By Jay Bullock Special to OnMilwaukee.com Published Oct 13, 2015 at 3:06 PM Photography: Molly Snyder
The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OnMilwaukee.com, its advertisers or editorial staff.

If Wisconsin were a comic book, the evil schemes of the bad guys would revolve around the destruction of this once-proudly progressive state's public institutions. Our hero's motto, spoken as she takes flight to chase the villain, would be "Forward!"

Just looking at the last week or so, there's Republicans' plan to overhaul a civil service system that, for over a century, has served the state just fine. This return to the so-called spoils system – a system that allows elected officials to reward supporters with plum jobs in government – would mean that Wisconsin's public institutions will no longer serve the public good.

The villains have already hit, for example, the state Department of Natural Resources, which has been steadily weakened for the last 20 years and is now run by a highly partisan former elected official, Cathy Stepp. The DNR has almost completely turned into an agency that serves not the public but corporations and big-money donors. Starting with the elimination of the Public Intervenor position in the 1990s, legislators and governors have been chipping away at the ability of the DNR to preserve the state's public lands for the public good.

Recently we've also seen bills introduced to politicize the state's Department of Public Instruction and Government Accountability Board, and attempts to remove worker protections for everyone from university professors to prison guards, making them subject not to high standards of performance but whatever winds are blowing in Madison.

Here in Milwaukee, of course, we've watched the villains' destruction of one public institution after another, most notably the Milwaukee Public Schools. For 25 years now, the public school district has been attacked, undermined and underfunded, with new challenges to its existence seemingly every day.

The schemes to destroy MPS have mostly come from the villains' lair in Madison – the Milwaukee Parental Choice (voucher) Program, for example, and the authority granted to other city institutions to charter schools outside of the MPS umbrella. I've long documented both the financial and programmatic effects on the public schools from these threats, not to mention the way none of them have improved education overall in this city. The way many of those non-MPS schools have betrayed the public trust over the years is well documented.

But, as always in a comic book, sometimes the heroes fight each other, as in the current district proposal to carve out space in the public Pulaski High School for a charter school program that will operate largely outside of the district's control.

The main plot, though, of the current issue in the MPS-focused comic book is undoubtedly the Opportunity Schools Partnership. Any day now, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele will appoint a "commissioner" who will identify up to three MPS schools that will be subsumed into this new program, their teachers removed and their assets seized. If implemented as written, the program will bankrupt MPS.

Abele has been working hard to sell himself as a kind of hero for MPS lately, with his deadline to appoint a commissioner looming. He has been on TV, and he penned an op-ed for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel a couple weeks back. He isn't saying much of anything now that he wasn't saying back in July – including to OnMilwaukee – just after the program was passed as part of the state budget, but he's stepped up his pitch.

And when I had a chance to sit down with Abele last week – no, he did not offer me the commissioner's job – he stuck to those same main themes:

  • The plan was not his idea, nor was his being in charge of it.
  • He understands that the challenges faced by MPS students aren't going to be solved easily, quickly or just with a change in who runs a given school.
  • He does not want to hurt MPS, and he sees the damage done by things like the voucher program.
  • He will start slow, with a single school (probably not a high school), to minimize the impact on MPS.
  • He wants as much as possible retain the same staff and students in that school while trying intensively to turn it around.
  • He will continue to work with MPS to bring county resources to bear in all schools across the district.

This all sounds reasonably good. Indeed, after his op-ed was published, I remarked on Facebook that while the first draft of my own proposal would be something like "Screw you, state Republicans!" (I support the "not one school" anti-takeover opposition) but my second draft might have looked a lot like his, since it seems to support the overall public mission of MPS.

So I asked Abele about why he didn't take the same approach my first draft would have. Did he investigate at all just saying no way?

"I haven't looked at that," he said of the idea, genuinely surprised it might have been a possibility. "I take this oath thing," he said, meaning he's sworn to follow the law even if it is terrible. And let's be honest: Pretty much any other character in the Wisconsin comics universe that Republicans could have given this task to would certainly be much more evil than Abele.

