By Aaron M. Rodriguez
In April of 2008, the American Promise Alliance published a report that revealed some startling statistics about MPS. The graduation rate of MPS for 2003-04 was 46%, which ranked 38 out of 50 metropolitan school districts in the nation. This suggests that despite substantial spending, MPS places well below the national average of 70%.
While graduation rates are dropping, state funding for MPS has increased by 58% in the past 20 years. This has caused some taxpayers to question how the money is being invested. According to a 2008 report by School Choice Wisconsin, fringe benefits for MPS employees and retirees increased 33% from 2002-2005, while the budget for MPS increased by only 10%. In a national study conducted by WISTAX, MPS spending on employee benefits was the 3rd highest out of 16 comparable school districts. The study also indicated that MPS has fewer staff members per student than all but two school systems studied. Furthermore, insurance premiums for MPS were more than 50% higher than the average private sector rate in Wisconsin and about 15% higher than the average Wisconsin public school district.
These reports suggest that MPS is somewhat of a financial black hole. It absorbs substantial amounts of state spending while providing little return in student scores and graduation rates. According to WISTAX, “MPS trailed the averages in Wisconsin by one of the largest amounts for any of the comparable situations.” The picture is dire indeed – MPS needs substantial reform.
Rose Fernandez, candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction, has proposed that DPI use a “Turnaround Team” to address the ailing, systemic disease that currently plagues MPS. This panel of “community experts,” would be empowered to reform curriculum, reduce overhead, negotiate teachers' benefits, and decide whether MPS should be partitioned into sectors. They would displace the current board of education, serve the community for three years, and then secede to a newly elected board that would run a new leaner and meaner MPS. Some have rejected the idea as a mockery or as an unnecessary “government shakeup.” But in doing so, they fundamentally misunderstand the function of turnaround teams.
The main premise of a “turnaround team” philosophy is that failure has become so persistent and threatening that it is now necessary to empower a contingent of experts to make the system run lean. Some CEOs have come to this realization, albeit slowly. They realize that partiality toward their corporation became a stumbling block to executing logical and necessary decisions to turn things around. When turnaround teams assume control of a failing business, there are a number of rules they implement to get results; below are a few.
1. Stop hiring employees.
2. Verify expense accounts for all capital expenditures.
3. Cut back on replacing equipment that functions.
4. Reduce inventory.
5. Defer discretionary projects that will not yield immediate returns.
6. Discharge unproductive employees.
7. Terminate management politics and roadblocks.
8. Develop a tough business plan with a clear mission.
9. Stay optimistic.
10. Listen often and communicate well.
Almost all of these good business practices can be implemented in the turnaround management of MPS.
First, we need to stop hiring more teachers. Due to decreased enrollment, MPS has one of the lowest teacher-student ratios among comparable school districts across the nation.
Second, we need to keep a close eye on what is actually spent on student education and what is spent upon employee fringe benefits. For instance, how do the benefits of MPS teachers compare on the national scale?
Third, we need to cut back on purchasing new school equipment. If it isn’t broken, delay more purchases until spending is under control. For now, MPS will have to make do with what it has.
Fourth, we need to defer on discretionary projects. One good example is building new schools. Enrollment is down, so new schools for MPS should be out of the question.
Fifth, discharge unproductive and incompetent teachers. This means providing a stricter evaluation standard for MPS teachers.
Sixth, terminate the politics in the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). This includes the power wielded by WEAC and their obstructionist efforts to resist reform in MPS.
Seventh, develop a plan for MPS that has high expectations and expect improvement.
And eighth, DPI must listen often and communicate well with parents. Parents are the key to educational achievement, so involving them more with MPS students will yield good results.
Tony Evers, Fernandez’ opponent in the DPI race, believes that a turnaround team would only politicize the school system by turning the district over to “special interest groups”. However, a turnaround team is no more of a special interest group than the school board is. They will be a panel of experts chosen by the Mayor, School Superintendent, and the County Executive – each of which has a stake in the progress of the turnaround team. By calling the panel a special interest group, Evers is not only short changing MPS and intimating that major reform is not necessary, but he is rejecting the only truly innovative idea that addresses the cancer eating away at MPS.