The Feb. 16 MPS Referendum

Race and Property Taxes Deliver Knock-Out Punch

The defeat of the Milwaukee Public Schools referendum can be summed up in four words: race and property taxes.

No one was afraid to focus on property taxes when criticizing the Feb. 16 referendum to build and improve public school facilities. That side of the story is well known.

But, as is Milwaukee’s style, race was never openly discussed — even though everyone knew that questions of black and white surrounded every aspect of the vote.

“You hardly needed to raise the race issue at all,” Milwaukee Journal columnist Joel McNally wrote after the vote. “That’s the beauty of having a Black superintendent advocating nice, new schools for the Black community just like those that White suburban kids get. No one had to mention race. It was understood.”

While the referendum’s defeat was a clear setback, the debate had several positive results. More than any other issue in recent years, it raised awareness that quality public schools are essential to Milwaukee’s economic and social well-being. Second, it exposed the severe overcrowding in MPS and the need to begin long-delayed repairs. Third, it made much clearer who are the friends and who are the foes of public education in Milwaukee.

Most important, although most ephemeral, the referendum was the catalyst for the broadest, most multiracial coalition to form around education in Milwaukee in recent memory. The group, Our Children’s Future Coalition, began the difficult process of building ties and trust between the diverse groups that will be necessary players in future school reform efforts.

MPS cannot put another referendum before the voters until next February unless a special election is called. Fuller met with the School Board March 1 and indicated that he would like to explore the idea of such a special election in May or in the fall. Before decisions are made, Fuller plans to meet with a range of organized constituencies and get their input. Fuller has said that one idea is to approach the question of facilities in stages and more closely tie each stage to academic and fiscal accountability.

“I think the important thing to lay out to people is that opponents of the referendum can gloat and all of that, but the problems are still there,” Fuller told Rethinking Schools. “And the longer it takes for us to address them, the more difficult and the more expensive the solution.”

Race Milwaukee-Style

While one can marshall numerous arguments to highlight the racial politics behind the vote’s outcome, one set of statistics tells all.

The referendum passed in every city ward that is predominantly Black, according to the Milwaukee Election Commission. In fact, the only aldermanic districts where the referendum received a “yes” majority were those with a majority African-American population. By contrast, the higher the percentage of White voters, the higher the number of “no” votes. In the overwhelmingly White 11th and 13th districts on the south side, voters cast a 92% and 93% “no” vote, respectively.

Largely due to the historic disenfranchisement of Milwaukee’s African-American population — itself a result of decades of unremitting racism — African-Americans did not vote in anywhere near the proportion of White residents. Voter turnout in the African-American 17th District, for example, was only 16% (the lowest of any district), compared to over 50% in the predominantly White 11th and 13th Districts.

At the same time, there were clear gains in improving African-American turnout for a February election. It’s just that the gains were not enough to offset White opposition. The 30,000 “yes” votes on the referendum were more than the highest total vote in an odd-numbered year spring primary since 1983. In February 1991, for example, the total Milwaukee turnout was 15,962 voters. In February 1989, the figure was 21,708.

When the final vote was tallied, there were 30,894 people who voted yes and 93,948 who voted no.

The Proposed Referendum

The referendum asked voters to approve a $366 million bond to help finance 12 new elementary schools and 2 middle schools in neighborhoods where there are not enough schools, a new vocational technical high school, and repairs and renovations for a number of other schools. The plan was based on reforms that would have reduced class size in kindergarten through second grade, provided computer, art and music rooms in elementary schools, provided technical vocation resources for middle and high schools, and allowed all eligible children to attend kindergarten.

The plan would have mainly affected children of color, in particular African-American children, who account for 73% of all MPS students and who are most affected by the lack of schools in their neighborhoods. While only 26% of MPS students are White, however, the city’s voting-age population is 68% White. Ultimately, the referendum came down to the question of whether White property owners were willing to pay for improved public education for African-American and Latino children. The answer was a resounding “no.”

“There’s no question that the call to fear, prejudice, and distrust worked once again in Milwaukee,” a key player in the referendum said after the vote. “From the very start, we knew that if the scare tactics and hate mongering successfully invaded this debate, the whole referendum was in jeopardy.”

