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

Abele, Larson Differ On County Involvement In MPS

State Sen. Chris Larson (left) and Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele

Tuesday marks one week until Election Day in Milwaukee. The city boasts a number of what are expected to be tight races, not least among them the fight for County Executive.

Incumbent Chris Abele and his challenger, State Senator Chris Larson, have sparred over a slew of issues. One of the most contentious points is education – specifically, what role the county executive should play when it comes to helping turnaround struggling MPS schools.

At issue is how each candidate will shape his plan for MPS in relation to a state-mandated program.

The state legislature created the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, or OSPP, last year. The program charges Milwaukee’s county executive with oversight of up to five struggling MPS schools per year. Possibilities include turning them over to a charter or private operator.

Incumbent Abele says he doesn’t plan to pull any schools out of MPS. Rather, this fall he plans to implement a blueprint that provides additional services within district schools. 

“Counties aren’t generally involved in education,” Abele explains. “Counties across the state, we provide primarily social services.”

His vision calls for the county to ramp up support in schools identified for OSPP, for things like onsite health care, mental health services and extended learning opportunities outside the normal school day.

Abele says taking care of the “outside factors” will free up teachers to focus on improving academics. 

“The amount of time teachers have to spend dealing with students that has nothing to do with instruction, has more to do with controlling a classroom, is far more than it should be. That’s the sort of thing we can help address, and help bring resources to in a real way,” Abele says.

Abele’s challenger, State Senator Chris Larson, sat on the senate committee that created OSPP -- although he voted against it.

Larson says, as someone who observed the construction of the law, he thinks it’s flawed in a way that would allow him to try something different.

Yet his alternative idea – a “community schools” model – sounds similar to Abele’s plan.

“'Community schools’ essentially mean the schools become a center of that community, where kids have access to resources, and parents also have access to resources there,” Larson explains.

While a lot of common language exists between the two candidates’ plans, they also have their differences.

Larson has characterized OSPP as a “takeover” of public schools, and in that regard, he opposes the program.

“Let the education experts tackle the education. We as the county will hit the other points to help kids be successful,” Larson says. “The only thing that the county should do within these community schools is providing mental health services, [and] providing the wraparound services.”

Incumbent Abele shrugs off the “takeover” label, saying a more apt name for his plan would be the “MPS Schools Stimulus Bill.”

“There’s going to be no lost funding for MPS, there’s going to be no firing of MPS employees, the MPS board is still going to govern, and we’re going to have additional services,” Abele assures.

One other big difference between the candidates’ plans: oversight.

Credit Rachel Morello
Demond Means, OSPP Commissioner and superintendent of Mequon-Thiensville schools.

The law mandating OSPP states that the Milwaukee County Executive shall appoint a commissioner to decide how to assist the struggling schools.

Abele hasenlisted the services of Demond Means, superintendent in the Mequon-Thiensville district. Should Abele win re-election, Means says he’ll continue working on OSPP.

One of the main reasons why I assumed this role is because of the passion that Chris Abele has demonstrated over decades,” Means says. “Right now, we have a team that can make this work and make it work well.”

Means says he’d have to consider working with Larson, should the senator take over as county exec and want means as a partner.

Larson’s plan does not call for a commissioner. Instead, Larson says his model relies on “community coordinators,” people stationed in individual schools. They would be the ones organizing resources for their building, and the surrounding neighborhood.

“Community schools should still fall under the control and the oversight of our public school system,” Larson says. “The county can absolutely be at the table, but that should be something that our public schools are still in control of.”

The two candidates have a week left to make their case to voters. They’ll cast their ballots for county executive on April 5. 

WUWM Education Reporter Rachel Morello's extended interviews with Milwaukee County Executive candidates Chris Abele & Chris Larson.

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