Friday, May 1, 2009

MPS President Michael Bonds Interview, Part 2

By Lisa Kaiser
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Michael Bonds was elected the new president of the MPS board of directors in a 6-3 vote Tuesday night. Here's part two of my interview with Bonds. (You can find the first part here.)


Shepherd: One of the big issues brought up in the audit is fringe benefits. Do you plan on addressing that soon?

Bonds: Yes, we have to. I have been discussing it with state representative Kessler and Young and Williams and others to work on an incentive package where people would maintain the same benefits but use a cheaper plan. I don’t want to see anyone lose their health insurance. But this is where you run into challenges with collective bargaining. You have to be realistic and you have to honor and respect collective bargaining. I’m going to meet with the union representativess and ask people to look at the broader picture, at what’s best for the district.

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 supplant federal funds for the local money. The superintendent is coming out with a budget that calls for a zero increase in spending. But the 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 ten years. Superintendent 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.

Shepherd: What are the biggest misconceptions about MPS?

Bonds: That people aren’t trying or they’re making decisions without much thought or that there are a bunch of people who don’t know what they’re doing. I think many people feel there are these magical solutions. I can only speak for when I’ve been on the board for the past two years, but we have literally put millions back into art and music, drivers education and sports. We do care about accountability. We had the fringe benefits study done. We’ve looked at the district’s long-range fiscal stability. We’re making progress.

I think is that one of the gravest injustices is that the current board is being penalized for decisions that the previous board made. A lot of this started when the Journal Sentinel ran that big series on the Neighborhood Schools Initiative. But guess what—that was a previous board that made those decisions. The report came out under the current board. But the current board didn’t make those decisions. What was ironic is that the Journal Sentinel supported that program.

And now six of the nine board members have been there for under two years. I think that people need to give this board a chance. I think that the Shepherd’s cover article last week, with the big target on the cover, that really is true. We are a target. But when you sit down with people and talk about what’s really happening…

When the mayor first called for the audit, I said it was a waste of money because we were already doing it. The mayor’s chief of staff, Pat Curley, said, “We didn’t know anything about it.” Well, you know, pick up the phone and call! But the important thing was that some of those decisions were not made by the board that was elected in 2007.

We have no control over the choice program, which almost 20% of our state aid goes to. We have no control over it. Speaking for myself, I have supported school closures in my own district. I look at the bigger picture for the district. I don’t think people realize that we are making informed decisions. The audit was already done, the fringe benefits study had already been done, we had called for an evaluation of the charter and small schools, not because I’m opposed to them, but it seemed like every month a new charter school was coming in. We didn’t have a chance to evaluate them and based on the report cards they were doing worse than the traditional schools. So I wondered why we were adding more schools. They talk about the busing in the audit. But a year ago I already had a resolution to end massive busing.

That’s why I say that I think a lot of times people don’t think that the current board is making any efforts but we have. And we’re being penalized for decisions that the previous boards have made. Previous boards gave away generous fringe benefits packages, not the current board. In so many ways I feel like we’re cleaning up someone else’s mess but we’re being penalized for it.

I already made my committee appointments last night and I’ve reached out to key people and I’ve got a letter that I’m going to send out today. It’s a lot of work but I feel that I’m up to the challenge. I was really proud last night. I thought they sent a strong message that you can’t buy the board. People are committed to working with someone who’s going to lead the board for the best interests of the kids and not a fraction of the board. I made a conscious decision to stay neutral in the election and I looked at the people who were involved in the ASA and I was really glad that my colleagues didn’t want to get caught up in that. I’m grateful for the support that President Blewett has given me during this transition period and he was very gracious about the situation. We have a very good working relationship and I’d like to continue that.

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