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Monday, Dec. 29, 2008

Ending School Democracy

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With all of the major educational issues facing Milwaukee Public Schools, you may have wondered why the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was running story after story, month after month, about one out-of-town trip by one African-American member of the Milwaukee School Board.

It's true that when times are tough, voters resent perks such as travel by elected officials. The idea of public officials spending taxpayers' money on "junkets" is a sure-fire, cheap headline.

It feeds the fire that national conventions and conferences frequently are held in resort cities or gambling capitals.

However, the trip last July by School Board member Charlene Hardin took place in Philadelphia, the butt of the famous joke: "First Prize: One week in Philadelphia. Second Prize: Two weeks in Philadelphia."

Although as a reporter I wrote my share of stories about junketing public officials, I always had qualms about whether stirring public resentment was the right thing to do. Anyone who covers Milwaukee politics knows extravagance is not our biggest problem. Our biggest problems are conservatism, parochialism and narrow-mindedness.

Having our leaders travel outside of Milwaukee to learn about best practices elsewhere or to hear experts discuss creative, progressive problem solving is worth the cost.

Of course, to benefit from such programs, a public official must actually attend the conference to which he or she has traveled.

That was one of the issues about Hardin's Philadelphia trip. But there are also questions about the source of the accusation. The conference was the National Association of School Safety & Law Enforcement Officers. Peter Pochowski, executive director of the national association, said he didn't see Hardin at the conference.

What the Journal Sentinel never reported, however, was that Hardin and Pochowski have a history that could have colored his story.

Pochowski is a former Milwaukee police officer and the former safety director for Milwaukee Public Schools. Pochowski was at the center of one of the biggest controversies over Milwaukee school discipline-and his most vociferous opponent was Hardin.

In April 2007, Pochowski was the school administration's primary proponent of a plan to handcuff disruptive children from kindergarten on up. A lame-duck school board passed the plan over the outraged objections of parents and civil rights groups.

Hardin was the only vote in opposition to Pochowski's handcuff plan. When the new board took over, the majority shifted and cuffing kids was immediately rescinded.

Milwaukee School Superintendent William Andrekopoulos later publicly apologized for the plan and Pochowski left the administration. At the very least, the Journal Sentinel should have reported the bad blood between Pochowski and Hardin.

Hardin said she attended the conference, although she's been vague about how many sessions she attended. She said her primary purpose for traveling to Philadelphia was to visit two arts specialty schools in the city.

In fact, the trip by Hardin and an administrative assistant from the Milwaukee High School of the Arts was paid for out of the budget of the High School of the Arts.

Let the People Decide

If you don't believe Hardin's story and think she misused travel funds, there is a simple remedy. Hardin is up for re-election in April. But letting democracy work isn't good enough for the Journal Sentinel. The newspaper recently editorialized that its over-coverage of Hardin's out-of-town trip justified ending the election of the entire Milwaukee School Board.

"Voters in her district very well may send her packing in the spring election," the editorial said. "But that's not a certainty, and neither is a credible challenger for her seat…"

Since the newspaper can't guarantee Hardin's defeat or that black voters will elect someone more acceptable to the newspaper, it believes every parent and taxpayer in Milwaukee should be disenfranchised. The school board should be appointed, instead of elected, it said.

The editorial didn't even say who should make the appointments. Apparently, anybody would be better than allowing voters to decide who should run their schools.

The black woman prompting the newspaper to call for the end of democracy was elected from one of the poorest districts in Milwaukee. She is one of only three African Americans out of nine members of the Milwaukee School Board who set policy for a school system that is more than 80% students of color.

Hardin can be something of a loose cannon. She has alienated other African-American elected officials as well as the white establishment. But she sometimes raises issues that need to be raised, including opposing handcuffing kindergartners.

In recent years, school board control has gone back and forth between one faction supported by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and the Journal Sentinel and another faction supported by the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association and progressive educational reformers.

Just because the Journal Sentinel can't control every election is no reason to take democracy away from everyone else.

What's your take?

Write: editor@shepex.com