MPS board calls for investigation, delays budget vote

The school district has been under scrutiny for lack of financial reporting

Milwaukee Public Schools asked voters to approve a $252 referendum Tuesday. Without it, district officials say programs will have to be cut. Photo courtesy of Julia Turner

Milwaukee Public Schools’ leadership is under fire after both federal and state authorities said they are considering withholding millions of dollars in payments to the district because of reporting errors and program deficiencies.

The Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction threatened to withhold funding from the district after it failed to submit required financial data, according to a letter released this week by the state agency.

That news came a week after the federal government temporarily suspended funding for the district’s Head Start program for failing to meet program standards.

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MPS is Wisconsin’s largest public school district, with about 68,000 students.

“Am I concerned? Hell, yes,” said Gov. Tony Evers said when asked Friday about MPS. “Frankly, it does not look good.”

At a lively meeting Thursday night, the Milwaukee Board of School Directors delayed a vote on Superintendent Keith Posley’s proposed $1.47 billion budget for the next school year. The board is calling for an investigation into the district’s financial reporting.

Board member Darryl Jackson apologized to the public for a lack of transparency.

“I myself was in the dark about quite a bit,” Jackson said. “I’m so appreciative of DPI, informing us of where we are and where we stand right now. In no way, shape or form should we be in this position and the board not know.”

The board voted 6-0 to delay a vote on the budget. Board members are required under state law to approve a budget by the end of June. Two board members were excused from the meeting and one seat is vacant after Aisha Carr resigned in May.

Board member Henry Leonard said he was hesitant to vote on the budget given the lack of information on the district’s funding. He called it the “elephant in the room.”

“With all of this convoluted situation that we’re in right now, and we’re talking about this budget, I feel unsure of where we’re going to go depending on the results with the DPI,” Leonard said. “Where’s the assurance that we have for this?”

The Milwaukee Board of School Directors “insisted” on an investigation into the financial matter. In a written statement Friday morning, the board said the district is working with auditors and DPI to complete all the necessary documents.

“Separately, the Board has engaged other outside assistance to investigate and make recommendations regarding accountability for these financial and related matters,” the statement said.

DPI, in its letter to the district, said that until it receives the required financial reports, some of which are more than eight months overdue, it may withhold a special education payment to MPS for the month of June. In June of last year, that payment totaled $15.7 million.

The warning from DPI comes in the same month when the federal government suspended funding for 30 days to Milwaukee Public School’s Head Start, an early education and nutrition program for low-income children. Federal officials cited “deficiencies” such as failure to supervise children at all times.

Criticism from the public

Despite the $252 million referendum passing narrowly in April, the district still needs to make budget cuts, somewhere between $20 to $30 million, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum report.

Proceedings at Thursday’s meeting stopped twice in response to disruptions in the crowd. There were reportedly about 20 people in the audience holding signs and singing songs in opposition of Posley, his budget proposal and the missing financial documents.  

Angela Harris, chair of the Black Educators Caucus and a second grade teacher at the Milwaukee Academy of Chinese Language, said at the meeting that the community’s concerns are not being heard by the board.

“I definitely think that it’s time for us to get rid of the old guard and bring some folks that have some new and innovative ideas about what we can do to create educational environments in Milwaukee Public Schools where students and staff are all thriving,” Harris said.

Milwaukee Alder Lamont Westmoreland kept it simple in his response to the news: “They’re (MPS) a mess; they’re a sinking ship and things have to change.”

When it comes to Superintendent Posley, Westmoreland said now is the time for him to “speak out” and “not be silent.”

“You can’t be missing simple deadlines, missing out on money, you can’t do that,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, said Wednesday MPS needs “corrective action.”

“Milwaukee Public Schools’ books and audits are not appropriately done … This is the bare minimum that you have to do when you’re a business,” Moore said.

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce is calling for an independent performance audit of the district. The organization said in a statement the district “has a transparency problem.”

“News about significant state funding at risk due to bureaucratic mismanagement is both shocking and infuriating,” the statement said.

At the end of the meeting the board moved into closed session to discuss Posley’s employment. The meeting was adjourned in closed session.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said Friday morning that his focus is “on the kids.”

“I  want to make sure that the kids in Milwaukee Public Schools have all the resources that they can and I’m hopeful that Keith (Posley) and the school board are able to make that happen,” Johnson said.  

Thursday’s board meeting did not offer time for public comments. Instead, a public hearing has been scheduled for June 3 where people from the community can voice concerns.

Evan Casey contributed to this story.