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After state withholds funds for Milwaukee Public Schools, Evers calls for sweeping audits

Mayor Cavalier Johnson offered up city comptroller Bill Christianson to help with finances

Gov. Evers looks forward as he delivers an address from the podium.
Gov. Tony Evers delivers the State of the State address Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Gov. Tony Evers on Friday called for “operational and instructional audits” of Milwaukee Public Schools amid fallout from the district’s failure to submit financial data to the state.

In a statement, Evers said he’s calling for a “more comprehensive review” than the financial audit already underway. 

“I’m proposing today to go two steps further with two important goals: the first, to audit MPS’s programs and operations in their entirety, and the second, to audit the effectiveness of teaching and instruction of our kids in classrooms across the district,” Evers said.

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The statement said the audit would be focused on the district’s “operations and systems, as well as reviewing instructional effectiveness in classrooms.” It proposed directing federal funding to support the audits.

The governor’s call comes after a tumultuous week for the district. In late May, the state Department of Public Instruction sent a letter to the district warning that it could lose millions of dollars in state funding after it failed to send in financial reports to the department. That led hundreds of parents and community members to call for the removal of district Superintendent Keith Posley. Posley resigned early Tuesday after an hourslong, contentious school board meeting. And on Thursday, the state DPI informed the district that the state would withhold a $16.6 million payment to the district over the reporting issues.

ilwaukee Board of School Directors President Marva Herndon and Superintendent Keith Posley listen during a virtual board meeting on Oct. 26, 2023
From left, Milwaukee Board of School Directors President Marva Herndon and Superintendent Keith Posley listen during a virtual board meeting on Oct. 26, 2023. The board was discussing the performance of the Milwaukee Education Partnership, which has drawn nearly $1.3 million in no-bid contracts from Milwaukee Public Schools over the past decade. Screenshot view YouTube

At a press conference Friday morning, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said he supports the governor’s proposal. 

“That’s the sort of action, that’s the sort of partnership that we need to improve the school system,” Johnson said.

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said he’s a father of three children in the district and he supports the audits.

“For me, it’s about how do we seize this moment, this time, to really bring our community leaders, our elected leaders, our business leaders to figure out how do we actually come up with some solutions,” Crowley said.

“But in order to come up with solutions, we have to know what is actually going on,” he added. 

In a statement Friday, State Superintendent Dr. Jill Underly said the department will provide a “tremendous amount of staff resources to address the immediate issues.”

“I especially appreciate the governor’s commitment of additional resources from the state to support this work and look forward to working together on these comprehensive reviews to execute the needed analysis and improvement,” Underly said in the statement. “We believe these evaluations and analyses could have value beyond MPS as well.”

Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Keith Posley at the June 3, 2024, special school board meeting. Evan Casey/WPR

In releasing its letter on withheld funding, state DPI Communications officer Chris Bucher said the department is working with the district to “develop a corrective action plan.”

“When we have a (corrective action plan) in place, we will also be able to release this withheld special education aid payment,” Bucher said in the statement. “Our focus remains on solving this challenge and supporting all of Milwaukee’s children.”

MPS’ comptroller position, which was held by former comptroller Alfredo Balmaseda, has also been vacant since Monday. On Friday, Johnson said he’s offering up city comptroller Bill Christianson to help the district with their finances. 

“He’s (Christianson) prepared to lend a hand to help out with this situation as well,” Johnson said during a press conference. “Clearly, Milwaukee Public Schools needs assistance and the city government is here and ready to help in providing that assistance.” 

Christianson said he spoke with leadership at the district and the MPS board and he said they were “receptive” to the comptroller’s office assisting the district. 

“We look forward to having further discussions with the MPS leadership team about what their specific leadership needs are and how the comptroller’s office may be able to help them address some of those specific needs,” Christianson said Friday morning. 

Johnson said he wants to be “directly involved” in the selection process for the next superintendent.

“We need the right person with the administrative abilities and the vision to get our schools and our school system back on track,” Johnson said.

Posley’s resignation takes effect June 30.

A spokesperson for MPS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Evers’ proposal.