1st Quarter 2024 President’s Message

By Rob Henken

The decision by leaders of the Milwaukee Public Schools to place a referendum on school funding on the April 2 ballot posed a difficult dilemma for the Forum. We are very careful about the reports we publish close to election days, as it is squarely against our mission to do anything to affect electoral outcomes. That goes not only for weighing in on referenda, but also for publishing any reports that might be used by opponents or supporters of specific electoral candidates to unfairly criticize or praise their performance in office.

So why did we decide to publish a detailed report on the MPS referendum and submit a shorter op-ed piece to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel less than a month before election day?

Several related factors guided our decision. The first was that the referendum came about so quickly. There was no public mention about the possibility of a referendum until last December and the decision to place the question on the ballot followed in January. Consequently, if we were going to prepare an informational piece on the referendum, we had no choice but to do so close to election day.

The fact that voters would have so little time to consider the issue also was an important determinant. With less than three months between the January 11 school board vote approving the referendum and the April 2 election, we felt it would be very difficult for voters to gather the information they needed to make an informed decision. Given the stakes involved – including the possibility of hundreds of position cuts at MPS if the referendum fails and a $432 tax increase in 2025 on a $200,000 Milwaukee home if it is approved – we felt it was important for voters to have access to some objective analysis on the question.

Also, knowing that some would not be inclined to read a 10-page report or necessarily know we had published one, we submitted a shorter piece to the Journal Sentinel, as we did prior to the 2020 MPS referendum.

Finally, it was the complexity of the issue and lack of a full explanation from MPS leaders that drove our decision. We were surprised when MPS said it faced a $200 million budget shortfall for next year and needed to pursue a referendum so soon. We had certainly expected a smaller shortfall. Yet when we warned last May that MPS could face the possibility of “significant spending cuts” in the near future given the financial headwinds we were seeing in our review of its 2024 budget, we received some polite pushback from district leaders for presenting too negative a picture of their finances.

How had the situation changed so dramatically? And if we – as an entity that has annually reviewed MPS’ budget for the past decade — couldn’t answer that question, then how could the average voter be expected to?

Again, it is not our standard practice to delve into electoral issues, but this was a unique and highly-charged situation and we recognized that voters would have very few outlets for impartial analysis. I hope our members feel we met our strict standards for objectivity and would urge you to share any feedback you may have.