School board elections take place on April and in District 8 there are three candidates and, therefore, a primary on Feb. 15. In order to help you make a more informed decision at the polls in this race, which often flies under the radar, we’ve asked each of the 11 candidates — running for five seats on the 9-member board (there are eight regional districts and one at-large seat) — to respond to a list of questions and we will run them in the weeks leading up to the election.
Next up is Candy Jo Lesniewski, who is running in District 8 — the only race with a primary election slated for Feb. 15 — against Meagan Holman and Ed Heinzelman. The district is on the city’s South Side. A map of districts is here.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell us about your background and how your experience will be an asset to the Milwaukee Public Schools board.
Candy Jo Lesniewski: I feel that my experience over the past three years on the school governance board has helped me to see the many ways a school has to budget their monies appropriately. I have seen first-hand how the cuts made to our school can change the climate of a school. I have watched a school band together to voice their opinions to make positive changes come about. I also have 128 college credits in elementary education and special education.
OMC: Are you a graduate of MPS or other public schools? Do or did you have kids in MPS?
CJL: I am a proud graduate of MPS. I graduated from South Division in 1985. I have two children currently attending MPS. Simon is in fifth grade and Sara is in second grade, both are at Garland Elementary, one of the highest performing schools in the 8th District.
OMC: What do you think is the biggest issue facing MPS and what is your plan of attack?
CJL: The biggest issue facing MPS is the use of proper allocation of our budget. I would like to look at the entire budget for cost savings. Keeping in mind that the children’s education is the most important purpose of MPS. I would focus on wasteful areas like vacant property and the use of it, chain of command, the rental of space that MPS uses, the rental of hotel meeting areas for teacher training, and the wasteful use of time. These are just a few areas that need immediate attention. MPS needs to be run like a business. If a program is not working we need to fix it and if it can’t be fixed we need to take a detailed look at the program and model it after private industry. I know there are many more cuts, alterations and cost savings to be realized. The most important thing in the midst of all of this is to keep the children first and the programs that we know work in place.
OMC: What is your opinion on talk of expanding the voucher and Milwaukee Parental Choice Program?
CJL: I do not think we should be expanding the voucher and MPCP programs. I feel parents should always have a choice. One choice is to look at all the different schools and programs that MPS has to offer. The other choice, if they are not satisfied with MPS, is for the parents to work hard and choose a private school as an alternative.
OMC: Is there an opportunity for MPS to hold on to students and even draw some back via expansion of specialty schools or other means?
CJL: I do think that MPS definitely has the opportunity to retain current students and attract more students to their programs. MPS has wonderful options to offer our children and we do have several schools with accomplished programs and waiting lists. As a whole MPS needs to look at our schools that are booming and try to duplicate those programs in our troubled schools. By accomplishing the replication of successful programs, the children and MPS will have a brighter future.
OMC: How will you work to engage parents in their schools?
CJL: I will work to engage parents in their school by personally attending a PTO and School Governance (Council) meeting at every school in the 8th District. Parent involvement is key to the our schools success. Getting parents involved in their children’s school can happen on many different levels such as; Volunteering in the schools, PTO and governance boards, attending events, or even helping teachers with prep work right in your own home.
OMC: How do you think MPS can best expand on the successes in the current system?
CJL: I feel that MPS can best expand on successes currently by looking at what is working. We do have schools with waiting lists. Why? We need to ascertain why and replicate those successful schools throughout the MPS system.
OMC: How can MPS deal with the ongoing budget problems — that are poised to grow even worse as the district loses $90+ million in stimulus money, for example — and still offer quality education to Milwaukee children?
CJL:We all know there are many areas in the budget that can be cut. We need to elect people onto the school board who are willing to make those difficult decisions and ask the hard questions. I am that person.
OMC: There has been much discussion lately of vacant MPS buildings. What is your opinion on the future of these buildings?
CJL: I know there have been many discussions about the MPS vacant buildings. My opinion is that it is penny wise to sell these vacant buildings and dollar wise to keep them. If MPS really wants to make changes within the current schools and draw students back and receive more students we may need those schools. However, if after several years these building are not being used then we should take the schools down and turn the land back over to our neighborhoods. It does not make good business sense to let a private school take over one of our schools unless they would be willing to pay the full market rate for these properties. MPS needs to become dollar smart! My grandmother used to say, “If you don’t watch your pennies, the dollars will never come.” I firmly believe if MPS watches wasteful spending, more funds can get to the education of our children, in the classroom!
OMC: Finally, do you think spring school board elections are problematic? Do they guarantee low turnout at the polls?
CJL: I do not think that spring school board elections are a problem; they do not guarantee a low turnout. Persons who vote will always vote and persons who don’t vote need to be motivated by smart motivated candidates like myself. It doesn’t matter what time of year it is.