Terry Falk
The Educator

How Does Residency Change Affect Teachers?

24% of MPS teachers now live outside city. Does that matter?

By , Wisconsin Examiner - Jan 2nd, 2020 12:44 pm
Rufus King. Photo by Christopher Hillard.

Rufus King. Photo by Christopher Hillard.

About 28 percent of Milwaukee city employees now live outside the city, according to a story by former Milwaukee television newscaster, Mike Gousha, in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He linked this to a law by the state Legislature abolishing the power of municipalities to pass residency requirements for employees, which was upheld by a 2016 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision.

The residency requirement issue has tended to focus attention on police and firefighters, who successfully lobbied the Legislature on this issue.

Gousha’s story found that about 45 percent of both police and firefighters now live outside the city, versus just 16 percent of general city employees. But the law also impacted Milwaukee Public Schools employees (who work for the school district, not the city) and the story found about 23 percent of MPS employees now lived outside Milwaukee. The latest MPS numbers show 10,186 employees, with 2,417 or 23.7 percent, living outside the city.

Most of those teachers probably moved some time ago, after the law passed. Any recent increase in the number probably is the result of new hires who already live outside of the city and are not required to move into the city for the job. Remember that MPS has a fairly high turnover rate.

So what’s the impact of the lack of a residency requirement for school employees?

I found myself on both sides of the residency debate from a fairly unique position. For 12 years I was on the executive board of Milwaukee’ teachers union, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA). I was often accused by fellow teachers of not doing enough to get rid of the residency requirement. Four years after I retired from teaching, I was elected to the Milwaukee school board. I was now accused of not doing enough to maintain the residency requirement.

My position on residency never changed. Whether as a union official or a school board director, I thought both sides exaggerated the impact of the issue. So perhaps I’m in a good position to examine both sides of it.

In favor of killing the residency requirement:

Teachers and union official stated that, by limiting the pool of prospective teachers only to those willing to live in the city, the school district missed out on many excellent teachers. Milwaukee and some other districts were finding it increasingly difficult to fill necessary positions with qualified teachers.

This position has some merit, but it is difficult to quantify. Milwaukee and much to the state are presently dealing with a massive teacher shortage. One could argue the shortage would be even greater if the residency requirement was still in place, but there are other major factors at work.

Exit interviews of those leaving Milwaukee teaching positions show that the difficulty of the job (large classes, the lack of support, diminished books and supplies, more challenging students) and lower pay than in other school districts and occupations, played a larger part in why teachers left Milwaukee schools. Yes, residency was a contributing factor, but getting rid of it did not solve the teacher shortage problem, either.

A few teachers told me they just saw residency as a human rights issue. Employers should not have the power to tell employees where to live. This is a philosophical issue and is almost impossible to quantify. However, when I pressed teachers on why the wanted to get rid of residency, they rarely argued this philosophic argument beyond an opening statement; they simply didn’t want to live in the city.

In favor of keeping the residency requirement:

One position you are unlikely to hear was what I heard from a couple union officials. They quietly told me that getting rid of the residency requirement was a two-edged sword. If too many school employees moved out of the districts, teachers would have diminished power in a school board election. So what happened to that diminished power once school employees no longer had to live in the district? Three former teachers are now on the board, one of them a past president of the MTEA.

Many who support teachers living in the city believe that those who live in the city will be more committed to the job and the people they serve. I find no evidence to support this position.

Many school employees lived on the fringes of the city, often only a block or two from suburban neighborhoods. Open enrollment allowed them to transfer their own children to suburban schools. They were far away, physically and culturally, from the inner-city youth that they served. The fact that so many employees bolted to the suburbs so quickly after the residency requirement was lifted is a telling sign that many never bonded with the city.

Some of the best teachers I worked with in Milwaukee were teachers who did not live in the city. They often outshined fellow teachers who did. I defy anyone to walk into any school in Milwaukee and be able to pick out which teachers live in the city simply by looking at the quality of their teaching.

Probably the best argument for keeping residency is economic, but even here its impact may be exaggerated.

Gousha states that John Johnson of the Marquette’s Lubar Center notes a growing trend in where people live. Homes that were once owner occupied are now being rented out by their owners who live in the suburbs. Clearly public employees moving to the suburbs could be part of the trend. But other factors are in the mix.

Recent findings show Millennials, for a number of reasons, are delaying buying homes and are more likely to rent.

This, too, could translate into an ever-growing rental market often at the expense of single, stand-alone homes. Is the loss of the residency requirement having an impact on the housing market in Milwaukee? To some extent, but just how much is hard to say.

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One thought on “The Educator: How Does Residency Change Affect Teachers?”

  1. Mingus says:

    The priority for MPS should be finding the best teachers irrespective of where they live. Teachers working at charter and choice schools have never had a residency requirement nor have the Milwaukee area politicians ever demanded that there should be one. One positive affect could be having more suburban communities with teachers and other public employees as residents could make their areas more politically purple and possibly break the gerrymandered hold that the Republican have had on these districts.

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