Jeramey Jannene

Milwaukee Public Schools Referendum Narrowly Passes

Union touts passage as a win for Milwaukee's youth.

By - Apr 2nd, 2024 11:23 pm
Rufus King. Photo by Christopher Hillard.

Rufus King. Photo by Christopher Hillard.

Milwaukee Public Schools scored a victory Tuesday when voters narrowly approved a $252 million referendum.

According to unofficial results posted by the Milwaukee County Election Commission, the referendum passed 51% (41,586 votes) to 49% (39,866) after approximately 26,000 absentee ballots were reported. With only in-person ballots reported, it trailed by 214 votes.

The district pursued the referendum to reverse declining revenue and what it says was an anticipated $200 million budget shortfall that would result in a 13% cut. But it drew criticism for perceived failures to identify how it would spend the money and deal with declining enrollment.

A number of business groups, including the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) and Greater Milwaukee Committee, formally opposed the ballot measure. The MMAC led a formal campaign against the referendum.

The district has battled falling enrollment for two decades. It has lost 31.5% of its enrollment since 2004, with much of that due to the growth of choice and charter schools and transfers to other schools through open enrollment.

A Wisconsin Policy Forum report, as covered by Graham Kilmer, examined the district’s financial condition and found that the district’s financial position was declining, but that the actual budget shortfall might not be as large as projected.

It’s the second time in four years that MPS has sought a referendum. Voters approved an $87 million referendum in 2020.

The latest referendum would grow over four years to raise $125 million from city property taxpayers. The local increase in funding would unlock matching state funding, bringing the revenue increase to $252 million.

The owner of a $100,000 home would pay an additional $216 in the first year under the proposal.

A coalition, known as Say Yes to MPS, backed the referendum. Endorsers included County Executive David Crowley, Mayor Cavalier Johnson, Congresswoman Gwen Moore and former Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes. The Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, led by president Ingrid Walker-Henry and executive director Amy Mizialko, strongly backed the measure.

“Milwaukee sent a message today: we will do what it takes so that the children of our city have access to public schools with equitable opportunities. That MPS students deserve access to certified art, music, and physical education teachers and school libraries and librarians. That we will have competitive salaries that retain the best teachers, paraprofessionals and critical staff for our students. That students deserve tech and career readiness programs that increase their chances at future success. Milwaukee voted ‘Yes’ because we know our children are worth it,” said Walker-Henry in a statement. “And Milwaukee overcame what is now clearly more than half a million dollars of misleading attack ads from right wing business interests, most of whom do not live in Milwaukee. Milwaukee will not forget who tried to harm our children and their public schools in this election.”

Walker-Henry singled out two individuals for criticism.

“Former Brookfield Republican State Senator Dale Kooyenga, now head of the MMAC, led the effort to force $200 million in cuts for Milwaukee children. We call on the Milwaukee business community to think about whether the extremist and largely suburban MMAC is an organization they want to be associated with,” said the union president. “The City Forward Collective, the private school lobby with designs on total school privatization also spent big money on the effort to force huge cuts to MPS schools. City Forward’s Director Colleston Morgan has planned how to destroy our public schools for years. City Forward inundated Milwaukee voters with misleading messages with the goal of eliminating public education. Milwaukee protected our children from City Forward’s attacks.”

In a statement issued Wednesday morning, City Forward disputed Walker-Henry’s claims. “The passionate discourse of the last month should serve as both a signal and a collective call to action for our entire community. It’s a signal that the status quo, business as usual, cannot continue—not at Milwaukee Public Schools or for our city’s K12 schools as a whole. And, it’s a call to collective action: for all of us to move beyond divisive rhetoric and personal attacks, and come together to deliver on the promise of high-quality educational opportunities for all Milwaukee students, no matter their choice of school,” said Morgan. In an email, Morgan noted the organization is neither a private school lobby, nor does it have designs on total privatization.

The MMAC also responded. “With a $252 million referendum now passed, it’s vital that Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) uses these additional resources to improve student outcomes. The MPS plan must be transparent and bold. The status quo is unacceptable and a strategic plan to better equip MPS students for the workforce of tomorrow is essential. Our community, its families and, most importantly, our children deserve public schools that set students up to succeed. It’s our view that every child, no matter where they attend, is entitled to a quality education. Despite MMAC’s opposition to this measure, we realize the importance MPS plays by educating half of the children in the city. We will continue to be a strong partner in programming that exposes students to the opportunities awaiting them upon graduation.,” said the organization.

A number of community groups, including BLOC, Voces de la Frontera and Leaders Igniting Transformation backed the referendum.

Graham Kilmer contributed to this report.

UPDATE: Responses from CFC and MMAC were added Wednesday morning.

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Categories: City Hall, Politics

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