Questions and Answers about the MPS Building Referendum

An Interview with Howard Fuller

The following is condensed from an interview with Howard Fuller, superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools, on the proposed building plan for MPS. In the interview, Fuller agreed to address some of the most common questions surrounding the plan (see story on p. 11 for details on the building proposal). Fuller was interviewed by Barbara Miner of Rethinking Schools.

Why have you advocated a $474 million building plan, $366 million of which would come from a bond referendum that will go before Milwaukee voters?

The real issue is why would you go out for any bond referendum for any amount. And we have to put the facilities question within the broader question of reform.

We have to have an overall reform package that will better educate kids. And this will include things that are painful or difficult for a variety of people. For example, you have to have a central office that becomes smaller and much more focused on serving schools. And schools have to have control over budgets, over personnel, over curriculum. And there have to be changes in the way that teachers operate within schools. And we have to look at how our contracts and the current structure cut down on flexibility and on the ability of individual schools and individual teaching staffs to make changes. And finally, you have to look at the way that state mandates come down.

These issues are impediments to educating kids. But it’s also an impediment that there are 6,000 kids out there who can’t get into kindergarten because there’s no space. We have large class sizes. We have kids who have not been able to take advantage of computer rooms and libraries because there is no space. We have kids who are in sub-standard classrooms, in basements without windows, in corridors.

We have aging building structures: 29 of our buildings were built before World War I, 27 were built before World War II, and eight buildings are 100 years old.

Many people argue that buildings don’t educate kids, good teaching educates kids. Wouldn’t our money be better spent if it went directly into teaching rather than into buildings?

The problem is, you don’t educate kids in the air, or on the sidewalk. At a certain point, whether it’s good teaching or bad teaching, it takes place within a structure. So if you have structures that are falling in on kids, you’ve got to address those issues. If you don’t have room for kids, you have to address those issues. If you want kids to have smaller classes, to have access to computers, to libraries, to art rooms, and to music rooms, and you don’t have space, you have to address those issues.

It is not that facilities in and of themselves make a difference. But facilities clearly are key if you are going to serve the number of kids that you are talking about serving in the ways that we are talking about serving.

People say that good things are happening in old buildings. But better things could be happening if those buildings were better facilities and you had the same teaching staff, the same shared vision, and so forth.

If the voters approve the referendum, what sort of accountability is there from MPS that student performance and achievement will improve?

I believe in accountability, and I believe in consequences.

We have got to say more clearly to people, “Here’s what we want to be held accountable for.” Some of those are going to be clear, quantitative measures that some of us may not like. And some of them will be process measures.

We, as a district, can’t say, “The people out there want to know about grade-point averages; we don’t think that’s important.” We’re going to have to say, “Yes, this is what we expect to do in terms of grade point averages, in terms of standardized tests, in terms of attendance. But there are other things that we also want to measure as a part of how we want to be held accountable.”

We have to also explain that the changes that people want to see in education are not going to take place overnight.

If you are going to sell people on the value of a referendum, it obviously will be connected to the question of what you are going to do with the money. We ought not to shy away from that issue. Nor should we refuse to go before the voters with the referendum just because we may not have the exact answer to every question.

This proposal will raise property tax rates at a time when home owners are already complaining, and both the city and county are attempting to control their share of the property tax levy. Shouldn’t the schools feel that same sensitivity toward property taxes?

That was my argument during the budget [last spring] as to why we needed to make an effort to keep property taxes down on the operations end — so that as we move forward on the capital side, at least we can say to people, “We are doing the best we can to hold taxes down on the operations side.”

At the same time, I would also make this argument: there is no greater infrastructure for any society than the society’s children. That is, in fact, the infrastructure. The future is in our children.

To the extent that we can develop a better educated group of kids and young people, who in fact can be both enlightened citizens and producers in the society, it makes for a better living situation for all of us.

But in the end if a person says, “That’s all nice but I simply cannot afford it,” it’s hard for me to either be angry at them or not to understand them.

Either way, we have got to go out and make the best case we can, because the problem is not going to go away. We have not gone out for a referendum for 23 years, in part for the very reasons you are raising: It was never the right time, you can’t win, it costs too much, you’re going to run the middle class out. So over all these years, we’ve let our infrastructure needs go to the point that we now have crumbling schools in Milwaukee for the first time.

Somebody is ultimately going to have to deal with this issue, and it will be much more expensive the longer we wait.

A property tax is highly regressive, forcing middle-and low-income people to pay more in proportion to their overall income. Wouldn’t it be fairer to instead try to get more state aid for MPS and use those funds for a building campaign?

I agree that the property tax is regressive. But right now it’s the only way that we have to deal with our needs. I have no problem with going to Madison in a parallel fashion.

And if we get money from Madison or anywhere else, I would say that we then use that money to reduce the taxes that we would call for from the citizens of Milwaukee. That ought to be a covenant that we make with the property tax payers.

But I think it would be a mistake to try to just go to Madison and not to put the issue before the property taxpayers in Milwaukee.

You also have to look at the capital expenditures over the years from all of the other municipalities and taxing entitities. They were able to take care of their infrastructure needs. I didn’t hear anyone say to them, “Go to Madison and get the money.” Now all of a sudden people point to MPS as the bad guy because we’re asking for property taxes to pay for our infrastructure needs.

Many people note that increases in property taxes will drive the middle class out of Milwaukee and exacerbate the differences between Milwaukee and the suburbs. In the long run, wouldn’t this hurt the schools?

I’ve heard all kinds of things that will drive out the middle class. I’ve heard that if you do away with specialty schools, you will drive out the middle class. I’ve heard that if we don’t stop busing, that will drive out the middle class — but you can’t stop busing unless you build schools where kids are.

When people talk about what drives out the middle class, I hear three issues: crime, schools, and taxes.

I was reading a management magazine recently and they said that the one overriding issue that determines where plants or businesses will locate is the quality of the education in that area. If we are able to improve education in this city, that’s going to keep people in the city rather than drive them out.

What is your strategy for winning voter approval, especially if Mayor Norquist publicly opposes the referendum?

My strategy will be the same: you go out to the people and you organize. We cannot win this referendum unless we develop a grass-roots organization built around all sectors of our community.

For me, it’s really very simple: Our children deserve the best. They deserve the best teaching, they deserve the best facilities, they deserve the best community, they deserve the best families.

Those of us who get in various “positions” need to be willing to take the stands that we think are right, irrespective of the fallout. And I think that a referendum is the right thing to do for our children and for our community.