Wednesday, June 1, 2016


By Dominique Paul Noth

Everywhere Means turns these days he is confronted with
reminders of what his role is actually about.
In a commentary piece for On Milwaukee, their regular theater critic Dave Begel – who has considerable history in local politics – offered the most sympathetic current portrait of Demond Means even while the praise was couched in criticism.

A few years ago Means, also superintendent at the Mequon-Thiensville school district, was regarded as a champion for public school districts such as Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) with its sizeable contingent of union teachers and transparent data (unlike the opaque voucher and private charter schools).  He was saluted as an African American who hadn’t lost touch with his community roots.

There was even a sigh of relief in some quarters when County Executive Chris Abele named him as commissar for MPS public schools. In that curious role, he has the authority to select central city schools for outside private operation – and in several cases superior authority than the Harvard educated MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver appointed by the elected school board,  which is also equally sidelined by this particular legislation.  

There was a sliver of hope along with massive shock when Means became the honcho of the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program (OSPP), more accurately dubbed MPS Takeover by those who have looked under the hood.  This is the recycled brainchild (aborted several times along its way to Madison legislation) of Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep.  Dale Kooyenga. 

By any intelligent measure, Supt. Darienne
Driver is undercut by OSPP.
Talk about dismantling your own reputation. Talk about how the end doesn’t justify the Means, who now faces questions even back in his own Mequon district. Talk about undercutting the highly respected Driver.  He accepted a role that by its nature is anti-MPS.

He is now trying to maneuver in a way acceptable to MPS and to the GOP legislative powers in Madison – an impossible task.  One original idea – turn an empty MPS building into an early child care education facility – seemed acceptable to all, but apparently was scrapped because it didn’t fit the  Madison concept of the OSPP law. At this point, nothing interesting does fit.

Means is trying to sell a halfway house proposal neither fish nor fowl, and he is disappointed that the MPS is not buckling under.  Expect him shortly to realize what the MPS board already sees -- Darling and Kooyenga will not allow him or his hirer, County Executive Chris Abele, to get very far reinterpreting their law to be friendly to MPS.

In his past life, Means always recognized the weight of poverty and poor funding on children and  the value of dedicated long-term teaching, which is not the model of Teach for America, which wags have dubbed Teach for Awhile given its revolving door (60% turnover within three years). But hiring them for less money is a centerpiece of the privatized charter movement, which is also the centerpiece of the OSPP law.

If you read the law, it is clearly designed to sidetrack and subject MPS to the will of suburban legislators – something Abele must have understood.  He knows English and he’s been apologizing ever since, though since he won a recent election with enormous self-funding he apparently thinks the voters won't care.

OSPP is tantamount to creating a black  recovery district and requires private support, none of which is yet forthcoming.  In New Orleans, that recovery district, created to mixed reviews in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, is now being returned by Louisiana to local school board control, partly because of community frenzy,  but it’s returning with unseemly conditions – the local boards can’t change the private school operators or the staff.  Sounds like a prelude to OSPP. 

Kooyenga gets a civics lesson
in civil discussion.
The holes in the law already mean the bill sponsors won’t buy this unshaped Means plan. In a Marquette University discussion with Lauren Baker, executive director of the MTEA teachers union,  Kooyenga even indicated he was not a supporter of Means’ proposal because it counters what was written in his legislation. This was the TV discussion in which Baker mopped the floor with Kooyenga ignorance about education, yet he is one of the controlling forces the state education system must now deal with. See for yourself.

Going on Mike Gousha’s  “Up Front” TV show May 29,  Abele  argued that he and Means were wiggling to make OSPP  “as pro-MPS as possible” – limiting it initially to one school that OSPP intends after several years to return to MPS, more than likely as a privately operated charter school.

Contrast reality with such dissembling. Means may only choose one to start, but he is looking at eight schools.

Whatever the concerns about how poverty and crime affect inner city schools, and put all forms of education at risk, the OSPP has yet to find the right “struggling MPS school” because MPS keeps improving these schools on its own.  The struggling MPS school that fits this imaginary concept may not exist and OSPP clearly has no idea how to change it anyway.

