School board elections take place on April and 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 seven candidates – running for four 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 April 2 election.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell us about your background and how your experience will be an asset to the Milwaukee Public Schools board.
David Voeltner:My name is David Voeltner. I am a 45-year-old husband and father of one. I am a 22-year veteran of the Milwaukee Fire Department and I am the incumbent MPS School Board Director for the 7th District, giving me 26 years combined service to the citizens of our city. I have lived in the 7th District in three separate houses for a combined 13 years. I am the the fifth generation of my family to call Milwaukee home. My roots are deep.
My background has had me work or live in every corner of Milwaukee and I truly do consider the entire city my home. As a parent, husband, homeowner, taxpayer, city employee, union member and son of two retirees who still live in the district, I can say that life has shown me the many different perspectives that people have of Milwaukee and its public school system. This rich collection of experiences has helped guide me through so many tough decisions I have made in my time on the board.
OMC: Are you a graduate of MPS or other public schools? Do you or did you have kids in MPS?
DV: I graduated from Milwaukee Trade and Technical School – now Bradley Tech – in 1985. My son Evan attends Highland Community School, a Montessori school (chartered by MPS) that I actually went to from pre-K up to the 4th grade. The acorn did not fall too far.
OMC: What do you think is the biggest issue facing MPS and what is your plan of for dealing with it?
DV: Make no mistake, the biggest hurdle we face as a district is falling enrollment and the funding that comes with it. Fixing this problem is complex in action, but simple in design: We have to get better at what we do and we have to destroy old public perceptions. The list of impacting changes that have taken place in my four years is simply too long to go over in whole, but some of the highlights are: New Comprehensive Literacy, Math and Science plans have been put in place to increase rigor and cut down on the problem caused by high levels of mobility in the district. All juniors take ACT test and we have opened two new College Access Centers. These actions improve the culture of expectations in the district. We have dramatically decreased our suspensions by expanding our Positive Behavioral Interventions System, a program for which we are receiving national attention. We continue to nurture our Montessori, International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and Language Immersion programs, which are all all highly successful and even attract students from outside of the city.
Another key in tough financial waters is the development of new revenue streams. I am excited to report that through Superintendent (Gregory) Thornton’s skillful work, the district has seen our grant portfolio grow by over $100 million. Volunteer hours and “in kind” donations have also grown considerably due to improved community outreach.
OMC: What is your opinion on the expansion of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program?
DV: The expansion of the choice program has a negative effect on taxpayers and no true positive impact on education. This is a program that calls for taxation without accountability. It is not fair; nor is it moral, for some schools to play under a separate set of rules while comparing their results to ours apples to apples. Milwaukee needs all schools to be accountable – I do not support the expansion of vouchers.
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?
DV: There many opportunities take back market share, but we must be realistic and honest about doing it. So many parents choose open enrollment to the suburbs not because of a lack of high quality elementary programs, but because of a fear of where to send their child when they reach high school. Milwaukee does have some great choices such as Rufus King, Ronald Reagan, Carmen School of Science and Technology, Riverside, High School of the Arts and the School of Languages. We are working to expand seats in some of these schools and we are adding an entire second campus for Carmen.
We are growing Golda Meir into a high school option and moved the Wisconsin Conservatory of Lifelong Learning – a K-12 program – into a larger facility. MacDowell Montessori was moved into the old Juneau high school to create a K-12 option for our many Montessori families. The board recently adopted sweeping programmatic changes at Bay View High School. These changes include the adoption of a STEAM curriculum – science, technology, engineering, arts and math – a 21st century focus on creativity and innovation and code of conduct contracts for all students.
OMC: How will you work to engage parents and neighborhoods in their schools?
DV: Parental engagement is complex and can be elusive. It is important to note that we understand how busy and challenging day to day life is for many of our families. I personally want to acknowledge all the parents who do engage in the education of the children. We thank you!
MPS needs to strive for warm and welcoming environments at our schools and top notch customer service. We are currently expanding our social media footprint to allow less mobile families new lines of communication with schools and staff. If re-elected, I would like explore the idea of a universal day for open houses at our schools. Every last Monday of the month, just as an example. This would be an opportunity for the whole neighborhood – parent or not – to come and see the great work we do and get questions answered
OMC: How do you think MPS can best expand on the successes in the current system?
DV: Along with all the ideas (mentioned before), there are a few more ideas that can work. More time for collaboration among our teachers can be very helpful. By sharing information about students past and present, teachers can align efforts and share best practices.
Another key area ripe for expansion is in the area of career and tech education (CTE). There are countless of jobs going unfilled here in Wisconsin because of a lack of qualified applicants. These are high skilled, high-paying and exciting jobs that usually only require a two-year degree. – think lower costs for college. We have a great CTE program at MPS but we need to change attitudes and perceptions so that more parents and students see CTE as a rewarding career path.
OMC: How can MPS deal with its massive need for qualified teachers that’s been created in the wake of Act 10?
DV: We have already started. We recently raised the starting salary for new teachers effective July 1, 2013. We launched a huge recruitment effort around the state seeking quality applicants. We also loosened residency requirements a bit, allowing more time for new teachers to get their feet under them. But this may not be enough. One idea – though very complex on many levels – is to allow some recent retirees to rejoin the teaching ranks in what are Limited Term Employment positions. These LTE’s are non-benefit-eligible positions and would serve two purposes. One, it would be a cost savings to the district. Two, it would allow our best and brightest to stay in our schools a few extra years not only as great teachers, but as valuable leaders and mentors to our younger teachers.
OMC: There has been much discussion in recent years of vacant MPS buildings. What is your opinion on the future of these buildings?
DV: We recently commissioned a Master Facilities Plan and now have a clearer vision of the future. We have set aside a small cadre of properties that we plan to hold with an eye on future expansion of programs. The rest are for sale. We even offered to give the city some of them but they declined.
One small niche that has the possibility to repurpose some of our facilities is near and dear to me. Over a year ago I drafted a resolution directing our administration to enter into negotiations with Growing Power to lease the old Carlton site. Today Growing Power has a huge operation on the site and MPS has mitigated the holding costs for this unused building. I hope there is opportunity for further partnering with Growing Power.
OMC: Finally, do you think spring school board elections are problematic? Do they guarantee low turnout at the polls?
DV: The spring elections are problematic because of the weather in Milwaukee. The fact that they occur in the odd numbered years does not help either. But they are what they are, and all candidates have to play under the same set of rules.
OMC: Anything you’d like to say, that I haven’t asked about?
DV: I would like the voters know I offer a clear alternative to my opponent. I have a proven track record of strong, compassionate and effective leadership. I have the life experiences that mirror so many of the voters in the 7th District. I have never allowed myself to lose my independent spirit and I have always put children first in my decisions, despite pressure to do otherwise.
I do not seek re-election as the next logical step in a life dedicated to only politics. I will not bring to my position a personal agenda, a ready-made ideology or an unwillingness to work with ideas that come from people outside of my political sphere. I will move forward in the spirit of service to my neighbors and the children and parents of MPS. I see tough times ahead, but I see great potential. I would be honored to have four more years to serve my city.