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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Milwaukee School Board Candidate Forum Wrap-up

by folkbum

I attended the forum last night in Bay View, where all three of the candidates for the 8th district seat (incumbent Joe Dannecker, Terry Falk, and Tricia Young) faced off along with three of the candidates for the open city-wide seat (Bruce Thompson, Pam Penn, and Bama Brown-Grice; James Koneazny and Gloria Gaston were unable to attend).

I have a ton of notes on the questions, along with some grainy photos, and I'm trying to get ahold of some audio as well. But in the brief time I have to write this up, I'll just give my impressions of the candidates and note a few choice answers, related here in the order that they were seated on stage.
  • Bruce Thompson, city-wide: He arrived late, but because of an open house he was holding for his day job at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Of the city-wide candidates, he certainly seemed the most poised and knowledgeable, which comes from his having served previously on the board, including two years as president.

    Thompson spent a lot of time reliving those years (including some variation of "when I was on the board . . ." in almost every answer, for example), mentioning several times, without a lot of detail, the "historic reforms" he and the board then were respsonsible for. He made a major misstep in that regard answering a question about the state's funding formula, asserting that "Joe [Dannecker] and I are probably the only ones up here who know what it's like to go to Madison to ask for money," when, in fact, both Bama Brown-Grice and Terry Falk had also done exactly that.

    Thompson dodged a question of where his funding comes from (at least, where it did in his previous campaigns, as he hasn't "done that analysis yet" for this year), noting that Milwaukee is recognized as a national model of reform (it became one "while I led the board"). As such, people from all over the country might be interested in the school board races. What he didn't say was that those out-of-state interested parties are all pro-voucher, anti-public school forces. While Thompson struck a positive note that MPS ought to be doing all it can to keep parents positive enough about the district that they don't choose a voucher school, he knows as well as the rest of us that he will undoubtedly be aided in this election, as in previous ones, by pro-voucher national interests.

    Thompson has also hired Eric Hogensen, who directed Steve Kagen's congressional campaign last year. Thompson may have been the only one on stage last night with anything other than an all-volunteer campaign staff.

  • Pam Penn, city-wide: Penn is a former library/media services specialist for the district. Her major campaign theme seemed to be that MPS is inefficiently using its resources. It's possible that she's got an insider's persepctive on this, and knows some places to find those ineffeicencies, but I personally have a long-standing suspicion against anyone running on a "waste, fraud, and abuse" platform for saving money.

    She also stressed throughout her answers the idea that MPS promotes bad attitudes, and that our students aren't learning things like honesty, respect, diligence, and forthrightness because these qualities are not in abundance among the adults. As a result, she said, "we don't give students opportunities because we don't think they can handle it." She also had some criticism for the current board, faulting them for not being public or proactive enough in trying to secure greater resources from the state for MPS--which I thought was odd, since she seemed to be saying all along that we don't necessarily need more money . . .

  • Bama Brown-Grice, city-wide: Bama is the only one who talked about herself in the third person over the course of the debate ("With Bama on the board, she will do her best to be sure that we provide all the things that child needs," for example). She also brought a different persona from either Thompson (professional educrat) or Penn (frustrated ex-employee), which is that of a community activist.

    She was the only African American on stage last night (her husband was the only African American in the audience), and she offered different kinds of answers than the other candidates, notably about the idea of putting police officers into schools. She acknowledged that right now, Milwaukeeans don't trust the police; adding them to schools will only decrease the public's appreciation for them. Her solution is to deputize school safety officers, giving them the authority to write citations, for example. Then rely on police only for emergencies--and expect police to be there quickly for those emergencies. She also hit the note of communication often, noting in her opening statement that she wants to be sure that "when things are changing, we'll know before the changes happen." That's something I hear about from parents and teachers all the time; decisions are being made away from the public eye and no one knows until it's too late.

    Bama played up her experience going to Madison to seek funding for Community Learning Centers (contradicting Thompson), as well as her connections to the grass roots of the community. She answered the fund-raising question by wondering why it should even cost a dime to run for school board--all we really need are votes, she said. I'm concerned about her enthusiasm for seeking more grants to supplement funding; grants are usually one-shot deals, often with strings attached. But her enthusiasm showed through, and I'm encouraged by that.

    Fellow blogger Ken Mobile was in attendance, and was also impressed by Bama.

  • Terry Falk, 8th district: It's no secret that I support Terry Falk in the race for this disrict, where I live. He stressed throughout his years both as a teacher and as a reform advocate--he was the driving force behind Juneau High School's going charter back in 1999, for example. He was also the only candidate on stage who chose to draw blood, making clear where Thompson's and Dannecker's financial support is likely to come from. While Falk's 2003 run against Dannecker was funded entirely from people in the state--70% from in the city--Dannecker took in 60% of his money from voucher advocates like the late Milton Friedman, the Waltons, and at least one de Vos heir. Dannecker used that money to far outspend Falk for a winning margin of just a few hundred votes.