Acknowledging the predominance of race, however, cannot be used to downplay the importance of property taxes as an issue. Many property owners who rejected the covert appeals to racism couldn’t bring themselves to support the referendum because of its effect on property taxes. The referendum became a chance for financially squeezed property owners to say “no more taxes,” a chance they never get on city and county projects such as the $106 million County Jail, the $35 million O’Donnell Park fiasco or the proposed $375 million light-rail system, to say nothing of federal initiatives such as the multibillion-dollar bailout of the savings and loan industry.

Clearly, the referendum underscored the need to replace property tax funding of public schools with a more equitable method. As Our Children’s Future Coalition noted in a statement after the vote: “We can no longer allow our system of school funding to pit hard-working homeowners and senior citizens on fixed incomes against children and schools. It is inherently unfair to our children that many suburban districts are able to spend more on schools and yet tax their residents at a lower rate — while impoverished urban and rural school districts are squeezed by spiralling property taxes.”

Lest We Forget

In analyzing the “no” vote, the roles of two public officials deserve special attention. Most important is Mayor John Norquist.

Norquist worked both publicly and behind the scenes to equate the referendum with a death sentence for the city, claiming that it would force property owners and businesses to flee to the suburbs. Norquist has argued in the past that poor schools are forcing good (i.e. White) residents out of Milwaukee. He conveniently changed his tune when something concrete was proposed to improve public schools. His anti-referendum position only bolstered the suspicion that there is no way of pleasing the mayor when it comes to MPS, because of his oft-stated belief that our system of good public schools should be replaced with a combination of private, religious, and public schools supported by public vouchers. (As Norquist said in a Nov. 12, 1990, speech and has since reiterated: “I doubt whether the current system of urban education can be reformed. I think it should ultimately be scrapped and replaced with a new system — essentially a voucher or choice system.”)

State Rep. Annette “Polly” Williams (D-Milwaukee) also did her best to mislead voters — whether it was with arguments that the referendum would lead to increased busing of African-American children or, as she told The Milwaukee Journal, the referendum was “another plan to colonize, to control the Black community,” and that it contained “shades of South Africa.”

As with Norquist, one cannot dismiss Williams’ support for private school “choice” as a factor in her anti-referendum stance. Williams has built a national reputation as an African-American legislator supporting Milwaukee’s private school “choice” plan.

Williams’ stance allowed Norquist and other White politicians to claim that their opposition was not related to race. The same day Williams first publicly criticized the referendum, Milwaukee County Supervisor Mark Borkowski and Milwaukee Ald. Annette Scherbert announced the formation of Taxpayers Opposed to Referendum Alliance (TORA). The referendum, which had previously received near unanimous public support, faced an uphill battle from that day on.

TORA, assisted by conservative public relations executive Todd Robert Murphy, built a strong base of opposition — particularly on the city’s South, Southwest, and Northwest sides. Using television ads, mailings, leafletting, and phone banks, TORA whipped up a climate of hysteria against the referendum. One anti-referendum leaflet, for example, claimed that the referendum would raise property taxes by 90%. Such lies spread faster than the truth, in this case helped by the incessant anti-referendum ranting of WISN radio talk-show host and right-wing personality Mark Belling.

The pandering to fear and misinformation by certain public officials stands in contrast to the campaign waged by Howard Fuller. While Rethinking Schools has had its differences with Fuller, Fuller deserves praise for his leadership in bringing the referendum before the voters, for being upfront about the plan’s costs, and for working nonstop to try to ensure the referendum’s victory.

