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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

MPS Is Deciding How To Spend $504 Million Over Next 3 Years. Staff Say They Need Help Now

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Emily Files
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WUWM
Buses wait to drive students home at Lincoln Center of the Arts, an MPS middle school.

Leaders of Milwaukee Public Schools will decide within the next couple weeks on a spending plan for a windfall of one-time federal stimulus cash: $504 million.

The money comes from the third round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, known as ESSER III, part of the American Rescue Plan. MPS has already spent or budgeted the first two rounds of ESSER funding, which totaled $41 million and $225 million, respectively.

>>MPS Deciding How To Spend $731 Million In COVID Relief

MPS administrators have a long list of proposals for the $504 million in ESSER III. It includes renovating school buildings, buying technology for students and staff, expanding tutoring and after-school programs, increasing mental health services, and building a test kitchen to develop better school meals.

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MPS
MPS administrators divided their funding priorities for ESSER III into five categories: accelerated learning, health and wellness, facilities, technology and extracurricular engagement. This chart shows how the administration proposes divvying up the funding.

But in written and spoken testimony on the plan, MPS staff said some ESSER funds should be used now to address urgent problems in schools.

Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association President Amy Mizialko said staff shortages across employee groups, COVID cases, and quarantine make it more dire. She testified during a school board meeting Thursday.

"Our schools have reached the point of dangerously insufficient staffing," Mizialko said. "The number of staff in quarantine or who are sick with COVID is not sustainable and the staff you still have in schools are breaking. It is the third week of the traditional school year. There are not enough teachers or nurses, there are only a handful of substitute teachers left, we don’t have enough building service helpers to keep our schools clean."

According to MPS, there are currently 156 teaching vacancies.

Meanwhile, some teachers are worried about themselves or coworkers being moved to different schools because of unexpected enrollment declines. This is known as "excessing."

Monica Lopez testified that her school was already short five staff members and is now losing another two. Lopez did not identify which school she works at.

"At my building we’re cutting two classroom teachers," Lopez said. "We’re taking classrooms that are developmentally appropriate and doubling them. Now we’re increasing class sizes and reducing adult support by seven in my building, all while trying to provide health and safety protocols and mitigations."

MPS communications staff told WUWM that the district is still determining staff that will be excessed and has not made decisions yet.

Enrollment in MPS is down more than expected, according to Superintendent Kieth Posley. He said at a Wisconsin Policy Forum event Friday that enrollment is down even more than last year – when school was virtual – and that the biggest declines are in the youngest grades.

"So basically this year we saw probably the largest reduction that we have had in a number of years," Posley said.

Posley said in a normal year, MPS loses about 1,200 or 1,500 students. This year, he said, it’s down around 4,000 students. MPS communications staff told WUWM Tuesday that district enrollment is 69,810.

Posley said the influx of federal ESSER funding is helpful. But, it’s one-time money that will run out within in the next three years.

"I worry about the fiscal cliff that is going to take place after these stimulus dollars are out," Posley said. "Stimulus dollars help us to meet the needs, to level the playing field for the district and the students in the city. But also our students need additional [funding] in order to move forward to ensure that we can move on after 2023-24."

During discussion of the $504 million ESSER III budget, school board members talked about the need to address staffing and enrollment issues. Erika Siemsen said the district should try to meet the immediate needs of schools.

"We’ve really clearly heard that schools are suffering and need our support," Siemsen said. "So my first question was sort of about that triage system – to prioritize what do we need to get through this year?"

Siemsen said she hoped increasing COVID vaccinations among staff and students would help the situation as well. MPS has a vaccine requirement for employees and plans to reward students who get vaccinated with $100.

The next meeting on the ESSER III spending plan is scheduled for Oct 7.

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