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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

New MPS President Michael Bonds

We’re Focused on the Kids, Not Distracting Politics

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The chair of the finance committee will lead the board

Last week’s election of Michael Bonds as president of the Milwaukee Public Schools Board of Directors comes at a crucial time for MPS. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Gov. Jim Doyle are attempting to set up an advisory council to oversee MPS’s finances. An audit commissioned by the two men purported to show that the district could save up to $100 million per year by putting workers on BadgerCare, scaling back on benefits packages, serving prepackaged food at all schools and centralizing purchases. The election of finance chairman Bonds as president of the board sent a clear signal that MPS will tackle its serious financial challenges—but as an independent body.

Bonds spoke to the Shepherd on Wednesday, April 29, less than 24 hours after his election, which was supported by previous MPS Board President Peter Blewett, who will now serve as vice president of the board. While the full interview appears on the Shepherd’s political blog, the Daily Dose, at www.expressmilwaukee.com, here’s an excerpt of our discussion.

Shepherd: Does your election signal a shift in the focus of the board, to one that’s willing to address some tough financial problems?

Bonds: I think there’s going to be more accountability now with the [three] new members [Larry Miller, David Voeltner and Annie Woodward]. I think last night sent a huge message from the people on the board that we’re not going to focus on distractions. We’re going to focus on the real issues. All three new board members voted for me, while the people involved in the ASA [Advocates for Student Achievement, which is being investigated by the district attorney for possible illegal campaign activity]— Bruce Thompson and Jeff Spence—came in on the short end. I think it sent the message that we’re going to focus on issues and not the power struggle. I was really happy with the results.

I made a conscious decision to stay neutral in the elections. What’s ironic is that some of the board members who were involved in ASA [Voeltner and Woodward] voted for me. What it says is that they are going to bring their own perspective to the board. I thought the new members sent a clear message that they’re not going to be involved in petty politics. That will help to make this a quality school district. We can’t be involved in what I call ASA’s distraction politics.

Shepherd:
Is the recent McKinsey & Co. audit, which was commissioned by Doyle and Barrett, having any impact on you or the board?

Bonds: No, because the school was already doing it. In fact, I had to give the auditor information. When President Blewett made me chair of the finance committee, one of the first things I did was to call for a fiscal stability study of the district. Then, relative to the fringe benefits, I approved a resolution that resulted in the Segal study, which talked about stuff that also wound up in the audit. We were already working on cutting busing. I had a resolution last year directing the administration to negotiate with the county for reduced bus passes. A lot of stuff was already being done. And other things, the board just doesn’t have control over. It’s not like we haven’t been doing stuff. The audit brought an outside perspective. If you look at the resolutions and the budget amendment trail, you’ll see that we were already addressing a lot of the issues in the audit.

Shepherd: The state is working through its next budget right now, and MPS has a lot riding on it. What would you like to see in the state budget?

Bonds: I don’t think we’re going to get much from the state, given the state’s fiscal crisis. I don’t expect any new aid or anything. The biggest thing that the state can do is—I know there’s a lot of discussion about the parental choice funding flaw, which is a legitimate issue—but if the state would just not penalize us for not going to the revenue limits, that would make a big difference. In the McKinsey report they talk about hypothetical savings. But let’s say we did all of them—the $100 million. Our reward next year would be that we would lose $38 million from the state. Under that system now you get penalized for making those cuts, and it doesn’t make any sense at all.

Shepherd: What will happen with the federal stimulus funds?

Bonds: I’ve been pushing for transparency and to do short-term investments with long-term benefits. I’ve been pushing not to invest in things if we don’t have the money in two years to keep it up. I think things like security would help. I go to a lot of the schools and they talk about safety issues, blind spots where they don’t have security cameras or equipment. Someone could come in and disappear because they don’t have the staff to walk around. Some of the greening initiatives would be a good use of the funds, too. Building up some of the libraries with the Title I funds. Those are long-term, concrete investments that we can benefit from.

Shepherd: Last week Barrett and Doyle sent out a press release decrying MPS’s potential property tax increase at the same time the district will receive about $95 million from the stimulus package. What’s your take?

Bonds: I actually thought that was unfair. They know that one of the guidelines for the stimulus funds is that you can’t [substitute] federal funds for the local money. The superintendent is coming out with a budget that calls for a zero increase in spending. [The next budget is actually $12 million less than the previous budget.] But the [state-imposed] funding problem means that it may result in a high single-digit or low double-digit tax increase. And then there are other costs that increase annually, like health care, so you start off in the hole with the next budget.

Shepherd: This week the district released the test scores and it looks like they’re trending in the right direction.

Bonds: It was some good news, but we still have work to do. I went to a conference a few weeks ago and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was there with the superintendent of the Atlanta schools. They talked about how increasing achievement takes time. It takes years. Secretary Duncan said they didn’t start noticing change in Chicago for almost 10 years. Superintendent [Beverly] Hall from Atlanta said they didn’t start noticing changes until after nine years.

So people want these overnight solutions—for me it’s almost a joke. If it was that easy, you would have multimillionaire consultants going to urban schools and solving their problems. When I hear these simple solutions, like having an appointed board, I ask if the appointed board would have the power to solve the funding issues or eliminate the 80% poverty rate that we have in the district. That’s why I say that I don’t take stuff like that seriously. If it was easy, it would be done. But it’s not easy.

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