On Feb. 16, 1993, Milwaukee voters will face one of the most crucial referenda in the last quarter century. They must decide: do they want to give their children a fighting chance to equal opportunity? Or do they want to shackle them with inferior and over-crowded schools and facilities?
The Milwaukee Public Schools has not asked voters to approve a comprehensive construction plan since 1970. As a result, children are being taught in storage closets, and many schools are dangerously in need of repair (see story, this page.) Thousands of kindergartners cannot attend MPS because there isn’t room.
The referendum is to approve a bond that will finance $366 million of a 10-year, $474 million construction plan. The plan has two main parts: to make sure there are enough schools for the number of children who will attend MPS in future decades, and to give the children of Milwaukee the same quality of facilities that is commonly found in suburban schools.
Turnouts at February elections are notoriously low, and as few as 20,000 voters could determine the fate of the referendum. Thus the issue is likely to be decided not on its merits, but on whether supporters or opponents are most successful at getting out the vote.
As of early December, the only significant public opposition had come from the office of Mayor John Norquist. The mayor had proposed a scaled-down, alternative plan earlier in the fall, citing concern over property taxes. Although the School Board rejected the plan as too little, too late, the mayor’s office has kept its alternative alive. The plan, according to David Webster, Norquist’s chief of staff, is that if the referendum is defeated, “our plan will still be there.”
Progressive Milwaukee — an organization of commanity and labor groups and individuals formed in 1991 — has formed a grass-roots, citywide coalition to organize
support for the referendum. Some 45 activists, including many representatives from various unions, community groups and religious organizations, attended an organizing meeting for the coalition in mid-November. Some of the many groups represented included Interfaith Conference of Milwaukee, the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union, the Administrators Council of MPS, Sherman Park Community Organization, ESHAC, the Milwaukee Alliance of Black School Educators, AFSCME, and a broad range of teachers and parents.
“We view passage of the referendum as an essential precondition for a vibrant future for Milwaukee,” Bruce Colburn, secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO labor council in Milwaukee, said on behalf of Progressive Milwaukee. “We cannot ignore the children of the city, for they are our future.”
(The coalition has organized as “The Children First Coalition” and can be contacted at 344-0382 or 645-8418.)
A key question is whether the business community will support or oppose the referendum. As of early December, all indications were that leading business people would essentially remain neutral. Some, such as Bill Randall, a retired top executive at First Bank Milwaukee who was a founder of the Greater Milwaukee Education Trust, have said they are supporting the referendum.
According to several sources, many white businesspeople are reluctant to enter the debate because they live in the suburbs; they do not want to be seen as denying the children of Milwaukee, the majority of whom are children of color, the facilities commonly enjoyed by suburban children.
“They are in a bind,” noted one political observer who did not want to be identified. “For fiscal reasons they might like to oppose the referendum, especially since taxes for businesses will rise if the referendum passes, but they don’t want to be seen as uncaring, rich whites.”
Superintendent Howard Fuller, meanwhile, has been speaking to community, business, and church groups throughout the city to explain the need for the referendum.
MPS officials are putting their main emphasis on a $200,000 campaign emphasizing direct mail literature — with information being sent to every Milwaukee household, radio and television talk show appearances, and newspaper ads. There has also been talk of a half-hour documentary showing the need for more building space for M S.
MPS is legally restricted to providing information on the referendum and cannot openly advocate a “yes” vote. The public relations campaign is being handled by Carl Mueller of the Zeppos-Remsik-Mueller firm.
Few people have disagreed with the merits of the referendum but instead question its price-tag. Fuller has emphasized in his frequent speeches that one reason the bond issue is so high is that MPS hasn’t sought approval for a comprehensive building plan in 22 years. Unlike other taxing entities such as the city, county or sewerage district, MPS must first get voter approval for major capital projects such as constructing new buildings.
In a talk before several hundred businessmen in late November, sponsored by the Public Policy Forum, Fuller outlined several figures to put the referendum in perspective.
The MPS $474 building plan calls for expenditures in the next 10 years of slightly less than $50 million a year. By comparison, he noted:
- The deep tunnel project cost more than $2 billion.
- Capital spending by Milwaukee County has been $700 million since 1980, including the recently opened $106 million jail. The county figure is about 40% more than the school facility plan.
- Since 1980, capital spending by the City of Milwaukee has been $783 million, or more than 50% greater than the facility plan.
- The Wisconsin Department of Transportation will spend $100 million to rebuild the Marquette interchange, and $163 million to rebuild I-94 to Waukesha. Combined with money spent on freeway repair since 1983, the total is more than $400 million.
Fuller noted that if one adds capital spending by these entities since 1980 with projected expenditures, the total is $4.7 billion between 1980 and the mid-1990s.
“That’s $10 for every one dollar in the MPS plan,” Fuller said. “If we can afford $4.7 billion for freeway, jails, sewers, and police and fire stations, I don’t think it’s ‘excessive’ or ‘staggering’ to invest 10% of that amount to let all children go to kindergarten, to begin to reduce busing, to provide computer training and allow children to explore music and the arts, to maintain existing schools, to lower class size, and to provide technical education facilities that address the workplace needs of the 21st Century.”
Key parts of the construction/facilities plan are to:
- Build 12 new elementary and two new middle schools in neighborhoods where there are not enough schools for children in the area,.
- Build a new technical high school to replace Milwaukee Trade and Technical High School.
- Expand 14 existing elementary schools.
- Make needed repairs and maintenance on older schools.
- Implement universal kindergarten for 4-year-olds for a half-day, and all-day kindergarten for 5-year-olds.
- Lower class size to 19 students in kindergarten through second grade.
- Expand libraries, providing adequate lunchrooms, and providing space for computer, art, and music classrooms.