Milwaukee City Charter Rocketship “Bleeding Money” to Tune of Two Million Dollars

MMAC President Tim Sheehy at the grand opening of Rocketship in Milwaukee.

MMAC President Tim Sheehy, who according to Rocketship’s website, sits on the charters board of directors.

According to testimony from Carl Cira of M. L. Tharps & Associates, an auditor contracted by the City of Milwaukee, the private charter school Rocketship Southside Community Prep is running a massive deficit. Cira delivered this shocking financial report on Rocketship to the May 25th Charter School Review Committee (CSRC) meeting at City Hall. A recently completed financial audit revealed the charter is running a cumulative deficit of $1.4 million and a projected deficit of an additional $700,000 through the 2016-17 school year.

Cira’s testimony on Rocketship’s financial situation started with his reflecting, “Rocketship: A school I have some concerns about, because, they’re bleeding money, that would be my honest assessment.” CSRC member Joyce Mallory interrupted, “Who lets them pass a budget, with that kind of a deficit?”

Sadly the answer is the CSRC and the City. This financial malfeasance would not be possible in a traditional locally controlled public school accountable to a democratically elected school board, but it seems to happen all the time in the City’s private charter school district. This new revelation comes on top of financial problems already documented at City charter schools including at North Point Lighthouse Academy earlier this year.  Now Rocketship has emerged as the latest example of what happens when public dollars go to these unaccountable charter schools.  Watch video of the CSRC interaction below.

Like Lighthouse, Rocketship in Milwaukee is a franchise – part of a national charter school chain. Although franchisees claim that their parent company will bail them out when deficits occur, that was not the case with Lighthouse.

According to Cira, Rocketship claims its enrollment will increase next year to a point that will make the deficit disappear by the end of the 2016-17 schools year. But that claim doesn’t appear to be realistic. When it opened in 2013, its goal was to enroll 650 students. It started 2014-15 with 435 students. By June the number was 393. Its current enrollment is 420 students. Rocketship’s stated goal was to open eight K-5 schools in Milwaukee by 2017, serving up to 5,000 students. That goal has been drastically scaled back.

City of Milwaukee Charter Rocketship “Bleeding Money” to Tune of Two Million Dollars from MTEA Union on Vimeo.

“Separate and Unequal,” 62 years later

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Written by: Jamaal Smith

On May 17, 1954, a landmark decision was made when the United State Supreme Court ruled state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students as unconstitutional. In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Warren Court stated that “separate educational facilities were inherently unequal,” and violated the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment. The Brown decision was pivotal in the fight for integration during the Civil Rights era. The expectation was that ALL children would have equal access to quality education and opportunity, which should be a fundamental right, regardless of race. However, 62 years since the historic “great equalizer” decision, black and brown students are again the targets of racial inequality within the educational system.

 

Emma Brown, columnist for The Washington Post, recently reported that, according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, “the number of high-poverty schools serving primarily black and brown students more than doubled between 2001 and 2014.” This study is holding true in the state of Wisconsin, as GOP lawmakers have devised laws that continue supporting “separate and unequal” practices. One of those strategies was the elimination of the Chapter 220 program, which allowed for students of color from high-poverty neighborhoods to attend schools in predominantly white suburban school districts. In addition, two Republican legislators, State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and State Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), created the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, a law intended to hand underfunded MPS schools to private, unaccountable operators. Cities like New Orleans and Detroit have been subjected to similar “Recovery Districts” with catastrophic results, but the commonality that exists between those cities and Milwaukee is that these laws are constantly imposed on black and brown communities without input. The OSPP legislation was passed in the middle of the night without a public hearing even taking place.

 

The OSPP legislation hands authority to a Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele with no college degree, who appointed Dr. Demond Means, Superintendent of the predominantly white Mequon-Thiensville School District, as the Commissioner over a predominately nonwhite district. Abele and Means created a proposal that claims MPS can still remain in tact even if one of the schools were moved under the OSPP district, which is inconsistent with the law. At a recent debate with MTEA Executive Director Lauren Baker at Marquette University, Rep. Kooyenga even stated that he was not a supporter of Dr. Means’ proposal because it counters what was written in the legislation. What is most disconcerting with Abele and Dr. Means is that they both admit the OSPP legislation is an unjust law, but insist the democratically elected school board of MPS should give up local control of their publicly-funded schools. Based on this rational, Civil Rights leaders should not have fought against the injustices within Jim Crow because they were law, right. Or the Black Codes, which brought about involuntary labor on freed slaves for minor “infractions” passed by southern states after the Civil War.

