Before the Milwaukee School Board approved a $500 million spending plan Thursday for federal stimulus dollars, Superintendent Keith Posley said the district had to cut about 120 teaching positions this fall as enrollment had declined in the district.
Because there are 170 vacancies, no staff will be laid off, but some will be forced to move into different roles or buildings where teachers are most needed.
The district, which in 2019 had 74,683 students, had fewer than 70,000 this fall, Posley said in September. Enrollment drops have caused some schools to be overstaffed while teacher vacancies have caused others to be understaffed.
School board members suggested using the stimulus dollars to avoid cuts or movements of teachers with the goal of preserving staffing for future years, hoping some students may return as vaccines become available for younger students.
But Posley said the movements of staff were necessary as an immediate measure for classrooms without teachers.
“We have students that are present right now that need teachers in front of them, and that’s the urgency we have,” Posley said.
Board members ultimately did not put funding toward avoiding the 120 cuts, though the stimulus plan does fund human resources positions and other measures to recruit staff and quickly fill remaining vacancies. This includes a pot of $100,000 to reimburse new employees who incur costs breaking contracts with other districts to move to MPS.
“We hope to see more individuals that are willing to do just that,” Posley said.
The plan also invests heavily in upgrades to MPS buildings, which on average are 80 years old, as well as technology, tutoring, extracurriculars, health initiatives and family engagement.
MPS, like districts across the country, is receiving three rounds of stimulus funds under the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, known as ESSER. MPS already allocated its first two rounds of funding. The third, $504 million funded by the American Rescue Plan, must be spent in the next three years.
As administrators struggle to attract and keep students and staff, in competition with private schools and other more-resourced districts, board members hope their plan will give the district a long needed edge — or at least a chance to catch up.
“It sounds like so much money but we’ve been behind for so long that there’s so much that is in great need,” board member Erika Siemsen said.
The final plan approved unanimously Thursday is largely intact from what administrators presented Oct. 5, though board members approved some changes.
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Members moved $3 million for retroactive hazard pay for school secretaries who continued working in buildings during pandemic closures. And they sectioned off $13.6 million to give every school control over the spending of $100,000, within a range of options yet to be determined.
The biggest proposed change — using $140 million to add air conditioning to the district’s 28 schools with earlier start dates — was voted down by most board members.
Board rejects full air conditioning
After MPS buildings had to close early and send students home Aug. 24, there were renewed calls for air conditioning in the schools, especially the 28 schools that start before September.
During the heat wave, teachers reported their classroom temperatures reaching 90 degrees. Community leaders gathered water bottles and fans to help students and staff as schools reopened the following day.
Only 17% of MPS school buildings have air conditioning throughout the building, according to Posley. About 63% have it in one or more rooms. And 20% have no air conditioning at all.
At the time, Posley said air conditioning would be a priority for the district’s stimulus funding. The plan he presented this month did not include a line item for air conditioning, though district leaders said it was possible some schools could purchase air conditioning with funds from more general line items for facility improvements.
Board member Aisha Carr proposed using $140 million to add full AC to the early-start schools, with estimated costs for each building ranging from $500,000 for Starms Early Childhood Center to $12.5 million for Pulaski High School.
“This must be a priority,” Carr said. “When we’re talking about recruiting and retaining our families, our students, we have to prioritize this item because this will create a learning environment that’s more conducive to academic success and progress.”
School board president Bob Peterson pushed back, arguing that if they added air conditioning to early-start schools, they should also add it to schools that host summer school, which would be too costly.
When Carr asked to explore the possibility of partial AC to bring down the costs during a committee meeting Oct. 5, committee chair Megan O’Halloran cut off discussion and called for a vote. With board member Sequanna Taylor as the only supporter joining Carr, the proposal failed.
The stimulus plan does include about $65 million for remodeling projects and additions, which administrators said could include installing air conditioning at some sites. The specific projects have yet to be determined.
Each school will control $100k
As administrators sought community input on spending, local nonprofit Common Ground suggested dividing up $50 million among the schools so each could control a piece of funding for its own needs.
Board member Marcela Garcia proposed over $15 million for this purpose, providing $100,000 to each of the district’s roughly 150 schools. Schools will not have total discretion over the funds but will choose from a “menu” of options, yet to be proposed by administrators and approved by the board.
Schools will also have opportunities to apply for funding from a number of other streams established in the stimulus plan. About $7 million is set aside to provide mini grants to schools for new clubs and other out-of-school activities like engineering, arts, horseback riding or skateboarding.
Schools will also be able to request funding for remodels, additions, furniture and other infrastructure issues. Administrators said they will soon be seeking ideas from schools and bringing those to the board in November or December.
Contact Rory Linnane at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @RoryLinnane.