By Jay Bullock Special to Published Apr 07, 2015 at 3:00 PM Photography: Bobby Tanzilo

Today is election day in Wisconsin. Non-partisan elections like today's, especially here in Milwaukee, are usually low-turnout affairs, with few candidates, few ads or debates, and few big issues on the table for argument or discussion.

This year feels like there's been even less of that than usual, since of five school board races on the ballot, three candidates -- including the citywide candidate, Terry Falk -- have no opponent at all. That means no reason to do doors, no reason to do expensive mailings or advertisements, and certainly no reason to stand before the public in a town hall or debate and lay out what their positions are on critical issues facing Milwaukee's schools.

Some of that has happened, of course. Candidates still have to get signatures, so they have to do some doors and see some voters, for example. I've seen some ads, and candidates' websites do talk at least a little about the issues.

But overall, this city has missed out what should have been vigorous debate and discussion of schools and education, and we are worse off for it.

I felt much the same way four years ago, when then-citywide incumbent Bruce Thompson opted not to run for re-election, and Falk, though not unopposed, faced an opponent who was not as well-known, well-funded, or well-versed in the issues as he was.

Indeed, Falk, who had spent four years representing the 8th district on the board, had often squared off against Thompson at school board meetings, as they disagreed on a number of things: the district's relationship with the teachers union, whether and how to use the district's chartering authority, employee compensation and benefits, to name a few. It could have been a great campaign!

That spring, 2011, was a milestone one for public education around the state: Governor Walker "dropped the bomb" of Act 10, tearing up teachers union contracts and radically changing the nature of the relationship between districts and their employees. Teacher compensation, classroom working conditions, and workday schedules were suddenly in flux, with administrators and school boards given near unilateral power over what happened to schools, teachers, and students.

Another bomb that spring was the massive cut to state spending on K-12 education, a cut that, depending on who you believe, was the deepest ever or merely almost the deepest ever. Though schools had long been used to dealing with less and less every year, this was an unprecedented gutting of districts' budgets and the consequences of any choice of how to deal with them would be severe.

Of course, those bombs dropped too late, more than a month after the candidate filing deadline, so we went into the 2011 election with the school board candidates we had, and not the candidates we might have wanted or wished we'd had.

Falk was a former teacher and union steward, Thompson a pragmatic technocrat; an election where the two squared off not just on the issues they'd already argued over, but on how to handle the devastation wrought by Walker and the state's Republican legislature, would have been fun and engaging. Whoever came out on top at the ballot box, the real winner would have been the city: the more engaging the campaign, the more involved and informed voters would be leading to election day.

It never happened. The kind of big-picture debate about the fundamental direction and vision of the district never materialized, and Falk easily won an uncompetitive race against a well-meaning but ultimately unchallenging opponent.

So you might think the 2013 board election would have brought out the candidates, with those who were galvanized by Act 10 and the state budget situation (and the recall elections) ready to step up and make the school board race a spotlight one for the city.

Think again. Two of the four Milwaukee school board races that year were uncontested, and one of the contested ones brought out barely 1,500 voters -- hardly a barnburner of a race.

And here we are again in the cycle with the citywide seat up for grabs, a recently re-elected Governor Walker and a boldly empowered Republican legislative majority intent on hurting not just public schools in general, but the Milwaukee Public Schools in particular. If you've followed this column for any length of time, you know that the state's GOP has no shortage of creative ideas for carving up and destroying this city's public schools.

How we, as a district and city, respond to the state's attacks this year, at this moment, is critical. What we do now will impact tens of thousands of children in this city for the decade; hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in this city and its children is at stake.

Do we embrace some proposed state reforms or fight against all of them? What do we do to try rapidly boost the city's lowest-achieving schools -- and, therefore, its lowest-achieving students? How do we make better allies, and make better use of the ones we have? What can be done to change perceptions and bring families back to MPS?

And most importantly, with another steep budget cut looming, how do we keep putting quality teachers and material into classrooms with dwindling resources?

On a very, very small scale, some of that debate is happening in the second board district, where the conservative (by Milwaukee standards) incumbent Jeff Spence is being challenged by Wendell Harris, a leader in the steelworkers union and a vice-chair of Milwaukee's NAACP. But if you don't live in that district, or belong to Milwaukee's teachers union (they endorsed Harris and remind me of that through near-daily emails), you probably aren't hearing about any of it. Go ahead and google the race: local news is silent, both on that race in particular and what the district or board plans or needs to do to fight the state in general.

The silence is unconscionable, as this is a conversation that needs to happen citywide, every day. With no major contested races, no big, media-drawing, attention-grabbing fights over what philosophy will govern the city's schools and response to state-imposed changes, that conversation isn't happening. The voters, the parents, and the general public are simply not being engaged in that conversation even though elections are supposed to make us do just that.

So, ultimately, the loser today is the city of Milwaukee, no matter who draws the most votes in today's school board elections.

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