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Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010

The Stories Behind the MPS Takeover Story

It isn’t about the kids

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The Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) takeover legislation is like a vampire, a state Capitol insider told the Shepherd. It isn’t dead until someone drives a stake through it.

And while the highly controversial MPS takeover bill—authored by state Sen. Lena Taylor and state Rep. Pedro Colon, both Milwaukee Democrats—is on life support in the state Legislature, it isn’t dead yet.

Some senators are fighting hard for the legislation. But state Sen. Spencer Coggs is adamantly opposed to the takeover and, with state Rep. Tamara Grigsby, has offered an alternative reform bill that gives the Milwaukee mayor some input in MPS affairs, but doesn’t include a wholesale takeover.

We hear that Coggs got an earful from Gov. Jim Doyle about the senator’s opposition to the power grab.

The bill’s fate in the state Assembly is unclear as well.

A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan said that the Taylor/Colon bill has been sent to the Rules Committee, rather than the Education Reform Committee, headed by Rep. Annette Polly Williams, or the Education Committee.

While the Democrats are notably split on the issue, so are Republicans. On the one hand, a mayoral takeover is supported by many Republicans and suburban business leaders who want to have more influence over MPS’s affairs. On the other hand, some Republicans aren’t thrilled about handing a legislative victory to Doyle and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett, who would be seen in some Republican business circles as a “reformer” who can get results, even if that means opposing the wishes of his base. Republicans campaigning next year will have a hard time criticizing Barrett if he’s championed the cause of conservative legislators and business leaders.

Bonds Blasts Doyle

But the bigger question is: Why is Doyle pushing so hard for the takeover legislation? And why are legislators obeying a lame-duck governor—especially when takeovers in other cities rarely deliver the results supporters promise?

There’s little enthusiasm for the takeover in Milwaukee. However, conservative, suburban elites such as the Greater Milwaukee Committee, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and the leadership at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel support it. But city residents and MPS parents want to preserve their right to vote for meaningful public offices—like an elected MPS board that actually has some power.

It’s been widely assumed that Doyle was pushing the takeover to appeal to the Obama administration, since Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is a fan of mayor-led districts. (Duncan was appointed by the Chicago mayor to run that city’s schools.)

Doyle is already blaming MPS if Wisconsin doesn’t win federal “Race to the Top” funds, to be distributed by Duncan, by claiming that a lack of MPS governance reform will doom the state’s application.

But MPS Board President Michael Bonds blasted what he called Doyle’s “cynical statement.”

In a letter to Doyle, Bonds wrote, “Since mayoral control is not a requirement for Race to the Top dollars, your statement can only be interpreted as a political attempt to turn the rest of the state against MPS and to intimidate legislators who oppose mayoral control into supporting your proposal.”

And Barrett? He’s been criticized by many in the Democratic base for supporting this takeover effort while also being criticized for not pushing hard enough for a takeover. Actually, he may come out better if the reform fails, since he wouldn’t have to deal with the complex problems facing MPS as long as he’s running City Hall.

Think about what will happen if the legislation does go through. As mayor, Barrett would suddenly have a new $1.1 billion entity to manage. And if Barrett becomes governor, City Hall will be up for grabs. Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines would become acting mayor, but he’d surely face competition in a resulting election. And the name currently floated as a challenger is Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke. If a takeover goes through, in a few years Clarke could be running the city and MPS—now that is a recipe for disaster. Clarke, as one recalls, is so ideological that he only allows FOX News in the county House of Correction.

As for the legislators pushing a takeover, we’re predicting they’ll get lots of campaign contributions from business leaders who normally contribute to conservative candidates. A mayoral takeover of MPS will deliver the district into their hands.