School board candidate: Meagan Holman

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.

Today we hear from Meagan Holman, who is running in District 8 — the only race with a primary election slated for Feb. 15 — against Candy Jo Lesniewski and Ed Heinzelman. The district is on the city’s South Side. A map of districts is here. Tell us about your background and how your experience will be an asset to the Milwaukee Public Schools board.

Meagan Holman: First, I’m an MPS mom. I’ve been a district parent for three years, and I have 16 years to go before I’ll attend my final MPS graduation. I want to be a part of what the district looks like, today and tomorrow. I’m qualified to serve on the Board because of my background working to improve education with Milwaukee’s non-profit sector, especially those that serve our schools. I’ve worked with principals to expand access to school nutrition programs with Hunger Task Force. I’ve sat with the director of the SPARK Early Literacy program to talk about forming a pipeline that keeps kids engaged, learning at grade level and on-track to graduate. I know principals and teachers, parents and social workers at schools throughout Milwaukee. I would come to the Board knowledgeable about MPS and ready to serve from day one.

OMC: Are you a graduate of MPS or other public schools? Which MPS schools do you children attend?

MH: I was raised in Boston and attended local public schools. However, my husband is a very proud MPS graduate and, we believe, a true testament to the strength of our schools. Because my husband and I believe in MPS and in public education, our oldest son attends Fernwood Montessori School in Bay View, and we just submitted the three-choice enrollment paperwork for our youngest sons — I have triplets who will be three in March — to join him at Fernwood this fall.

OMC: What do you think is the biggest issue facing MPS and what is your plan of attack?

MH: The single biggest issue facing MPS is that our region has lost confidence in MPS’ ability to provide our children with a high-quality education. Every other issue we see facing MPS can be traced back to this core problem: tax payers are concerned that they are wasting their time and money on MPS. It stifles innovation and investment in our district at the time when we need it most.

As changes from Madison and Washington impact MPS, my background and training in public policy will help us plan strategically about the district we want to see in five or 10 years. We should have a conversation, across Milwaukee, about our goals as a community for MPS, and how we plan to get there. We all want to increase test scores and the graduation rate, but how? What steps do we need to take today for the foundation to be in place to make those changes?

To restore and build faith in public education, and in MPS specifically, needs to address MPS shortcomings without placing blame or pointing fingers. Some examples include:

  1. MPS needs to reach out to parents at transitional points — before kindergarten, after second grade, after fifthth grade, and after eighth grade — to identify the reasons families might be thinking about leaving MPS. This will help us understand what parents like about their schools, and where we need to make the biggest improvements.
  2. MPS needs to be accountable for its shortcomings. We can’t hide or try to excuse our failures — this only tells the public that MPS is more concerned about avoiding embarrassment than making improvements. Instead, MPS needs to treat these problems them as a “to do” list, and be responsive to parents, taxpayers and students.
  3. MPS needs to revisit fiscal accountability. In many ways, MPS is already running a tight ship and would directly and greatly benefit from increased resources. But with additional resources not necessarily an option, MPS needs a renewed commitment to fiscal accountability, and we need to leave no stone unturned when looking for savings. Some of the best ideas can come from students, faculty and staff, and we need to gather these ideas together, find the ones that will work, and implement them right away.
  4. MPS needs new ideas to combat school violence. We have already lost three students this year, including one from Bay View High School (in District 8). We need to talk to school administrators and the federal government about ways to reduce violence, and support the successful programs we already have, such as the Safe Schools/Healthy Students program.

OMC: What is your opinion on talk of expanding the voucher and Milwaukee Parental Choice Program?

MH: While the MPS Board can’t change decisions made in Madison about expanding the choice program, I believe in MPS and I want to both increase the profile of MPS schools so that families don’t go looking for vouchers in the first place. I believe we need to make the firm argument with leaders in Madison that a strong school district in Milwaukee is important for all of our futures. Living here, we know how much the success of this region will matter to Wisconsin’s future as a whole. Part of what makes Milwaukee great should be MPS.

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?

MH: Diverse education options are certainly one approach to returning some students to MPS and it definitely is the key to retaining many current families. Wauwatosa is exploring that concept now, by offering a Montessori program of its own, after losing their district students to other Montessori programs for years. The MPS Board must look at why families leave MPS, especially to suburban high school programs. Our best schools have wait lists and families eager to participate. Clearly, there are areas where MPS is tapping into demand and lessons to be learned from those schools and the programs they offer.

OMC: How will you work to engage parents in their schools?

MH: Parents are busy people — this I know first-hand! Many parents are already at least somewhat acquainted with their schools if they step up to volunteer on committees. But the board can also help parents think about a school in new ways. Many parents need more information about what is going on in the schools their children attend beyond what their kids experience, and positive reasons to enter the building more often. If turnout at family events in the evenings is hard, what about class breakfasts? Service projects on the weekends?

There are several ways the board can increase outreach to parents. I believe board members should make a bigger effort to attend PTA/PTO and School Governance Council meetings, use technology more to create a two-way conversation with stakeholders, and at regular intervals conduct community meetings to allow parents to raise thoughts and concerns. The District 8 Parent Council is an active and informed group that I look forward to working with.

OMC: How do you think MPS can best expand on the successes in the current system?

MH: I think a key part of expanding MPS successes is ensuring that faculty and staff communicate and interact with each other in a way that fosters sharing of best practices, and rewards innovative and successful new approaches to MPS problems. For example — the federal government collects ideas from federal employees each year on how it can save money, and then rewards the employee with a share of the savings they help generate. In a budget-crunched MPS, we should do the same thing — reward staff for coming up with cost-saving ideas, creating an incentive to find more.

One voice I would hate to leave out here is the students. When I attended the Milwaukee Drop-out Summit last year, participants were surprised to hear some of the reasons commonly cited by students for thinking about ending their education, for example, the time and expense of transportation to school, the lack of AP classes, music and art. Just as students know the barriers they face, they can also see ways of improving their environment. And simply, we won’t know if we never ask.

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?

MH: MPS has no easy solutions to the budget challenge it faces. Budget cuts are likely still a fact of life, and we must do everything we can to ensure the impact of these cuts is minimized on students, faculty and staff. We need to seek ideas from in and outside of MPS for maximizing efficiencies and preserving what matters to us, but we also need to be open to innovation. Could staff members benefit from training on grant writing? Are there areas that we can increase federal reimbursement by rethinking where and how we serve meals? Have we dismissed ideas or options in the past that we should revisit? We need to gather input from around the community, because no one person or group has a monopoly on good ideas.

OMC: There has been much discussion lately of vacant MPS buildings. What is your opinion on the future of these buildings?

MH: I think that on a case by case basis, we should consider a broad array of options — sale, lease, conversion to charter school, or alternate uses by the city or county. Long term, I believe MPS should develop a better plan for using vacant properties. While protecting MPS’ financial interests during a challenging economy and real estate market is important, we must be careful not to take a significant loss or rush to dispose of resources in the short term.

OMC: Finally, do you think spring school board elections are problematic? Do they guarantee low turnout at the polls?

MH: I think we have a chance to see, in real time, if spring elections inherently mean low turnout. With a special election for County Supervisor in much of District 8, along with the special election for County Executive district-wide, significantly enhanced turnout would certainly be clear signal. That said — while synchronizing these elections with others in the fall may be an opportunity to increase turnout and reduce election costs for the city, it may also result in important local issues being lost among higher-profile national campaigns and statewide debates.

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