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Sheldon Lubar’s Next Target: The Democratically Elected MPS Board

Businessman behind Abele and Sanfelippo’s destruction of the Milwaukee County board gets candid about his plans

May. 21, 2014
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Last Thursday, in a discussion devoted to Milwaukee County government “reforms,” businessman and philanthropist Sheldon Lubar casually dropped a bomb: His next target is the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).

“On my agenda, that’s the next thing,” Lubar said when responding to a question about whether he or his fellow panelists Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele or state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis) would be involved in taking away the authority of the democratically elected MPS board.

Later, Lubar, who worked in the Nixon administration, clarified his plans when responding to a question about charter schools.

“The origin of these schools was to give the parents of children an option if they felt their public school was not performing that they could go to another school that wasn’t being subjected to the rules of the administration largely driven by the teachers union,” Lubar said. “I’ve always been a believer in parochial schools. I’ve been a believer in private schools and I do believe in charter schools. I think that the school board and the means of electing them needs to be changed.”

In response, some in the crowd booed, while others clapped.

Reached for comment on Friday, MPS Board President Michael Bonds told the Shepherd that it was obvious that Lubar “hadn’t done his homework.”

The district’s student performance is rising and beating that of independent charter schools and private voucher schools; graduation rates are up; charter schools have been added; and in 2011 the board had cut a projected $2.8 billion in unfunded liabilities in half to $1.3 billion, indicating that MPS’s current governing structure is doing just fine without Lubar’s help, Bonds said.

“This would totally be a power grab,” Bonds said of Lubar’s plans. “I don’t know what more he thinks he can do. People think that there’s a simple solution. It’s obvious that he doesn’t know the school district. I’ve been on the board for seven years and he’s never reached out to me, never talked to me. When you look at all of the evidence, everything is looking up.”


Lubar and Sanfelippo Boosted Abele’s Power

This isn’t the first time that Lubar has threatened to blow up a level of government.

In 2009, he infamously said that Milwaukee County government needed to be destroyed to save itself. Back then, during the Scott Walker administration, he’d worked on studies for the conservative business group Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC) about the financial problems facing the county.

Prior to that, he and Abele had worked on a GMC study about the county’s cultural assets.

The two men remained close. On Thursday, Abele said that Lubar was one of the first people he called when mulling whether to run for county executive when Walker became governor. Lubar encouraged him and became co-chair of Abele’s 2011 campaign.

Lubar went to bat for Abele again last year, when he backed Act 14, which gutted the power of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and drastically boosted the power of the county executive, who just happened to be his good friend Abele. Sanfelippo, who shared the stage with the two men on Thursday, was the main legislative sponsor of the bill. Lobbying heavily for it was the Greater Milwaukee Committee, which initiated the measure with Sanfelippo.

Lubar told the crowd at UW-Milwaukee’s Golda Meir Library that the election of his friend Abele has helped to address some of the problems facing the county.

“When Chris was elected, that was a step in the right direction,” Lubar said. “But we still had this impossible board of supervisors and we still do. But we’re starting to change it.”

Although the panel was convened to discuss Milwaukee County reform measures, Abele never mentioned Act 14, preferring to talk about less controversial topics, such as the county’s increased collection of child support. Sanfelippo, on the other hand, talked plenty about Act 14, although he didn’t always stick to the facts, insisting, among other things, that the April 2014 referendum gave the voters the ability to approve the board’s power and salary cut. In reality, Act 14 itself stripped the board of much of its power, while the referendum merely asked Milwaukee County voters whether they wanted to cut supervisors’ pay.


Broderick: ‘Who’s Really in Charge?’

Lubar was in charge of Thursday’s moderator-less talk, which included taking questions the audience had written on notecards.

At one point, however, seemingly fed up with getting only one side of the Milwaukee County argument, Milwaukee County Supervisor Gerry Broderick stood up and broke into the discussion.

“It’s been interesting to hear the conservative point of view on many of these subjects,” Broderick said. “However, all of this—the efforts of the Greater Milwaukee Committee—give rise to a very basic question that many of my constituents are asking. They see two forms of government in competition with one another. They see a publicly elected government elected at the ballot box in which I serve and that represents the public interest. Then they see another government that is essentially self-appointed and funded by great wealth and ultimately only representing private interests.”

He went on to note that county voters supported an advisory referendum to increase the sales tax to pay for transit, parks and other assets, but that business groups opposed it and the state refused to authorize it. Now, those same entities that opposed the sales tax boost are looking for public money to revamp the Bradley Center.

“My question is, will you comment on who’s really in charge here?” Broderick asked.

Lubar said that he supported a public referendum on whether public money should be used for a new arena.

Lubar didn’t address Broderick’s question about who really is “in charge”—democratically elected officials like Broderick and Abele or the unelected powerbrokers like himself.


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