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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Board President Michael Bonds on MPS in Transition

The ‘hidden miracle’ happening in Milwaukee’s public schools

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The Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) is in transition—again.

Gregory Thornton, who led the district during the tumult over Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 and his slashing of aid to K-12 public schools by $800 million in his first budget, is leaving June 30 for Baltimore. The board of directors hopes to name an interim superintendent this week while launching a national search for a superintendent who can handle the demands of an urban school in a city struggling with poverty.

MPS Board President Michael Bonds said he supported Thornton’s leadership, especially his creation of district-wide reading and math curricula and his willingness to be a cheerleader for MPS during a very trying time. 

Bonds said he’s confident that MPS’s future is much brighter as a result of Thornton’s efforts and the board’s budget-tightening measures that have resulted in cutting unfunded liabilities by more than half, from $2.8 billion to just over $1.3 billion, and turning a $100 million projected deficit into a $44 million surplus.

Those cuts and a shift in priorities have allowed MPS to put art, music and physical education teachers in every school, at least on a part-time basis; make renewed attempts to raise academic performance; offer universal breakfast; lead the nation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programming; upgrade computers, labs and playfields; restore social work, counseling and nursing positions; and revive driver’s ed and extracurricular activities. 

The result is what Bonds calls MPS’s “hidden miracle.” Education Secretary Arne Duncan says that it takes at least 11 years to turn around a struggling school district. Bonds, a seven-year veteran of the board, said MPS is on its way to making that happen despite massive political opposition.

“We’re in a place now where we’re seeing the benefits of the work that’s been done, and it’s been significant,” Bonds said last week at MPS’s district offices on Vliet Street. “I’ve always called it a hidden miracle. People were trying to put the nail in the coffin with the effort to drain the budget, but it didn’t kill us. We survived the mayor and the governor’s attempted takeover. But while all of this was going on we were making these changes. The foundation is set. We have a lot of work to do but when you look at where we were at, in the context of an expanding school voucher program and budget cuts, I think it’s phenomenal.”

 

MPS’s Open Books

Bonds was eager to talk about MPS’s improved finances, a mix of measures taken before Act 10 and some that were enabled by it. The district has ended full-time benefits for part-time workers, asked teachers to contribute to their health care and pension, reorganized its health plan, and has frozen pay and step increases for staff. It’s closed more than two dozen schools in the past few years, some of them for underperformance.

Perhaps as important, however, are the district’s efforts to clean up its books.

“When I joined the board seven years ago, I was shocked that you had a billion-dollar budget and zero checks and balances on it,” Bonds said. “We went through the records and there were horror stories.”

No-bid contracts have ended and sole-source contracts are greatly reduced, Bonds said, putting a stop to wasteful contracts for unneeded services. 

“This region was a gravy train for too many people,” Bonds said. “Including MPS critics.”

In addition, MPS has opened an Office of Accountability and used part of its $20.4 million GE grant to help central office staffers learn Lean Six Sigma principles. More than 40 employees have undergone Six Sigma training and have completed more than 20 projects. That’s helped, for example, MPS change the way it bids out contracts and take control over its vast textbook holdings.

“GE took us to their facilities and trained us with their trainers,” said Robert DelGhingaro, MPS’s chief accountability officer. “Last Friday, they took another group, another 20 people, around the GE plant, showing them how they implement things and do things. They’ve been a big partner all the way along.”

MPS has become so committed to transparency that every contract is posted on its website and its efforts have earned it an A+ rating from the national Sunshine Review, the only school district in Wisconsin to win this award.

 

Student Achievement Is Rising

MPS’s finances are only part of its story, however. Bonds acknowledges that MPS needs to raise its academic performance, especially among its minority students.

“The gains are incremental, but they are headed in the right direction,” Bonds said. “They are not at the pace we want them to go.”

But he said that programs are in place to provide kids with better academic opportunities, which has resulted in recognition from the Council of the Great City Schools. More charter and specialty schools are opening up. Centralizing the curriculum will help students who switch schools during the academic year or transfer in from voucher schools. College prep programs and entrance exams are emphasized, and MPS has won a national award for the number of female and minority students in STEM programs.

Bonds also said that the racial achievement gap is being addressed. He pointed to a 2012 Schott Foundation report on the graduation rates of black male students in which MPS ranked fairly low. But that study compared the city-only MPS to school districts that include wealthier suburbs, as well as urban schools. When compared to other city-only districts MPS is performing pretty well.

“When you look at some of these places that have had so-called miracles, like Detroit, Atlanta or Washington, we are actually doing better than them,” Bonds said.