    Falk also took a shot at Dannecker in his opening statement, noting that after his loss four years ago, he was approached to run for County Supervisor. Falk declined, saying that he wasn't running to just get elected to something; rather, he wanted to do something more than just teach to help education in MPS. Dannecker, of course, was tapped by John Norquist as an ally to run for the board after an unsuccessful attempt at a County Supervisor's seat . . .

    But Falk wasn't just all about taking Dannecker down a peg or two. He was very clear in his vision that MPS is one of the last vestiges of what's public in our community, and his concern that dismantling this public system is one step in a greater plan for privatizing everything that many people hold. Falk cited a concern with recent moves by the superintendent toward recentralization, fearing that would take even more money away from schools. (Though, honestly, with all the district currently requires from schools in "chargebacks," we're already getting socked by central office.)

    Falk also had an interesting answer to the questions of low expections, violence, and police in schools: What does it say to a student when she walks into a class with 44 other students? How much more likely is a chlid to be violent when he has to sit on the radiator because there aren't enough desks? If we had more adults, smaller class sizes, and better interactions between students, there would be less of a need for police in the schools, he said. My biggest class right now is only 38, so I suppose I shouldn't be complaining.

    Falk was also the only candidate to mention the high costs of health care as a factor in budgeting. He cited several times the research he did for Milwaukee Magazine, noting that metro Milwaukee pays consistently 20-40% above the national average in health care costs because of the monopolies in town. (He specifically named Aurora, but they are not the only culprit.) He called this "the biggest tax levied on this community," and I think he's right--bringing Milwaukee's costs down to the national average could save MPS $50 million annually. He's suggesting larger purchsing pools, having already approached some County Supervisors about the idea. It may just have been the nature of the forum's format, but no one else even broached the topic of health care costs.

  • Joe Dannecker, 8th district: Dannecker's theme was "balance." We need to strike a balance between oversight and autonomy, he said, and between the burden of taxation and doing everything we may want to do in the schools. (He was the only candidate to bring up taxes outside of the one specific question regarding taxes.)

    Dannecker seemed to echo the superintendent's statement last week that he wants to expand alternative programs for disruptive students: "We need to be willing to separate students by the kind of intervention they need," he said in response to the question about placing police in the schools. But, he went on, we should only use ingterventions that work--I guess that's more balance? He also spent a lot of time complaining about the "bureaucratic mentality" at central office, noting in one answer that we need to "do more centrally what we've done in the schools, and realize that good schools can be free from regulation." Balanced, right afterward, with a statement that "we need to have everyone on one vision." It made me wonder why he continues to support the current bureaucracy, one that has, especially among the middle and high schools, done nothing if promulgate multiple visions and sent reform scattered in a dozen different directions.

    In response to concerns about the current board's communication problems, raised by Bama and Penn (Joe was the only incumbent at the forum, so he had a lot to defend against), he admitted that there were issues around communication by the board. But he said it was primarily a failure to communicate to teachers, that apparently not everyone understands high expectations or that every child is capable of excellence. I don't think that's what the others were getting at, and it frustrates me that he lays the blame on us at the front lines. That is the particular bureaucratic attitude that I think needs to be changed.

    Dannecker also made sure to include at least one gratuitous dig at the union, noting that he knew of MPS teachers who left the district to start a non-instrumentality charter school (i.e., not one run by MPS employees) "because their union wouldn't let them do what they wanted to do in MPS." I'm not sure who he's talking about or what vague prohibitions he's hinting at, but I can't think of a single thing involved in setting up or running a charter school--something I've had a little bit of experience with now--that the union would have issues with. Charters, instrumentality or not, must follow state laws and guidelines; there is little in the MPS contract that would contravene the implementation of those guidelines.

    The sourest note of the night came from Dannecker; I don't know if he was joking or not, but in response to the question about where his fundraising dollars came from, he used that time to ask the audience for money. "Send me a check!" he said gleefully. "I'll give you my address afterwards." It seemed tasteless.

  • Tricia Young, 8th district: There's a lot to like about Tricia Young; she also seems to recognize that the current direction of the board needs changing, and her answers were certainly in the right place. But one thing that showed, in contrast to, for example, Bama Brown-Grice, was her lack of experience. Bama is a parent advocate, and a long-time activist. Young is also a parent, but making her first big attempt at activism through this school board race.

    Her major theme seemed to be the sharing of successful ideas. Her daughter attends an MPS (instrumentality) charter, she says, and she appreciates the autonomy of that school. She wants to take what's successful about that school and replicate it elsewhere. She stressed an emphasis on learning in the early grades--she said what a lot of people won't, that failure in high school (and manifested through truancy and violence) is often a result of a failure to learn in the early grades. When a student hits fourth grade and later, and realizes everyone else gets it but him, he will become far less engaged and become a problem for the schools.
I remain uncommitted in terms of endorsing for the city-wide seat. I'd really like to know more about Koneazny, in particular. Like Thompson, he has prior experience on the board. Unlike Thompson, he has endeared himself to people I generally align myself with, as opposed to, say, MMAC and national voucher advocates. But I do believe Bama Brown-Grice will bring a perspective sorely lacking on the board right now, that of community activist. There is no one currently sitting on the board with more roots and connections across the community than Bama would have.

Later: Audio.

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