By Sam Woods
Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the number of officers who have contracts in MPS’ Truancy Abatement Burglary Suppression program.
The Black Educators Caucus MKE called Tuesday for MPS to end its contracts with the Milwaukee Police Department, saying the district is “complicit in the perpetuation of the very institutional racism that recent marches, rallies, and uprisings were all about.”
In response, Larry Miller, president of the school board, is scheduling a special meeting Thursday, June 18 to discuss the caucus’ demands and to consider ending contracts with suppliers of security equipment such as metal detectors.
“People think it’s radical to just cut all contracts with police,” said Angela Harris, chairwoman of the caucus and a first-grade teacher with MPS. “But we’ve been defunding education for years, and we’re just asking to put funding for schools back where it belongs.”
At the meeting, director Paula Phillips is expected to introduce a resolution that MPS terminate contracts with the Milwaukee Police Department and that the district halt further negotiations to buy or maintain security equipment such as metal detectors, facial recognition software or social media monitoring software.
MPS currently contracts with the Milwaukee Police Department to act as resource officers and to patrol events like the Midnight Sports League. Almost half of the money MPS sends to the police department is for the district’s Truancy Abatement Burglary Suppression program, which employs local law enforcement to locate truant students. The program employs four officers and costs $400,000 Phillips said.
This program is required by state law for a school district of MPS’ size, and the district is not able to cut funding to it unilaterally, Phillips added.
In May, the school board voted to cut money spent on other contracts with local law enforcement by $100,000 to pay for “restorative practice coaches” who are trained in deterring anti-social behavior without relying on punishment. This is included in the district’s recently adopted 2020-’21 school budget. The district is currently set to pay $478,242 in contracts with the police department that are not required by the state in the upcoming school year.
Not a new issue, but renewed interest
The Black Educators Caucus MKE was founded in 2018 in response to perceived unresponsiveness from the Milwaukee Teachers and Educators Association, the union representing teachers in MPS. The caucus is made up of black educators within the union. It has been active in organizing Black Lives Matter at School Week each February since 2018. The caucus has also lobbied the district and teachers union to ensure equitable access to education for students of color during the pandemic.
While recent demonstrations against police violence across the world have not focused on schools, Harris said the call to end contracts with the Milwaukee Police Department is not out of character for the movement.
“Now more than ever we are looking at policing in our communities, and I think the best place to start is looking at policing in our schools,” Harris said.
This issue is personal for Harris, who remembers when she took her kindergarten students on a field trip to the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. The library sits next to the District 5 police station, and Harris still recalls how her students were already visibly afraid of the officers next door.
“My scholars were holding onto me for dear life; they were so afraid,” said Harris. “They were asking me questions like ‘Are they going to take me to jail?’”
“From a young age, black and brown kids internalize that the police are there to do them harm,” Harris added.
Leaders Igniting Transformation, a youth-of-color-led advocacy and organizing group, has also called for ending contracting services with the Milwaukee Police Department and reducing the district’s security budget.
The group, also known as LIT, said the money should be used to increase support staff, including such positions as guidance counselors and school nurses.
“It’s time to cut police and security budgets to fund the programs and supports that young people actually need,” LIT leaders said in a news release about the budget.
Budget cuts are needed somewhere
MPS and the school board have been looking for ways the district can save money, including a proposal to rearrange bus schedules to save around $3 million for the 2020-21 budget. The board initially voted against this proposal, citing the disruption the change would cause parents during a pandemic, before ultimately approving the measure.
Phillips said that while the idea of saving money by cutting police contracts and the school security budget is not new, the momentum among her constituents to act on it has changed.
“People who have never reached out to the board are asking us to do something about this. This is why protests matter,” she said.