Any elected body thrives on a clash of ideas and diversity of opinion so long as the parties are willing to learn from one another. If an elected body has no diversity, no one will challenge those ideas; the decisions made are more likely to be weaker.
Six years ago, the clashes on the board appeared to be destructive. At its last regular meeting, Director Hardin storm out of a board meeting, shouting at other directors as the full board passed a resolution allowing for the handcuffing of students. When Peter Blewett was elected school board president a couple weeks later, his first act was to call a special board meeting to rescind the handcuffing directive. It was messy, but democracy worked.
Over the next six years, factions battled to gain control of the board’s agenda. However, two years ago, the clear winners were the progressives, and since then, the school board has been operating pretty much along the lines of the 5th Dimension song, “Age of Aquarius” with “Harmony and understanding/ Sympathy and trust abounding” It almost makes one want to break out those flowered shirts and bell bottom pants.
But a school board at peace doesn’t make for good press. A good story requires either internal or external conflict. The fights with Governor Walker over Act 10 and the state budget has provided raw material for external conflict. But the internal conflicts of the Milwaukee School Board have been almost nonexistent. In short, the school board has been downright boring.
The only recent conflict on the school board took place after Board President Bonds and Milwaukee Superintendent Thornton coauthored, along with others of “Milwaukee Succeeds,”, an op-ed piece recommending additional funding for choice and charter schools as well as regular public schools. The op-ed article didn’t sit well with many other school board members because the only way to give additional funding to choice and charters was to either raise taxes (that isn’t going to happen) or take funding away from regular public schools. A coalition of pro-public school activists, including school board members Larry Miller and Annie Woodward, made that point in another op-ed piece the following week.
So when sparks flew over dueling op-ed articles, reporters circled around school board members like children on the school playground when a fight breaks out. They can’t wait to see the punches thrown and the blood splattering. But the fight that ensued was really between family members who actually get along most of the time, not all out gang warfare. In the end, there wasn’t that much to see, and differences were quickly patched up.
That didn’t stop journalist Alan Borsuk from suggesting the words from another bell bottom vintage song by the Buffalo Springfield – “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”
What happened was some healthy disagreement on the board. The Board President and the Superintendent were told by other board members that they went too far. It has become increasingly clear since then that Walker’s budget proposal means more money for choice and charters but not for regular public schools, something neither Bonds nor Thornton ever intended in their original op-ed piece.
Bonds and Miller have had a number of conversations to iron out their differences. I don’t know the details of their conversations, but I can predict that Bonds will be reelected president, and the board returns to its boring self. To paraphrase Barry McGuire, the Milwaukee School Board is not on the eve of destruction.