Milwaukee schools can't take these cuts

Scot McCullough reports on protests by educators and community members in Milwaukee, who are fighting plans for devastating cuts to public schools.

Several thousand teachers, students and parents rally to protest cuts (Joe Brusky | Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association)Several thousand teachers, students and parents rally to protest cuts (Joe Brusky | Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association)

MILWAUKEE TEACHERS, school workers, parents and students rallied at an informational picket outside of the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) board meeting April 24 to protest a proposed 5 percent across-the-board cut to the school system.

More than 3,000 people joined in at the picket, spanning multiple blocks and shutting down the street. Many people carried signs and posters, including "Close the MPS funding gap," "Public schools: The heart of the community" and "I paid for this sign with my second job."

Claudia and Jessica, parents of students at Greenfield Bilingual School, explained why they and many others were there:

We came to protest the privatization of schools and to defend funds for our school. We want our students to have the same opportunities as others. Those who are teachers today got that way because they had good schools and teachers when they were younger, and we want the same opportunity for our kids.

When asked if they would support a teachers' strike, they responded: "Yes! [The school board is] taking away our kids' futures, and we need funding for education."

Sequanna Taylor, president of the Milwaukee Education Assistants' Association, a council within the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association (MTEA), described a situation familiar to most teachers across the country:

I'm an MPS parent and educator. I'm here advocating for funding, and to let MPS know there must be no cuts. The classroom is the most important place, and the student is the most important person for us. Our students are majority Black and Brown students who are already disadvantaged, and we're going to hit them with this? We're supposed to give opportunities.

The amount of money spent per pupil has been going down every year. I have not met an educator who hasn't used their own money to support students. We pay for socks and coats, we pay for supplies...We're here early, and we stay after hours. I bring my family to work with me sometimes. They have to understand we have families, too.

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AT A school board meeting the week before, the MTEA organized to fill the auditorium, three overflow rooms and the hallways to fight the board against the cuts. At the packed meeting, in a shocking display of contempt, School Board Director Michael Bonds interrupted a teacher to tell her to "Go to hell."

When someone from the room shouted to "Vote him out," Bonds responded by saying, "Based on those test scores, some of you all need to go."

Later, in an interview with a local news station, Bonds doubled down on his earlier rant, saying, "No regrets at all--I don't think our students should suffer because the MTEA wants another raise."

MPS is facing a $30 million deficit, which school officials attribute to falling enrollments and rising costs--they are proposing devastating cuts due to this deficit.

On April 27, MPS released its proposed budget for the next year, which includes cutting 80 teachers and 49 educational assistances, while increasing the number of certificated administrators by nine.

The district attempted to explain away the job cuts by saying that "due to vacancy and turnover, the number of layoffs resulting from position reductions will be minimal." But this still leaves fewer teachers in the classrooms.

These cuts to teacher positions and supplies for funding would be hitting an already underfunded school district. Classes of 30 or more middle-school students are common, and nearly 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch based on their family income.

This spring, as teachers across the country circulated pictures of their dilapidated classrooms, a picture of tattered fourth-grade textbooks called Wisconsin: Our State, Our Story showed that Milwaukee was part of this national crisis.

On May 2, just a few days after the release of the budget, the MTEA released a public video on Facebook that laid out its response. The union called the budget "insufficient for students and educators," saying that the 5 percent cuts "must be removed," and calling for health benefits for substitute teachers.

The MTEA understands that the school board won't stop its cuts just by being asked. Instead, Amy Mizialko, the vice president of the union, called for teachers to continue organizing with their coworkers.

"We are asking every educator in every Milwaukee public school to search your conscience and consider how far each of you is willing to go to guarantee a just budget for students and educators," Mizialko said. "We are asking every educator to sign and pledge their commitment to act this May."

Mizialko didn't specify what that "act" may be this May, but she was clear that the fight today is different than business as usual, ending the video by saying: "I believe in the educators of this district, I believe in the students and families of this city, and I believe that we are willing to do what it takes to get what students and educators deserve."

Michael Billeaux contributed to this article.