Milwaukee school board President Bruce R. Thompson is accustomed to parents’ airing their views at board meetings. Early last month, though, dozens of parents began taking the unusual step of picketing in front of his house on Saturday mornings to bring attention to recent budget actions by the board.
Angered by cuts that local schools must make to shore up a projected $32 million gap in the district’s 2000-01 budget, they want the board to seek help from the state. Short of that, they say they’ll keep picketing—at least through June.
Fueling the debate is a divide over who controls school spending and the fiscal impact of Milwaukee’s school voucher and charter school programs.
“Our board should be working to make sure all our kids get a quality education,” said Mary Pichelmann, a Metropolitan High School site- council member and protest organizer. “Instead, it has an interest in dismantling the school system,” she asserted.
Mr. Thompson doesn’t criticize the protesters for coming to his house, except to say, “It can get pretty noisy.” But, he added, the Wisconsin legislature isn’t interested in reconvening to find more money for the 105,000-student system. “This effort probably won’t bring in the money. They imply that I’ve said we really don’t need money. I’ve never said that. But we do need to live within our budgets.”
At current spending levels, the district would spend $852 million in the next fiscal year—or $32 million above current state spending limits.
To help slow expenditures, principals and school councils in the district’s 160 schools have come up with balanced-budget plans that propose cutting teacher positions and programs for students with special needs, as well as streamlining course offerings.
Riverside University High School, for example, must trim $631,000 from its $12.3 million budget. It will do that, in part, by erasing a job-skills program for special education students, shrinking a school program for working at-risk students, and dropping a communications class.
“This has devastated high schools,” said Mary Ann Zapala, Riverside’s principal. Like other administrators and parents, she is frustrated at how big a portion of a school’s budget—$3.6 million in her case—is dictated by the district. “The board says it wants decisions made closer to the source, but to us, it looks like they’re dumping on us to make cuts that they won’t make at the central office,” she charged.
Superintendent of Schools Spence Korte will incorporate the school plans into his district budget blueprint this month. A final vote by the Milwaukee board is slated for May 30.
Some parents plan to step up the pressure on the nine-member board. Deborah Epps, a member of the school council at Riverside University High, said that school councils citywide were uniting to persuade the board to study ways of replacing the $32 million, even if it means pressuring state lawmakers.
Ms. Epps also wants parents and the board to fight for a repeal of the 1993 law that placed caps on annual school spending growth in exchange for higher shares of state aid for schools.
“It’s time to look at this,” Mr. Thompson said. “But to argue that caps should be abolished now is not going to fly.”
The budget tiff is not only about numbers. Milwaukee, as one of two cities—Cleveland is the other—with publicly financed voucher programs, is a target for those who argue that public schools suffer when tax dollars are given to children to pay for private school tuition.
Under a program enacted by the state legislature in 1990 some 8,000 low-income Milwaukee students take vouchers worth $5,106 each to schools outside the district. In addition, Milwaukee students will have 15 public charter schools in the city to chose from next school year.
Foes of school choice argue that those programs are creating a major fiscal drag on the district. Not so, others maintain, citing new state support.
The district last year footed 100 percent of the bill for the $29 million voucher program. In contrast, this year the state will pay half the $40 million price tag for vouchers, leaving the district with $20 million to spend elsewhere.
Still, protesters claim the five board members who beat opponents backed by the local teachers’ union in the April 1999 election are school choice supporters who fail to defend the greater interests of the district. Ms. Pichelmann said that when parents asked the board to march with them this summer to protest school aid shortages, “no one said yes.”
Mr. Thompson said the pickets outside his house are, in part, retribution for the victories of what he sees as pro-choice reformers: “There are a number of people who are unhappy about the election, and this is a chance to get back.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2000 edition of Education Week as Parents in Milwaukee Protest Budget Actions