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May 3, 2007

Lapham Marquette Statement

There has been bitterness, surprise and resentment over my vote with respect to the Lapham/Marquette consolidation. I would like to let people know why I voted to move the alternative programs to Marquette. I have a mix of emotions several days after the storm and hope you find it helpful to understand the process from my perspective.

I made this decision in the most thoughtful and respectful manner possible. Unfortunately, the process of getting to this vote is more complicated than the moment in time when the board makes a single vote. I hope those of you most affected by this can see how this transpired.

In the past three weeks, Beth Moss and I, as newly elected members of the Board of Education, have met with the staff of MMSD to get up to speed with our current programs. This process takes many, many hours. We have also spoken with teachers, visited schools, gone to public forums, taken calls, studied data, looked at programs with a critical eye and visited with many constituents.

Many of you went to forums over the past few weeks and spoke passionately about your schools and programs. I took copious notes and asked questions. Our participation and commitment was to be as effective as possible under the circumstances. Not to just listen silently and abdicate our role by letting the rest of the board make difficult choices.

Our board president urged us to listen to the public and to keep in mind that we had to make a decision soon. He wanted us to stay on task, to move the process forward and to ask the administration as many questions as needed.

In light of the enormous task at hand, we wondered, was there enough time? How could we possibly get all the information we needed? Could we get answers to questions once more information came back from the community?

At first, we were told that we would be voting on the budget the day after we were sworn in. This date was delayed by a week, but it still left us with very little time to ask meaningful questions and make meaningful contributions to the process.

As a board member, I made the motion to slow down the process and give the board two weeks to work together before the final vote. We were given one day to hand in our formal amendments. It is a frustrating process to say the least.

Much of the work on the budget and long range planning had been done in committee this past year. These were the options that the committee brought to the administration and the board. I chose to respect the time and effort of these committees, my fellow board members and staff over the course of the past few years. I respect the work and dedication of all those on the board.

Some people have asked what would have happened if I abstained. I’ve been thinking of this from the standpoint of risking further dissention on the board. Do we really want to risk board members actively and publicly working against each other? I feel we have to stand as one governing body with differing opinions. Outright dissent is crossing the line into the divisiveness for the board that our community has wanted to eliminate.

We can work to change the process. Set a better timeline that gives board members two weeks of orientation; a training session with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) on school budgeting; a day at the capital learning about state budgeting (perhaps with another seated board member) and two more weeks to study the budget with no other items on our agenda.

In addition, I would ask for the board to revisit criteria that we could use to provide further review and analysis of specific programs so we can evaluate them. One example is the programs housed in the Teaching and Learning Department. I would like to know exactly how much we want to spend to support quality professional development whether is it effective. Can we measure it?

I am hoping we can improve on the process, but abstaining from the process would be like giving up. I contend we made the best decisions possible for the kids. We inherited a job that many board members face each year. Is it disjointed? Yes. Can it be improved? Yes, and our board can address what worked and what did not this year at our retreat. I have also contacted the WASB for advice on how we can put a process in place if we ever have to consider consolidating or merging paired schools in the future.

I would also like us to consider coming up with community-supported criteria for this process beyond square footage, programming and enrollment. That is the job of the administration. I want us to come up with clear criteria on which to base our board decisions. We are quite capable of doing this.

Lindbergh is a small, charming school in our northside community. It is similar to Leopold, another school that has dealt with overcrowded conditions and is on the edge of our district map. Both are retrofitted from the open classroom concept to divided space.

It serves as a reminder of what we did right. We visited the school and talked to as many people as we could. We held a public forum at Kennedy Heights Neighborhood Center there. Beth and I went on a tour with neighbour-advocates, parents and teachers.

And in the end, with much debate, we found that this is a school that works. It has parent participation, teacher buy-in, neighborhood support and happy kids. All the while, our children are learning and improving.

We made difficult cuts, raised fees and asked more from our community. We committed to being fiscally responsible. We took middle schools off the table until we can have more conversations with community as to what our middle schools should look like.

We made a commitment to save small class size for all of our elementary schools, a worthwhile investment in our future and our young teachers. I personally want to focus on how we can better serve our younger staff and keep the cuts from affecting them the most. These cuts serve as a reminder of how we desperately need to talk about the cost of health insurance in our district.

And when you take a look at what we did not cut; a picture appears: we took Shabazz High School off the table; we took Blackhawk Middle School off the table; and we took Lindbergh off the table. All are good schools that have strong community support, school pride and work outside the general paradigm of what makes a successful school (too alternative, too small, etc.).

In some ways, philosophically, we made a commitment to alternative approaches in education in our district. We chose to not judge a book by its cover.

And the controversy? The near east side schools of Lapham, Marquette and O’Keefe. My experience with paired schools gave me a unique perspective of the inherent difficulties with pairings: one more transition for kids; different leadership styles which can lead to kids sliding backward in their schooling; no room for kids to expand to more challenging classes if they need to “jump ahead” in a particular subject. There are many benefits to bringing this pair together at Lapham.

Mr. Winston’s motion to move the alternative programs from rental space to effectively no known space was not acceptable. I made a motion to put alternative programs in Marquette because of my commitment to these kids.

Conversely, I couldn’t support the rationale provided by those who voted against consolidation – that we would continue to remain silent on where to put alternative programs. It is too late in the process to bring up suggestions for alternative program placement the night of the budget. Our alternative programs needed us to make a decision Monday night; our kids deserve that from us.

At that moment, I recognized that although I was sworn in less than two weeks ago as an individual board member, my success is “inextricably tied to the success of [our] board.” In addition, I became painfully aware that I do not have the authority as an individual to fix the problems I campaigned to fix once we step up before the public and convene as a board.

My alternative cuts may have prevented this consolidation but were not supported by enough members of the board. I was ready to raise fees or cut back on sports programs, a move that a majority of the board is against. I had hoped to have a further discussion on the reduction or elimination of REACH. I wanted to open the possibility of creating a new revenue stream in charging parking fees for those at Doyle and perhaps throughout the district.

I will be looking more closely at these issues in the future.

I feel very sorry to have alienated many of those in the Marquette attendance area with this controversial decision. I hope after reading this you will at least understand my rationale. I chose to advocate for all kids in the community, not just for the politically affluent. I stand by my vote.

I will remain committed to forging working relationships with everyone in the community. Our work is far from over. I hope our community, city alders, the mayor and the business community can find a way to keep all of our schools open. We need leaders to support our school communities. The board’s role is to oversee the education of the children in those schools. I trust that the Marquette community can come together and support our most fragile kids. I know I will.

Posted by Maya Cole at May 3, 2007 7:00 PM
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