"After I lost my brother to gun violence, I realized I had to turn my grieving energy into something positive," Schmidt said. "It wasn't like our family to be angry or bitter."

Schmidt said she's seen a marked improvement in the students' academics, behavior and trust, as well as parental involvement.

"I'm very passionate about these children," Schmidt said.

She's running for the MPS board to help other students and their parents become more engaged in their schools and communities and, ultimately, make schools safer and more successful.

Schmidt said she's disappointed with the current board for not fighting for more funding from the state government. Since the next budget will be so tight, she suggested finding more partners within the community who could help MPS continue popular programs, such as art and gym, that might otherwise be eliminated. She suggested reaching out to retired teachers or fitness professionals who would be willing to volunteer their time for students.

"Who is willing to invest in our children?" Schmidt asked.

Schmidt disagreed with Walker's proposal to expand the voucher program, saying that the student cap isn't being met this year, as well as his intention to repeal the requirement that voucher schools administer a standardized test.

"We have to be able to measure success and failure," Schmidt said.

She also disagreed with Walker's attack on collective bargaining, saying that teachers have already recognized the need to make concessions.

"MPS cannot sustain what the union has suggested in past years," Schmidt said. "But this proposal is so ridiculously extreme."

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