"I like making systems work better, sustainably," Abele told me. "It's nice to pull off something when people don't think you can. I'm creative and persistent." That's true; not a born politician, Abele is a much better technocrat, managing the systems of government to try to make them work better.

Not everyone around Milwaukee thinks Abele can play the hero, including many of my friends who work for the county. State Sen. Chris Larson has announced he's running against Abele in next spring's election. The brand-new Working Families Party here in Milwaukee has a number of current and former electeds in its leadership, at least two of whom have the chops and the resources also to run.

But Abele does have a record of modest success, especially considering that he picked up the reins from Scott "Scorched Earth" Walker, who even in 2010 was measuring for White House curtains more than thinking about governing well. From a GED program in a now Sheriff Clarke-less House of Correction, to expanded bus routes without increased fares, to a program to provide permanent housing to the county's homeless population, to a massive new grant to build on the county's Pathways to Responsible Fatherhood project, Abele has quietly overseen initiatives to make life better here in Milwaukee County.

The critical part of this new program is the hiring, both in appointing a commissioner who can keep Abele's promises and in staffing the new schools. The commissioner ultimately has the say over the things happening in the school or schools taken over – what's Abele's strategy?

"Good management," he said. Over the years, he said, he's not always made the best choices. "I've hired and lived with the consequences. And learned." He said that he would put in writing the conditions he was setting for the commissioner to follow.

What about the teachers? Abele said he wants to keep the same teachers, but I don't know how that will happen easily. They are pretty much guaranteed a cut in pay if they stay. They would lose any seniority or other perks earned over the years at MPS. If the school is improved and given back to MPS after five years – that's the minimum time it must remain outside of the MPS system, according to the law – there's no guarantee that those teachers will have a job to return to in MPS, since they will not be MPS employees when the school reverts to the district. For someone like me, who stands to lose a chunk of pension if my service to MPS is interrupted between now and the time I retire, there is no way I would take the risk and jump with Abele into this unknown.

Yet Abele told me that keeping the teachers was important. "The best thing, short term," he said, "is to be serious about rehiring the teachers if (they) think there's meaningful work to be done." In other words, the he would try to appeal to the teachers' sense of duty, that there are "goals worth fighting for," in his words. "People want the opportunity to make an impact," he said.

"What's helped me in recruiting people is being honest about the conditions and the challenges," he said. "It may be hard work, but if you sell me on a different way to do something, I'll help you do it more, better and faster. Forget being the 'wind beneath your wings,' I'll be a [expletive] hurricane behind you."

I think we all know now what Abele believes his super-power to be.

Abele agreed that this is a "big if," getting the current teachers to stay on or getting the best possible teachers if they don't. "My big picture goal," Abele said, "is the best education system for as many people as possible, including the teachers."

I believe him, that he doesn't want to hurt MPS, its teachers, its students or the taxpayers. Long before he was county executive, Abele was working to support MPS; long before this program came down from the legislature, he was using the county to help the district and its students.

Yet still, I believe any acquiescence to this program is dangerous. "Not one school" is not merely a slogan that looks pretty spelled out in lights above the interstate; it's a responsible and defensible line in the sand. Even one school, even if taken over by someone with the best of heartfelt intentions to protect the public institution that serves all the children of Milwaukee, is one school too many.

So no, Chris Abele is not the evil henchman or arch-villain some people are making him out to be. But he's not going to be the hero, either, since it will be under his watch this plan will be started.

Once it's in place and rolling, no matter the intentions of the current characters involved, it's really just one Cathy Stepp away from abandoning the public good entirely, one commissioner away from being another voucher program with regrettable results and minimal public accountability. The public schools in Milwaukee will simply be another casualty of an ideology that opposes all things public, and then who will educate Milwaukee's children? Find out in the next exciting issue, on sale soon!

Jay Bullock Special to OnMilwaukee.com
Jay Bullock is a high school English teacher in Milwaukee, columnist for the Bay View Compass, singer-songwriter and occasional improv comedian.