Shortage of 1,685 Classrooms Raises Many Questions

By Bob Peterson

Ask the typical classroom teacher if there is a classroom shortage in the Milwaukee Public Schools and she or he would probably reply in the affirmative.

A teacher wouldn’t need to read the report on the subject prepared by-Planning Associates of Columbus, Ohio. Teachers everyday experience overcrowded classrooms and instruction squeezed into coat­ rooms and cafeterias. In elementary schools art and music are often conducted in regular classrooms, while at the high school level regular classes are conducted in art and music rooms.

The report, entitled An Investment in our Children’s Future: A Long Range Plan for the 21st Century and issued last July, documents a pending crisis in the Milwaukee Public Schools and says that MPS “is faced with tremendous needs for school facilities.” It states that by 1993 Milwaukee will need an additional 1,685 classrooms: 761 to handle enrollment increases and to account for programs already planned and 924 to replace obsolete class­ rooms, reduce class size, and provide for new programs such as all-day kindergarten for 4-year-olds; The cost of the 761 classrooms is estimated to be $212 million dollars, while the 924- classrooms would require an additional $288 million.

The immediate reason for the crisis in classroom space is the need to accommodate increasing enrollments. The report estimates that by the 1992-93 school year MPS enrollment will have jumped from its present 96,000 to 102,000. This increase would demand an additional 264 classrooms at a cost of $17,000,000 (the equivalent to 12 or 13 new elementary schools, assuming 20 classrooms per school). The school system is considering the purchase of closed Catholic Schools and the use of additions of prefabricated classrooms as an economical means to expand classroom capacity.

The first question that the School Administration is dealing with is the financing of such construction. Under current state law, MPS can levy no more· than 60 cents per $1000 of assessed valuation for new construction and cannot issue short term promissory notes. Unless this law is changed the total amount MPS can raise for construction  per year is $6 million. However, last month Governor Thompson announced he was willing t6 listen to any proposal by MPS and try to help out. He was referring only to the minimum needs of accommodating increased enrollment. Thompson did not offer to help finance classroom expansion for other needs such as more rooms for all-day kindergartens, early childhood centers, art and  music rooms, modernization and replacement of old classrooms, or reduction of class size. Simultaneous with expressing willingness to negotiate he called on MPS officials to consider an experiment with vouchers for private schools.

Parents recently entered the classroom shortage fray during School Board deliberations over whether to reopen Brown Street Elementary School. Because of the shortage of construction funds the decision to reopen Brown means necessary renovation at 55th Street School and 8th Street school have been indefinitely delayed. The Brown controversy led to harsh words and a picket line in front of ·the September Board meeting by some parents. Parents and teachers from the schools involved found themselves pitted against each other.

Unfortunately no school official has raised the broader political questions about school financing. Roger Quindel, Executive Director of Milwaukee Jobs With Peace, told Rethinking Schools that the issue-Of financing was more than a state or local issue. “At this year’s school budget hearings what was interesting was how many administrators and teachers talked about programs that used to be funded by the federal government but no longer are,” Quindel explained. Wisconsin is “dead last” in return of federal funds to the state. He added that many local officials including school ,board.members, “Say yes that we should do something about the federal military budget but at the same time they don’t throw their voice into the political.process when it comes to electing officials- or building a movement that would do something about it.” He con­cluded, “Our urban centers in general have been neglected. We as a people have choices to make. Do we want to get our kids educated and have other social services, or are we going to fund Star Wars and the MX missiles?”

The quality and size of new classrooms is another concern. A 53rd Street School teacher commented to Rethinking Schools about the major renovation that was done at that school this summer. “We had a major addition put on – much of which is great. A large new resource room, an art room and a music room, but the new classrooms are tiny – 70% of the size of the old classrooms. And yet we still have the same number of kids!” Another teacher expressed concern that there is barely room to set up learning centers in such classrooms. One teacher ed.”Apparently we need to be concerned not only about the student/teacher ratio but the student/space ratio as well. The size of the room affects the kind of pedagogy that can take place.”

A curious aspect of the report -was its praise of the way MPS has historically handled its construction planning: “[t]he Milwaukee Public Schools’ policy of long-range planning for its facilities represents an unequalled story on a national level. Through the use of this policy, the Board successfully met the challenges of the city’s growth in area and population in  the 1950’s and 1960’s.” According to the report “Such a forward looking policy generated active community support… [and] allowed the Board to meet the different challenges of decline in the 1970’s and 1980’s enabling the necessary consolidation to occur while empha­sizing quality.”

Apparently, no one mentioned to these consultants the difficult struggle waged by Milwaukee’s black community during the past two decades for physically adequate schools which would neither segregate unfairly displace black children. For example, in 1963, black parents were outraged when their children were bused from overcrowded all black inner-city schools to all white schools where they were segregated from white students in separate classrooms and lunch periods.(This “intact busing” policy was a major spur for the movement for school integration It took demonstrations, a massive  boycott and civil disobedience to end this racist policy. At the same time the civil rights movement protested the construction of Parkman Junior High School and MacDowell Elementary School. People opposed Parkman School, charging that its location would further school segregation.  (The present Parkman is indeed all black.) The opposition to the. MacDowell construction came because people felt it would unnecessarily destroy important housing and that the proposed site was too small. In the late 70’s the community waged a several month struggle to prevent the school administration from kicking neighborhood children out of the new North Division High School which had just been built in the heart of the black community.

As evidence provided in the desegregation court suits clearly showed, the School Board’s “forward looking policy” built new schools in the white periphery of the city while leaving the inner city schools overcrowded and neglected.

The impending classroom shortage crisis raises questions which concern financing, student/teacher and student/space ratios, and the nature of the curricular approaches at the expected new schools. We can expect to hear increasing debate on these issues during the upcoming School Board and MTEA elections.

teaches at Fratney Street School.