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

MPS Referendum Even More Needed Amid COVID-19 Crisis, Advocates Say

Emily Files
A 'Vote Yes For MPS' sign supporting the MPS referendum, which would provide $87 million for educational programming.

Updated April 6 at 1:15 p.m. CT

Gov. Tony Evers called off in-person voting on April 7 and moved it to June 9. All ballots already cast via absentee voting or early voting will count toward the results. 

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Wisconsin’s primary election is moving forward on April 7, despite calls from some to postpone it due to the COVID-19 outbreak. People who have an absentee ballot have until April 13 to get it in the hands of local election clerks, under a ruling Thursday by a federal judge.

In the election, Milwaukee voters will choose their favorite Democratic presidential candidate, the next mayor and Milwaukee County executive. They’ll also decide whether to raise property taxes to better support Milwaukee Public Schools.

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If approved, the school referendum would provide an additional $87 million for MPS to spend on educational programming each year. That would be an about 8% increase to MPS' total budget. The increase would be phased in over four years, starting with a $57 million increase in the upcoming school year. 

School board member and former MPS teacher Bob Peterson has been pushing for a referendum since he was elected a year ago.

"You know, I’ve been a harsh critic of the district, but I believe strongly in a quality public school system that serves all kids," Peterson said. "It's a first step so that students in Milwaukee start to get the schools they deserve."

The school board wants the referendum money to help lower class sizes, hire more teachers (especially art, music and physical education), and support student mental health, among other priorities. Peterson says the current public health crisis makes those changes even more pressing. 

"A pandemic is going to be a traumatic experience for everyone, including children. So it's going to be so important that we have the resources, the professionals who can work with students coming back to school." - Bob Peterson

"A pandemic is going to be a traumatic experience for everyone, including children," Peterson said. "And so it’s going to be so important that we have the resources, the professionals who can work with students coming back after months of not going to school. Whether it’s mental health or having things like music and art and library and nurses, this is going to be key for the success and the recovery [of] the children of Milwaukee."

MPS already serves a high-needs student population. Most students come from low-income families, one of every five kids has special needs, and many are English learners. The coronavirus school closures that started in March may last for the rest of the school year, leaving already disadvantaged students further behind academically next year.

Wisconsin Policy Forum Senior Researcher Anne Chapman says the probable learning loss could help MPS make a stronger case in support of the referendum.

"We know that MPS already serves a student population that is more vulnerable than populations in other districts," Chapman said. "So this will continue that, if not exacerbate it."

But Wisconsin is also suffering from a huge economic downturn, with thousands losing their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic. Chapman points out that voters were less likely to approve school referendums during previous recessions.

"[Voters] could be feeling like they're already stretched and they have their own sense of economic insecurity and they don't want to pass a referendum." - Anne Chapman

"On one hand, [voters] could be feeling like they’re already stretched and they have their own sense of economic insecurity and they don’t want to pass a referendum," Chapman said. "On the other hand, they might realize how important education is at a moment like this and be willing [to raise taxes.]"

MPS estimates that the referendum would increase residents’ taxes by about $160 per $100,000 of property value. This week, the Greater Milwaukee Realtors Association came out in support of the referendum. The association emphasized the connection between good schools and property values.

The Realtors weren’t the only ones offering eleventh hour endorsements. The top Democratic presidential hopefuls — Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders — expressed their support. Milwaukee Teachers Education Association President Amy Mizialko says those high-profile endorsements mean politicians recognize the importance of public education.

"Public education and educators are a huge front-burner issue in this election, as they should be," Mizialko said. "And so I think any candidate is smart to throw down and show where they stand on it."

The MTEA is one of the groups leading referendum advocacy efforts, urging residents to vote ‘Yes for MPS.’ Mizialko says because of COVD-19, union members have stopped knocking on doors and focused more on text messages, phone calls and mailers.

If the referendum is approved, Mizialko says it’s just one step toward adequate funding for MPS. The district has a projected $20 million deficit in the upcoming school year, and it’s unclear what impact the pandemic will have on MPS' already precarious financial situation. 

Milwaukee's move to raise money through a voter referendum isn't unusual for school districts. Almost every other Wisconsin district has passed a referendum at some point, and MPS is one of the few that hasn't. The only other time MPS tried, in 1993, voters rejected the tax hike.

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Emily is WUWM's educational reporter.
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