Two weeks into her career as a member of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, I finally got a chance to catch up with Meagan Holman, who has taken her seat representing the 8th District, via a means other than Facebook or Twitter.
Talking over coffee at an East Side cafe, I asked her how it’s gone so far.
Holman said that she and her fellow newbie Mark Sain went through a series of orientations but that there’s still a lot to learn. One thing that surprised her was that board members don’t get much time to catch up with each other.
“The thing that’s so interesting about this job so far is there’s no point where you sit down with everybody and say, ‘so, what were you doing this week.’,” she says over an iced coffee. “We never caucus. We meet in session or we don’t.”
The board, of course, is compelled to do its business publicly. So, even though fellow board member Larry Miller was seated at a table less than 10 feet away from us, there are rules that govern what he and Holman can discuss in that setting.
“I could talk to Larry,” says Holman, “but there’s a thing called a walking quorum. So I can’t talk to Larry, come up with something and then go talk to Peter (Blewitt) and say, “how about you take a look at what Larry and I are working on.”
She notes that there is a board retreat scheduled for the near future, but she laughs and shrugs when I ask if they’ll be allowed to talk about work.
Work for all of the board members – and pretty much everyone at MPS’ Central Services on Vliet Street – centers on the budget and its challenges these days. Holman can’t say how much time exactly she spends each day reading, talking and thinking about superintendent Gregory Thornton’s proposed budget, but, especially for a part-time job, it’s been all-encompassing.
“I’d have to take out a stopwatch to see how much time I spend,” she says, “because I work it around my kids. I haven’t been visiting schools that much, because with the hours that are required by the budget stuff, I haven’t found the time. I wish I had more time. But at the same time, it’s not supposed to be a full-time job. You also have to let people come to you and say, ‘I want you to come to my school.’
“There are all these things I want to do and the budget takes up all the time. There’s this idea that if we get through the budget then we figure out how to do the rest of our jobs.”
Since the budget proposal was released two weeks ago, there have been a number of hearings on it and Holman has been in her seat listening to the impassioned pleas of parents, students, teachers, nurses and community members who have opinions on what shouldn’t be cut.
If you’ve heard those testimonies, you know that fewer are the voices that explain what should be cut from the budget.
“It’s not like there’s more money that can come from somewhere,” says Holman. “Everything is one for one. You spend a dollar here, you have to take it from somewhere else. It’s zero sum. I don’t think that the budget works the way that people think it does.”
I ask if its frustrating to sit for hours at the meetings and not be able to explain to people one on one how the process works.
Holman says, “I get more frustrated with the media. I feel as though there’s a role that they’re supposed to play in educating people in what’s going on and they’ve kind of taken a pass on that.”
She believes that people who are outraged with the board and with the superintendent’s budget often don’t recognize the limitations on how much money MPS can raise via property taxes and there are laws that govern how things are done. Some ideas that sound great in theory are often unworkable.
For example, when at a recent hearing someone floated the idea of charging those who can afford to pay for busing, it was pointed out that this is illegal. Holman says folks need to direct their anger to appropriate places. And she doesn’t believe the superintendent’s office is that place.
“I think we have enough adversaries,” she says, expressing her anger at those who control the resources available to the district. “I think that for those who hired him and had certain expectations it’s a lot different than for me coming in. I don’t know what (former superintendent William Andrekopoulous’ senior staff looked like, but I’ve met Thornton’s and I see how hard they’re working. “
And most of all, Holman – who less than a month ago was on the other side of the microphone as an MPS parent at board meetings – doesn’t believe the board is the place, either.
“We are standing there, saying, ‘We are a new board, with a new superintendent who has shown gains in his first year. Give us the tools.’ I think we can do it.
“I can’t say anything about boards in the past and boards in the future, but this board is not the enemy. This board is a lot of MPS parents – current and former – MPS teachers – current and former – a firefighter and a retired firefighter. This board is not the enemy.”