 

Just as it was not acceptable to comply with an unjust law then, the same ideology should exist on unjust laws now. An unjust law is no law at all!

 

We must continue the fight against modern day segregation and racial discrimination within our education system. Our children deserve our efforts to stand up for their future just as those before us stood for ours. Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” In the face of an obvious wrong, the time is now to stand and fight for what is right!

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Come and Learn About Community Schools

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Kyle Serrette, the Education Director for the Center for Popular Democracy will be presenting the national Community Schools model to the SASI School Board meeting at MPS Central Offices this Thursday, May 19 at 6:30pm. The authentic Community Schools model improves student outcomes by focusing on the whole child through six specific approaches. Bring a friend and learn more about how we continue to build authentic, public, community schools in MPS like those already started at Auer Avenue, Bradley Tech High School, James Madison Academic Campus and Hopkins Lloyd.

Group, Opposed to MPS Takeover, Delivers Letter to Mequon-Thiensville School Board

Parents, students, and community members read a letter written to Mequon's school board before Monday night's meeting.

Parents, students, and community members read a letter written to Mequon’s school board before Monday night’s meeting.

Milwaukee Public School parents, students, and community members made the trip from Milwaukee to attend Monday night’s Mequon-Thiensville School Board meeting to deliver a letter the board members.  The group wanted to register their outrage over a position the district’s superintendent, Demond Means, accepted as  an appointed commissioner to the lead the Takeover of MPS. The group stood behind MPS parent Ingrid Walker-Henry as she read the following statement before the board, while the rest of the group, that traveled from Milwaukee, stood behind her:

Dear Mequon-Thiensville School Board Members,

We come to you tonight as parents, students, educators, and community members who are concerned about your superintendent’s involvement in a plan that will harm the students in the Milwaukee Public School District.

Last November, County Executive, Chris Abele appointed Mequon-Thiensville Superintendent, Demond Means as the OSPP Takeover commissioner. As commissioner, Superintendent Means is leading the efforts to take away local control of our children’s schools.

As school board directors of Mequon-Thiensville, you are familiar with the issues concerning your students, and the community trusts you to make important decisions to ensure your students’ success.

What would you do if the superintendent of Mukwonago, Madison, or some other place came here and said they were taking over Homestead High School and turning it over to a private operator? What would you do if they told you, you would no longer have control over the curriculum and policies in that school, but you would still have to cover the administrative costs associated with running the school?

That is exactly what your Superintendent has been trying to do in Milwaukee.

As school board directors, you are fully aware that resourced public schools are desirable places to learn and are the best setting for every Wisconsin student to get off toward a great future. But, public schools need to have transparency and publicly elected leaders that can be held accountable by parents and educators.

Dr. Means is participating in a coordinated attack on public education in Wisconsin and undermining our communities’ democratic rights.

You know what’s best for Mequon-Thiensville kids and Milwaukee’s school board knows what’s best for Milwaukee’s kids.

We strongly urge you to use any influence you may have over your superintendent to keep Milwaukee Public Schools in the hands of our democratically elected school board.

Thank you.

A Special Delivery for the Mequon-Thiensville School Board from MTEA Union on Vimeo.

Riverside H.S. Staff Organizes to Oust Demond Means as Commencement Speaker

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When Nick Dlapa, the union building representative for Riverside University High School found out that MPS Takeover Czar Demond Means was tabbed to be the school’s graduation commencement speaker, he immediately stepped up. He and other teachers in his building mobilized and pulled together a team to fight back. Next they met with the principal to voice their displeasure and threatened to start a petition. The blow back for the decision was so immediate and loud that school administration immediately reversed the decision. Means is a graduate of the school.

Nice work Riverside High School! As Means and Abele target their Takeover schools in the coming weeks staffs in other buildings can learn a lot from the solidarity and organization of the Riverside staff. Together we will defeat this take over of our schools, and maybe Demond Means and Chris Abele will begin to see that the people of Milwaukee want public Community Schools, not Takeovers.

