Wednesday, April 29, 2009

New MPS President Michael Bonds: We're Focused on the Kids

By Lisa Kaiser
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MPS board member Michael Bonds was elected president of the MPS Board of Directors in a 6-3 vote on Tuesday night. Peter Blewett, who previously headed the board, supported Bonds' election and will now serve as vice president.

Bonds is a fiscal policy expert who has introduced a flurry of finance-related budget amendments and resolutions during his first two years on the board. Most notably, he developed a policy to decrease the amount of busing in the district, saying that the district doesn't have enough of a broad ethnic and racial mix to achieve true integration.

Bonds' election comes at a crucial time for MPS. 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, serving prepackaged food at all schools and centralizing purchases. The election of Bonds as president of the board sent a clear signal that MPS will tackle its finances seriously, but as an independent body.

Bonds spoke to the Shepherd on Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after his election. Here's a sampling of what he had to say:

Shepherd: Why did you run for president of the board?

Bonds: I felt that I would be able to take the district in the direction that President Peter Blewett had already started. He has been very gracious during this transition and very supportive. I just felt that with some of the challenges that we have, some of the external challenges, I thought I would be the best person to handle them. I thought that the progress made under President Blewett was overshadowed by the distraction of him being a target. We had numerous discussions. We have an excellent rapport. I think that'll continue and get even better. Since I've been on the board Peter and I have had an excellent working relationship. It also frees up Peter's time to do other things. We're at a crossroads at MPS and we talked about how we can stay focused on what's best for kids and find what's appropriate for them. You couldn't ask for a better transition than the one we have had.

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 new members. 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 [Larry Miller, David Voeltner and Annie Woodward] voted for me and 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.

Tim Petersons also put his name forward. The three votes that he got were Spence, Thompson and himself. But they fight everything. Spence and Thompson are the two founders of the ASA. That’s why I say that the board sent a clear message that they won't be distracted by these petty politics.

Shepherd: You put forward a lot of budget amendments and resolutions in the past two years. Some of those were not adopted. Which ones would you like to reintroduce now?

Bonds: The busing thing is a big thing. My whole life I've been a big supporter of integration. But we're at the point now, with 80% of students being minority, the population just is not there. Then the amount of money that's spent on it…. I think we need to revisit the issue of quality schools throughout the city, not just in portions of the city, but throughout it. I think that'll help bring back community involvement and kids aren't spending a half an hour or 45 minutes on a school bus to get a D average.

Shepherd: What about closing schools?

Bonds: One of the schools that I recommended closing was in my own district- Carleton. I think the kids were coming from 80 or 90 neighborhoods. Other schools have been able to pick up those students and provide quality programs. Schools that were under capacity are now able to bring back arts and music programs. So even though Carleton was in my district, I couldn't justify having it stay open and have the other schools under capacity.

Shepherd: Is the recent McKinsey audit having any impact on you or the board?

Bonds: No, because the school was already working on these issues. 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, that 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: How's your relationship with the mayor and governor?

Bonds: I've never met the governor but I always thought that I had an excellent relationship with the mayor. I've known Mayor Barrett since 1986 when he was my state representative. He’s always been cordial and professional. His budget director is my former boss, and I was there for 13 years, Mark Nicolini. I was the first analyst that mark hired for the fiscal review section in 1989. I know a lot of Barrett's people. I worked at City Hall for 13 years. I know all of the key people down there, Willie Hines, the other aldermen. That was something that Peter and I discussed. I know the key players at City Hall but I don't know the governor. I thought I was bringing a fresh perspective because I didn't have any baggage or conflicts. This way we can just focus on the issues.

Shepherd: How can the city and MPS work together productively?

Bonds: I have already prepared a letter to go to the mayor and the Common Council and the governor and [incoming state Superintendent] Tony Evers, to key stakeholders, urging them to work with me on a weekly or biweekly basis. Basically, to get together and keep abreast of what we're doing. I think there's a potential role for the city as long as it doesn't alter the governance structure.

One of the roles I've always envisioned is kind of like the city comptroller. In city government you have the mayor and then you have the Common Council. The city comptroller was always at the table to talk about the financial impact of certain decisions. I can envision that happening at MPS. One thing I learned, and I give Mayor Norquist credit for it when he was mayor, even though he was the executive he created a legislative reference bureau for the Common Council. Coming from the state [Legislature] he understood that you want to have an independent body to go over the executive's policies and budget. I could see more of a role for the comptroller, to let us know what the financial impact is, and not just rely on what the administration says. I feel like I have a good working relationship with the superintendent. But just to have that additional perspective would help.

Shepherd: Have you heard anything more about the advisory council that the mayor and governor want to appoint?

Bonds: No. I informed the mayor yesterday that I would be contacting his staff to set up an appointment. I saw him at a meeting yesterday. I pretty much knew I had the votes [to become president] but I told him that I wanted to wait to get things finalized. I've been in politics and I've learned that you don't count too soon, not until the votes are cast. But I haven't heard anything more about the council. I don't know who's on it or what.

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. Even 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.

(I'll post the rest of the interview in another blog posting- LK.)

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