Yet Abele promises that teachers at the chosen school will be retained with full union reputation and benefits.  How does that track when Means chooses the private operator outside MPS standards and when promised corporate commitment has yet to appear?  Would any MPS employees want to voluntarily transfer into such an environment?  

The Real Politicks came later in the TV interview. Abele echoed Means’ argument that the MPS board had better go along:   Do so or something far more dire will emanate from Madison.

Abele told Gousha there is no option to just ignore the law. “We have to do something. If we don't do this, I think you might see something more heavy-handed and honestly, I'm concerned about that."  You can almost feel his  tremble on the video. 

It is not just Means and Abele admitting this is a bad law but that they must go along with it.  This fever of giving in is everywhere in Milwaukee, with elected officials cowed by the governor and legislature in Madison, heavily conscious that the intergovernmental structure can make them bit players with even less authority than the shrinking authority they now possess.

Fight this Madison cartel and it will do worse – that seems the new slogan. It came up in passing rules last June on city of  Milwaukee charter schools, for fear that tougher laws -- such as a total moratorium -- would bring immediate harsher response from Madison, even taking away the power to create schools.

Fortunately, the recently replaced president of the Common Council, Ald. Michael Murphy, helped negotiate quieter ordinances that did make the city responsible for the financial impact on MPS.  The ordinances meant well but also require aldermanic influence under a new regime.  Time alone will reveal if the new council president, Ald. Ashanti Hamilton, will bring negotiating skill to what is clearly his  move toward a  larger African American presence in city affairs.

The fear in local officials has an understandable foundation. Think of how many pieces of Madison legislation have been passed by the Republicans clearly targeting the more liberal Milwaukee County. You’ll find such concerns infecting city of Milwaukee  officials as well as county officeholders.   Attacks on home rule and residency. The legislature using “reasonable time” as a legalistic excuse to deny freedom to deal with abandoned homes and absent landlords.  The needless attack on IRIS and Family Care, stifling a national model program with new rules being carved in Madison.  And on and on. Isn’t it simply wisdom to give in and bend over?

I wonder how long voters will accept such feeble reaction as some sort of wisdom.

Buck private Ald. Jim Bohl
City Ald. Jim Bohl unintentionally summed up this permeating caution.  Bohl, explaining how personally he didn’t like the state law that MPS vacant buildings must be sold only to competitors, said in a recent interview:   “Government works like it’s the military -- the state is the sergeant, and any local municipality, like a city, town or village, is a private in the army. When you’re a private in the army and the sergeant says drop and do 10 pushups, you do 10 pushups whether we like it or not.”

Whether we like it or not.  That’s a roadmap to what is happening to Milwaukee County – be a good soldier, go along because they could do something worse.  Was that really what these officials were elected to do?  Anxious voices in the community are surely tired of ill-conceived half-baked ideas flooding in from the Capitol. It doesn’t smell of compromise but cowardice. And you don’t have to call for a revolution to make it stop.

In a few months, November of 2016, change is in the air.  The Democrats have a good chance to take the state  senate, which by itself renders impotent the idea  that the legislature could do far worse.  The Assembly is likely to stay in GOP hands given its wide margin, but the margin is likely to shrink and that moves those random GOP  legislative fancies from certainty to troublesome scrutiny.

The governor remains until 2018 but his legislative strength could  be badly weakened. And he was not a big fan of OSPP in the first place.

Better government often occurs incrementally. That’s the nature of representative democracy. We see that discussion on the Democratic side  in the national presidential campaign – sometimes with more ferocity that the platforms of the two candidates deserve. 

Sanders has certainly moved Clinton to the left on things like attention to  income inequality and deeper government funding for higher education.  But Hillary  has actually moved Bernie to the left on issues like early child care and gun regulations.  Tactics differ, the direction remains similar. When do you tack and when do you demand  the whole enchilada?  What gets the branches of government plodding in the right direction? 

Interesting questions. But at some point, Wisconsinites have to stop playing national political games we can barely influence.

They must turn to local affairs where the communities wield enormous influence. They must ask: How far should the officials we elect bend in the wrong direction out of fear that "something worse" might happen?  Locally, there comes a time to make a stand – and elect people who will.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for 

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