By Sam Woods Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Mar 31, 2023 at 4:01 PM Photography: Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

April 4 is Election Day, with races to determine several city, county and state positions.

Early voting began last Tuesday and continues through Saturday, April 1. 

In addition to aldermanic and judicial races, everyone in the city will be able to vote in at least one school board race for Milwaukee Public Schools.  

To help you get prepared to vote for the school board races, we’ve compiled this list of things you should know before you cast your vote.

What is the school board?  

Nine elected officials comprise the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, or school board. These elected officials oversee decisions at MPS that affect school policy and the district’s budget of over $1.3 billion, including parks and contracting for services such as school buses. 

Eight of these officials represent specific districts throughout Milwaukee, while one “at large” member represents the whole city. All members have equal voting power. 

The school board acts similarly to the Common Council in that it amends budgets proposed by the superintendent and can pass changes to MPS policy through voting.  

Who is running for the school board? 

Five of the nine seats are up for election this year. These include District 1, District 2, District 3, District 8, and the at-large seat for which everyone in the city can vote. 

(You can find your district by looking at the maps here, or by texting “MKE” to News414 at 73224 and submitting your address. ) 

In District 1, incumbent Marva Herndon and Shandowlyon Hendricks Reavesare running to represent the far Northwest Side.  

Herndon is a retired computer programmer and current representative of District 1. Hendricks Reaves has held many school positions, including teacher, principal and administrator while also working at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. She ran unsuccessfully for state superintendent in 2021.  

In District 2, incumbent Erika Siemsen and write-in candidate Pamela Holmes are running. Siemsen is a retired teacher while Holmes is a retired sergeant at the Milwaukee Police Department. 

In District 3, organizer Gabi Hart and businessman Darryl Jackson are running. The seat is currently held by board Vice President Sequanna Taylor, who also serves on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and did not file to run for re-election. Hart is a community organizer who co-founded Program the Parks MKE and works with Milwaukee Turners on confronting mass incarceration. Jackson is the vice president of business development at Brothers Infrastructure Group Construction. 

In District 8, incumbent Megan O’Halloran is running unopposed. In addition to serving on the school board, O’Halloran is the director of communications and fund development at Walker’s Point Youth & Family Centers.  

For the at-large seat, Missy Zombor and Jeff Spence are running to represent the city. Anyone living in Milwaukee can vote for this seat. Zombor is the marketing director for Rethinking Schools and former communications director for the teacher’s union, Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association. Spence was formerly on the school board from 1999 to 2015 and now serves as a diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.  

How long will those elected be in office? 

If elected, each board member serves for four years before needing to run for re-election. Each of the seats up during this election were previously voted on in 2019. Districts 4, 5, 6 and 7 were elected in 2021 and will be up for re-election in 2025. 

What issues have the school board tackled? 

School lunches

Over 78% of MPS students are economically disadvantaged according to recent data presented to the school board, and students receive free school meals through the Community Eligibility Provision. However, students and youth-led initiatives such as Youth Empowered in the Struggle, or YES, have called into question the quality of school meals.  In response, the school board recently assembled a task force to study possible improvements to school meals. Membership of this task force includes MPS students. Read more here.  

Exploring a revised school schedule

The school board is currently considering a study on the effects of switching the school schedule to allow for flexibility “such as a four/five day school week; year-round schools; an early release day once per week; or a late start day once per week.” The board is not united on the idea. While this proposal is a long way off and any major schedule change will not take place until the 2024-25 school year at the earliest, this will be something the new board will likely need to take a position on.

53206 Initiative

Launched in 2017, the 53206 Initiative was developed to address challenges for students and families residing in the 53206 ZIP code. The initiative organizes principals from schools in the ZIP code as well as community stakeholders to address issues related to student achievement, college and career readiness, and mental health services for students. The district presents reports on the initiative’s progress regularly to the board. Read more about the 53206 Initiative here.  

What are some upcoming challenges for the board? 

Quickly pass a budget for next year

Less than two months after the new school board members are sworn in, they will need to approve a budget for the upcoming school year. The current year’s budget is $1.3 billion. 

Enrollment decline

The school board will be considering options for how to slow or stop declining enrollment in MPS. During the last school year, MPS’ official enrollment count was 69,115 students, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, down from 71,510 in the 2020-21 school year. The official enrollment count at MPS has declined yearly since the 2016-17 school year when it was 76,207 students. You can view the data here. MPS’ state funding is tied to its enrollment counts, so the fewer students enrolled in the district’s schools, the less funding the district will receive.  

Staffing shortages

Despite offering bonuses and relocation stipends for new teachers in high-need areas, MPS still struggles to recruit enough teachers and support staff that it has budgeted for. This is not a problem that is unique to MPS, as teacher and staff shortages have been reported across the city, state and country this year.  

Student achievement

In the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s state report card for the 2021-2022 school year, 57% of MPS students were categorized as “Below Basic” in language arts and 68% “Below Basic” in math. Overall, the district’s achievement score was rated in the bottom 0.5% of school districts across the state. However, the same report card also noted that MPS students are improving year-to-year more quickly than 42.5% of districts across the state, indicating that the district is showing improvement in this area. Read the full report card here  and selecting “Milwaukee” from the dropdown menu.

Compared to large city districts across the country, MPS’ average reading and math scores for grades 4 and 8 are below average for large cities. You can view this data here, and MPS’ report to the school board on the issue here.

How do I follow what the school board is currently doing? 

The board holds monthly meetings to approve policy and budget decisions every fourth Thursday of the month, starting at 5:30 p.m. It also has multiple committees to more closely examine issues relating to things like parent and community engagement, district budget decisions and school safety. These meetings are held throughout the month on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. 

You can find a full schedule of board meetings as well as documents related to board activities here. You can also watch meetings live or view past meetings on MPS’ YouTube page here.  

Unless otherwise noted on the website, all meetings are held in the O'Connell Memorial Auditorium of the MPS Central Services Building, 5225 W. Vliet St.

For more information

You can see what is on your ballot in the April election, including board races, here