Secondary Factors

Besides race and property taxes, the referendum was hobbled by secondary factors, including:

  • Most important, a belief among many residents that MPS is an inflexible bureaucracy impervious to change. This fed into accusations that the facilities plan was a substitute for comprehensive reform.
  • Lukewarm support from the business community. While publicly in support of the referendum, groups such as the Milwaukee Area Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Milwaukee Education Trust did little to help ensure its passage, either financially or organizationally.
  • A short campaign, which hampered fund-raising and organizing efforts. The campaign’s brevity, for example, didn’t allow enough time to counter the opposition’s distorted yet appealingly simple message that the referendum was nothing more than a bricks-and-mortar plan that gave MPS a blank check to spend hard-earned taxpayers’ money.
  • Mistrust between the MPS administration and its own employees, who were expected to be a strong base of support. One problem is that MPS does not have contracts with any of its 13 bargaining units. Some units such as teacher assistants have been without a contract for almost three years.
  • Legal restrictions that prevented Fuller and MPS from advocating a “yes” vote and that forced them to merely present “information.”
  • An inability to translate organizational support from key players in Our Children’s Future Coalition into strong support from their members — whether it was the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association or the Milwaukee County Labor Council AFL-CIO.
  • The about-face by two school board members, Jared Johnson and Lawrence O’Neill, who mid-way through the campaign withdrew their support. Further, board member David Lucey withheld his endorsement until the day before the vote.(Conversely, Sandra Small and Christine Sinicki deserve commendation for their support of the referendum despite strong pressure from constituents, including physical threats.)
  • The failure of some African-American leaders and politicians to strongly unite behind the referendum.
  • The opposition from 10 of the 12 White members of the Milwaukee Common Council, who publicly signed a statement opposing the referendum. (None of the five African-American members signed the statement, nor did Larraine McNamara-McGraw or Don Richards.)
  • The wide gulf between the educational experience of many senior citizens and the reality facing today’s students. Graduates of MPS from previous decades, in particular White residents, couldn’t understand how issues such as smaller classes and 4-year-old kindergarten were linked to school reform.
  • A perception that the reforms that were part of the facilities plan were not commensurate with the plan’s price tag.
  • A tendency by some voters to blame parents for the problems facing the schools, arguing that if parents did a better job the schools wouldn’t have so many problems. This was just one of several arguments that tended to carry implicitly racist messages, for the implied view was that African-American parents were at fault for the schools’ problems.
  • Failure by the alumni of Milwaukee Technical High School — who pressured MPS to include a new $68.8 million tech high in the referendum package — to build support for the referendum.

Where Now?

In a meeting shortly after the vote, members of Our Children’s Future Coalition assessed the campaign and mapped out tentative future plans. In addition to addressing the question of facilities, the coalition outlined several other issues. First, the coalition is working with others from around the state on legal and legislative ways to ensure more equitable funding of public schools and to decrease reliance on property taxes. Second, it is looking at how it can best pressure the legislature and Gov. Tommy Thompson, whose proposed state budget calls for a 3% school aid increase, the smallest in seven years. Because education costs are increasing about 8% a year, the proposals would likely mean a dramatic reduction in per-pupil spending.

Further, Thompson has proposed a freeze on property tax rates, which could lead to severe cuts in local school budgets.

Perhaps most important, the coalition is hoping to work with the MPS administration to avoid the bruising battles that characterized last year’s budget struggle in MPS. The coalition and Fuller have set up a meeting for March 22 to discuss this and related issues.

One fear among coalition members is that in the face of the referendum’s defeat, the MPS administration and school board might be increasingly receptive to privatization schemes such as charter schools as ways to move ahead on education reform.

“These charter schools and privatization schemes all look good on paper, supposedly because you’re getting rid of bureaucracy,” said Kathleen Hart, a former School Board member and member of Our Children’s Future Coalition. “But there are so many holes in it all. I don’t see how a private company can make money off the schools. Unless of course you fire people and rehire them at lower wages.”

While MPS will continue current initiatives to improve academic achievement — such as the K-12 curriculum reform and steps to require Algebra for all 9th grade students — it is not yet clear how the school board will decide to move ahead on issues such as building new schools, reducing class size, and improving computer, art, and music instruction in the early grades.

“I’ve talked to superintendents in Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit,” Fuller told Rethinking Schools, “and they have given up on addressing the question of facilities because it’s so far out of hand. What we are trying to do in Milwaukee is not get ourselves into that predicament. The question is, have we reached a situation where a significant number of people, for whatever reasons, don’t care whether we address them or not? I don’t want to think that’s the case.”