Two years ago, Milwaukee voters rejected a slate of five school board candidates endorsed by the city’s powerful teachers’ union, in what many saw as a referendum on the union itself.
In a marked turnabout of public opinion last week, city voters ousted the board’s president, while voting in a pair of new board members and re-electing two incumbents backed by the teachers’ group. Those results shook up the bloc that has dominated recent board votes.
In perhaps the most significant outcome of the April 3 election, Jennifer Morales, a parent of two Milwaukee students and the director of two education research centers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, defeated board President Bruce Thompson.
Many local business leaders had backed Mr. Thompson. As president, he led many of the 103,000-student district’s recent improvement efforts, including a controversial plan to increase student testing.
But Ms. Morales, who will be the district’s first Hispanic board member, targeted his leadership style, as much as the issues he supported, in her campaign.
“I felt the incumbent president was very unresponsive to parents and teachers,” she said in an interview last week. “There was not enough effort to involve those critical people in his reform agenda.”
The other new union-backed member is Peter Blewett, an assistant coordinator of the creative-writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He defeated a nonincumbent who was seen as more sympathetic to the current school board majority.
Mr. Blewett and Ms. Morales oppose the state-adopted voucher program in their city, which allows some 10,000 students to use public money to attend private schools, including religious schools.
In his campaign, Mr. Blewett said he hoped to reduce the district’s emphasis on standardized tests and reassess a new student-assignment plan that aims to reduce busing and increase attendance in neighborhood schools over the next six years.
The two other seats up for election on the nine- member board went to incumbents Lawrence O’Neil, a 22-year school board veteran, and Charlene Hardin, a frequent critic of the current board, who ran unopposed.
Observers say that while there remains a 5-4 majority on the board to support the current policy agenda, last week’s results will make board votes far less predictable.
Paulette Copeland, the president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, said the ousted incumbents and their supporters failed to derail their challengers even though they had “attached them to the union and then vilified the union by saying we are for bad things.”
“We’re trying to improve the system,” said Ms. Copeland, whose union is an affiliate of the National Education Association. “We ended up electing people whose focus is on improving the system.”
The school district’s financial problems may have worked in favor of the winners.
Last year, faced with $32 million in budget cuts, the board was under heavy pressure to lobby the Wisconsin legislature for more money.
Several parents even picketed outside Mr. Thompson’s house on Saturdays to make the point. In the end, many voters apparently believed that the board was not aggressive enough in confronting state lawmakers on the money issue.
“Several board members didn’t perceive a problem. They said we needed to spend our money better,” said Deborah Epps, a local parent activist. “It was perceived that they were unwilling to lobby the legislature and work with parents trying to be involved.”
After she is sworn in May 3, Ms. Morales plans to go after the legislature to come up with more money to help pay for pressing district needs, such as special education.
A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as Union-Backed Candidates Win Milwaukee Board Seats