By Srijan Sen
Five seats on the Milwaukee Board of School Directors were up for general election on April 7, 2015. Last night, challenger Wendell Harris Sr., 66, defeated incumbent Jeff Spence, 54, by a significant margin. The two contenders last met eight years ago, but Spence has been has been on the School Board since 1999.
Retired after 30 years at A.O. Smith where he held various positions including crane operator, Mr. Harris has been active member of the NAACP since.
His top priority is to maintain local control of Milwaukee Public School (MPS) system, despite legislative efforts to expand charter schools via a state-run board, potentially imposing additional sanctions on struggling schools.
Mr. Harris, a newcomer on the Board of School Directors, attributes this electoral success to a clear indication by Milwaukee residents taking a stand against Gov. Walker’s charter school policy. An ardent supporter of strengthening the MPS system, Mr. Harris does not aim to undermine charter and voucher schools already in existence, but doesn’t want any new ones either.
“The people spoke to me yesterday,” said Mr. Harris. “It was loud and clear.”
The incumbent candidate Jeff Spence is the director of agency services at Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District and has served on the board for 16 years, having served two terms as president.
In a pre-election interview with the Shepherd Express, Mr. Spence expressed interest in improving education outcomes for young people, but acknowledged that MPS has a long way to go in achieving those goals.
He supports the Common Core standards, which MPS is working to implement, and wanted to ensure that parents could easily access student performance of voucher and public schools.
“When I look at Common Core, I see it as we’re trying to give young people a sense of what we expect them to attain from an educational perspective as they mature through the K-12 system,”
Mr. Spence told the Shepherd Express. Mr. Spence was not available to comment for this story.
Amongst the various issues associated with MPS, exorbitantly high suspension of Black, American Indian and Latino students is of immediate concern.
According to a 2015 report published by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, Wisconsin ranked in the top 20 districts for highest suspension rates of Latino and American Indian students, but was not the state top 20 districts for overall suspension rate.
Additionally, the study found Milwaukee Public Schools had the highest overall K-8 suspension rate among districts with K-8 enrollments of at least 3,000, and a minimum of 100 black, Latino and white students.
There have also been key personnel changes in the last year with the appointment of Dr. Darienne Driver as the new superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools in October 2014.
After serving as interim superintendent for three months, Driver became the district’s first permanent female superintendent replacing Dr. Gregory Thornton, who left the district in July 2014 to serve the Baltimore City Public School System.
But Mr. Harris is unshaken by the political turmoil over education happening in Madison.
Strongly committed to furthering goals of public education, he is looking forward to working with the community.
Making an effort to increase public engagement in matters of the district’s public education policy, Mr. Harris is hoping to set up a system of community meetings where residents can share grievances and learn more about the MPS strategy to tackle tough situations.
“I want to ensure that children are receptive to education and have a safe environment in which to learn,” said Mr. Harris.
He points to state funding cuts targeted at public schools as a grave threat to the prospect of a well rounded education.
However, Mr. Harris plans to keep pushing towards progress irrespective of state support advocating for alternative funding sources.
Citing Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Let’s Move Forward” plan that proposes major carbon tax and fees on the state’s industrial polluters, Mr. Harris said he would redirect the money towards public education.
He also hopes this model can be implemented beyond public schools and into public colleges.
The market-based carbon pollution charge is set to generate $7 billion over 12 years according to Gov. Inslee.
As someone who spends much of his time now volunteering at Transition High School, Mr. Harris is excited for his debut in the role of a legislative leader overlooking education policy in Milwaukee’s district 2.
“I really appreciate everyone that came out to support the cause of public education,” said Mr. Harris. “I will give it all I got.”