Public school districts are strongest when they collaborate and work together with parents and community members. To facilitate a healthy and democratic school district, school board meetings need to be accessible to the public and allow for constructive criticism.
The uptick in reports of publicly elected school boards restricting citizen comments is disturbing. Taxpayers should be able to openly criticize school district decisions, whether it’s a policy around recess, raises, or rent. Public voice should be heard and valued.
This week a video of Louisiana teacher Dayshia Hargrave went viral. Hargrave was speaking at a local school board meeting when her testimony was abruptly cut off and a law enforcement officer aggressively handcuffed her. Her violation: questioning the superintendent’s raise while other district educators had their pay frozen.
A similar scene played out in Milwaukee on Tuesday night. Ingrid Walker-Henry, a Milwaukee Public Schools educator and the co-chair of a local coalition advocating for public schools in Milwaukee, testified against a lease extension for a private MPS charter school. While the committee chair, Michael Bonds, allowed off-topic and unsubstantiated testimony from supporters of the private charter, he abruptly cut off Ingrid Walker-Henry’s mic for speaking too broadly about the need for fair market lease rates on private charters that use public buildings.
Once her microphone was cut, Walker-Henry turned to the crowd and used her teacher voice to finish her testimony before she was escorted out of the building by district security.
Here is Walker-Henry’s full public testimony that was not allowed by School Board Director, Michael Bonds:
“We are calling on MPS to be more responsible with taxpayer dollars. There needs to be a fair market value lease rate that is charged to privately owned and operated charter schools.
School Board Minutes from 2006 reflect that MPS once had a board approved charter rate of $12/square foot. The current lease for Carmen Northwest is less than half of the 2006 board recommendation and some of the other charters come in at even less.
This raises serious concerns about the way you negotiate leases with private operators.
Last year, Universal Academies taught the District a hard lesson about these leases:
• The original leases approved for Universal in 2013 were for 5 years. Green Bay paid roughly $400,000 per year, Webster $380,000 per year and the Lee campus was for just $101,000 a year.
• In April 2016, the board actually lowered the lease rates for two Universal locations for the 2016-2017 school year.
• And as we all know, Universal DID NOT operate its fifth year in 2017-2018. They turned in their keys and abandoned some of the most economically disadvantaged students in our city. As a result of Universal’s failure, the district only received approximately $1 million total from each school, about half as much as the lease was for.
• The closing of Webster cost the district an additional $1 million.
We need privately owned and operated schools to pay a fair market value. I hope the school board revisits the entire policy regarding non-instrumentality charter leases to make sure they are paying their fair share and are not doing harm to the 76,000 students and families you were elected to govern and are responsible for and not the bad partners like Carmen who is actively working to put a city charter in the same building as one of your public schools.”
Democratic school boards have a moral obligation to provide a forum where local citizens can give meaningful input, both positive and negative, about the actions of the district.