Takeover Czar Demond Means presents his plan to take over MPS buildings to administration and the school board.

Here’s what you can do right now to help defeat the Means and Abele Takeover:

Gutted: The “future” of Milwaukee Public Schools

Takeover Czar Demond Means presents his plan to MPS administration and the school board.

Takeover Czar Demond Means presents his plan to start taking over MPS buildings to administration and the school board.

Written by Jamaal Smith

I remember growing up how much I enjoyed going to school every day. I can still remember my third grade teacher, Señora Rivera, greeting us every morning as we walked in the classroom at 55th Street School (now known as Milwaukee Spanish Immersion). I remember Mr. Stawicki taking the classroom by storm at Samuel Morse Middle School when he introduced “The Great PHEOC,” a character he made a reality when we were discussing the scientific method in science class. Finally, I will always be indebted to Mrs. O’Keefe-Boetcher, who helped me through difficult times emotionally during my senior year at John Marshall High School and pushed me to become a strong writer. There were many more experiences that I could name, but the common denominator of these experiences is that they occurred in Milwaukee Public Schools.

Like many MPS students, I did not grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. I was raised in the 53206 zip code and looked poverty, violence, crime, disenfranchisement, and resource deprivation in the face every day. However, the feeling I had when I walked through the doors of each MPS school I attended will always be cherished and appreciated. These types of feelings and experiences are what Dr. Demond Means, Mequon-Theinsville Schools Superintendent and the Takeover plan, would deny nearly 80,000 students across the city of Milwaukee, with nearly 90 percent of the affected population being students of color. In a city labeled the most segregated in the United States, any policy that exacerbates inequality contributes to worsening segregation.

In addition to being the most segregated city, Milwaukee is one of the poorest cities in the nation with the highest rate of Black male incarceration, Black-White achievement gap, Black male unemployment, and Black female evictions across the state. With over 80 percent of the students within Milwaukee Public Schools living in poverty, they are forced to deal with the strenuous difficulties of instability, malnourishment, and neglect. And let’s not forget the rising homicide rate that has left many students traumatized and in need of care. Students feel lost and hopeless with no direction. For many, MPS schools have become a safe haven to be free of their precarious home environment.

In spite of these circumstances, County Executive Chris Abele and his school takeover Czar, Demond Means, have decided to go along with the plans of conservative, suburban state legislators with a history of introducing racist legislation. Their plan will gut Milwaukee Public Schools, the largest school district in the state of Wisconsin, by converting it to the same type of takeover district that has produced disastrous results in cities like Detroit and New Orleans.

Chris Abele claimed during his campaign for county executive that he wanted to focus on the racial disparities that exist throughout Milwaukee County. Well, this attack on the future of students of color was a prime opportunity to do so. There is growing demand in Milwaukee for the implementation of the Community Schools model, with all of the holistic level benefits that it would provide for students and their families. Abele has mentioned to me personally how much he “loved” Community Schools. If that be the case, then why have we seen no effort from Abele to fight for the Community Schools model, to use it to transform MPS like it has transformed public schools in Cincinnati, OH, where the graduation rate has gone from 59 percent to 82 percent since its conversion to Community Schools? Why, when we have this proven model, are students of color treated like lab rats in failed school privatization experiments?

Let’s be clear, Means’ proposal to partner with the Chicago-based Acadamy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) is alarming. If we follow down the same path as Chicago Public Schools, AUSL will remove our quality, licensed educators and replace them with young, inexperienced, unlicensed, unqualified babysitters who are not prepared to deal with the despair caused by socioeconomic ills prevalent in Milwaukee.

If Abele and Means are as concerned as they claim to be about our children, then they need to focus on models that have been proven to work, instead of gutting our public school system for the sake of another failed experiment. Until our elected officials begin to prioritize our children instead of their relationships with right-wing ideologues, our movement will continue to grow in militancy. Right now, students, parents, educators, and our allies are preparing to do whatever it takes to defend our schools.

 

Jamaal Smith speaks at a rally at the Milwaukee County Courthouse in favor of public Community Schools and against any MPS Takeover.

