Demond Means, a skilled and accomplished educator, is a guy who deserves some sympathy for being caught between a rock and a hard place as he tries to move the rock.
Means is the commissioner of the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program, the bastard child of a meddling Republican legislature allegedly designed to make a few Milwaukee Public Schools do a better job.
For some context, the Joint Finance Committee of the legislature passed a provision requiring Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele to take over (one or some) MPS underachieving schools. The measure was inserted just one year ago on May 19. Abele, who was pressured into this, selected Means to head the program and develop a proposal that would meet the requirements of the law.
So they put together a committee and Means developed a plan and he presented it to the committee and the school board. Right after that presentation the president of the teacher’s union, Kim Schroeder, resigned from the committee, storming out of a meeting.
"I wouldn’t describe it (the atmosphere and process) as turbulent," Means said. "I would say that it’s emotional. People have deep emotions about this and I see that."
Mark Sain, the president of the school board, is taking a rather conciliatory stand on the proposal.
"I would look at it as a lot of unknowns," he said. "We obviously need clarity on some of the things that have been proposed. They have a proposal and he’s standing by what they’re proposing even though they have changed things. They have things out there, I call them moving targets, and we’re trying to nail all that down."
A video of Schroeder’s actions at a committee meetings is available here and you can determine whether the atmosphere is turbulent or not. Whatever word you use, it’s obvious that this plan faces an uphill battle. You can find an overview of the plan here.
The union hates it. The school board generally hates it. The MPS superintendent is opposed to it (she works for the school board, after all). The Republicans who engineered this, State Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. Dale Kooyenga, aren’t thrilled with the plan, either, but have said they will take a wait and see attitude.
The fear, of course, is that if this plan falls apart the lawmakers might well develop some more Draconian plan to take over schools in Milwaukee.
"I have no idea what the legislature might do if we don’t put this plan into action," Means said. "I can’t predict.
"I hear all the time that they think this is overreaching by the legislature. It’s important to understand that governors, since Tommy Thompson, have always threatened that they were going to do something about the governance of MPS."
Means understands, at least, that finding support for this idea is not going to be an easy task.
"This is a process to get something that nobody likes. I don’t like it," he said. "But it’s the law and we have to do something. I think the plan I presented does the most to protect MPS and the jobs and the funding.
"I think that the pushback on this is both ironic and disingenuous since the pushback should have come a year ago when this was being considered. When the committee was holding a hearing on this at Alverno College, (then MTEA president) Bob Peterson and I were the only people who showed up in opposition to it.
"I’m disappointed in the emotional opposition to this plan. I think what I’ve proposed is the best case scenario. I wouldn’t call (opponents) obstructionist but, frankly, I think they are more focused on the larger issue of they want more funding for public schools. I agree with that."
Sain uses examples of switching elements of the plan as one of the main stumbling blocks to any agreement.
"First they said it would be one school," he said. "Then they said it would be several and now they are back to one school. He’s got his proposal and he’s standing by it. I’m not sure if right now if what they are proposing can fly."
One unintended consequence of these negotiations is that it’s made allies of the school board and the teacher’s union, who are normally at bitter loggerheads with each other.
"I think, obviously, the teachers association is going to protect their members," Sain said. "And the board is obviously concerned about students, families and employees of MPS. Obviously there is a lot to look at here."
Sain said that there is a history of actions by the state and even the mayor to "circumvent the authority of the board" and that he was still waiting on legal advice from the City Attorney about the legality of the state law and the plan.
"He’s (Means) is running all around town trying to sell this to anyone he meets with," Sain said. "We aren’t ready to buy. There’s a lot more we need to know."
One of the major issues that has developed is that Means, a well-meaning guy, is up against an array of seasoned and tough negotiators. He has never sat across a table from forces like the union and the school board before and there are those who think he may be in over his head as he tries to get some kind of agreement on his plan.
In a forum at the Marquette Law School this week, one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Dale Kooyenga met with the executive director of the teacher’s union, Lauren Baker. Kooyenga defended his plan, calling it "a chance for a school to actually do something different," but Baker was firm in her disgust for the entire thing.
"I call this the MPS takeover plan," she said. "Ever since Act 10 you have vilified teachers and the teaching profession, What you are saying here is that taking schools away and giving them to a private vendor will fix things. Nothing could be further from the truth."
The history of urban education reform efforts are often dragged down into oblivion by opposing forces who continually focus on individual proposals in a plan. Instead of arguing the overall merits of a reform plan, the opposing forces stick their pitchforks into one stack of hay after another.
And what happens, so often, is that the entire plan dies amid the onslaught of "death by a thousand cuts."
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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