Jamaal Smith speaks at a rally at the Milwaukee County Courthouse in favor of public Community Schools and against any MPS Takeover.

Here’s what you can do right now to help.

An MPS Teacher’s Open Letter to Chris Abele

Mr. Abele,

Dr. Means has publicly stated that MPS needs to be gutted; in other words, destroyed. I invite him to start with my classroom, which is located in one of the 53 buildings that has been made available for takeover by the state legislature.

I’m happy to take home my classroom library of 5oo plus books and all the other teaching materials that I have purchased. I’ll also remove everything else purchased with my own money: classroom sets of scissors, markers, colored pencils, glue, and dry erase markers; staplers, paper clips, tape, Post-it notes and pencil sharpeners; cleaning supplies; science lab materials; Kleenex and first aid supplies. That leaves you with a Smartboard purchased with Title III funds, a 5 year old desktop computer, an 8 year old laptop, student tables and chairs, a filing cabinet marked “University of Wisconsin 1921” and a teacher’s desk held together with duct tape in school colors. Oh, wait – the duct tape is mine, let me remove that.

Now that the room has been gutted of materials, let’s move on to the elephant in the room – me. Despite working an average of 65 hours per work, I must not be doing enough or doing it well enough. I am licensed in K-8 bilingual education and have 14 years of teaching experience. There is a dire shortage of bilingual teachers in our district; it is so bad that MPS is recruiting abroad. Landing a new job in a new district will not be a problem. I’ve even heard that there are districts where class sizes are lower than 34.

The law allows you to replace me with an unlicensed “teacher”. Would you go to an unlicensed doctor? Allow an unlicensed electrician to wire your house? Hire an unlicensed lawyer to represent you? Being poor does not mean our families deserve substandard services.

The only thing left to gut is the soul of MPS – the students. 27% of my students receive special education services, 60% are English language learners, and some fall in both categories. While it takes ELLs a year or so to acquire conversational English, it takes many years for them to acquire academic English. Neither of these groups is good for high standardized test scores, so Dr. Means will have to gut them. He can send them to another teacher in another building – one you are not taking over – to deal with the problem. That leaves just a handful of 13 year olds who have other issues that directly affect their learning. Who would be next on your list – the one who stays after school every day until 6:30 because school is safer than home, the one whose family is doubled up in their cousin’s apartment, the one whose parent is incarcerated, the one who has a seriously physically ill mother, or the one who suffers from untreated mental illness? Is Dr. Means going to counsel them out of my school to turn it around, thus overburdening my colleagues across town with those additional challenges? You can “gut” the students who can’t help you look good on test scores but these students will just go to another school or drop out because changing schools too many times is too tough to do in poverty.

All of the students in MPS have something in common – they live in a community marked by devastating poverty, the highest rate of male African-American incarceration in the nation, institutionalized discrimination and a public school system that has already been financially decimated by charter schools. Until Milwaukee seriously and systematically addresses all of these issues, no amount of gutting will bring about the changes that you and Dr. Means are dreaming about.

Instead of making inane comments that only serve to continue to oppress our most marginalized families, why don’t you do something constructive to help rebuild our community. Just this week the New York Times reported on Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis findings between academic achievement and socioeconomic status. “Children in the school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty score an average of more than four grade levels below children in the richest districts.”
Dr. Means, as a superintendent of a well-resourced district, should have some connections. Perhaps you two could write grants or even set up a partnership program between Mequon and Milwaukee where we could share resources. Perhaps you two could facilitate donations. Money, when it is used to give students in poverty the same services and benefits that students in Mequon have, can solve problems. Also, you should work on getting family sustaining jobs in the 53212, 53202, 53204, 53205, 53206, 53210, 53216, 53208 and 53215 areas. Whatever your family needs to sustain itself is what the families of my students need to sustain themselves. Until poverty is addressed, you will simply be concentrating poverty in whatever schools remain open.

I challenge you to take over and gut what is really affecting MPS – poverty, institutionalized racism, the excessive rate of male African-American incarceration, and the charter school system which drains urgently needed resources away from our most vulnerable populations.
Sincerely,
Jennifer Engel
MPS educator and parent

Here’s what you can do right now to help.