On Tuesday, voters head to the polls again – as four of the nine seats on the Milwaukee Board of School Directors are up for election.
Candidates Marcelia Garcia and Henry Leonard are each running unopposed – in Districts 6 and 7, respectively. But there are contested races in Districts 4 and 5.
In District 5, which includes parts of Harambee, Riverwest, Downtown and the East Side, Alex Brower and Jilly Gokalgandhi are vying to replace outgoing school board director Larry Miller.
Below are short biographies on the candidates, as well as their answers to three questions about why they feel they are qualified and what they think about some of the school board’s current issues. You can find more discussion on current issues from District 5 candidates here.
Answers have been edited for length.
Address: 1601 N. Jackson St., #501
Education: Bachelor’s, international affairs and economics from Marquette University
Occupation: Equity in education strategist at American Family Insurance
Past election experience: None
Endorsements: MPS Director Larry Miller, MPS Director Bob Peterson, MPS Director Paula Phillips, MPS Director Tony Báez, MPS Director Megan O’Halloran, state Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, Citizen Action Wisconsin, United Auto Workers, state Sen. LaTonya Johnson, state Rep. Francesca Hong, U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, Shepherd Express, AFSCME Wisconsin Council 32, Wisconsin Conservation Voters, Tatiana Joseph, Ald. Nik Kovac, full list here.
Address: 2536 N. Palmer St.
Education: Bachelor’s in political science from Beloit College
Occupation: Executive director of the Wisconsin Alliance for Retired Americans and a substitute teacher for Milwaukee Public Schools
Past election experience: None
Endorsements: Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, Milwaukee Democratic Socialists of America, Milwaukee Solidarity, Green Party of Milwaukee County, MPS Director Marva Herndon, MPS Director Sequanna Taylor, MPS Director Megan O’Halloran, MPS Director Erika Siemsen, Milwaukee County Supervisor Ryan Clancy, Milwaukee County Supervisor Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, Rick Banks, national Democratic Socialists of America, full list here.
1. What are the most important issues in the final election, and what is the difference between you and your opponent on these?
Brower: “MPS is under attack from privatization, systemic racism and underfunding. While I believe that both my opponent and I would agree that these are problems that need to be addressed, I am the only candidate that has consistently called for systemic change throughout this race and who has a clear track record fighting and winning real change in MPS through the school board. For example, as president of the substitute teachers union, I defeated efforts to privatize our jobs to a temp agency and won healthcare benefits for most subs by going on a 21-day hunger strike. Throughout my years as an active community leader and as a democratic socialist, I’ve proven that I have the experience, vision and political courage to fight for the real, systemic changes that our communities deserve.”
Gokalgandhi: “The most important issue in this election is which candidate has the vision, experience and skills to combat privatization, fight systemic racism, build power to win equity in funding, work with the MPS community to help every child succeed, and guide the district through the COVID-19 crisis. My opponent’s approach is to rely on slogans and one-man heroics, but I know the only way to win systemic change is to organize with others. I wrote the response to the state takeover attempt of Bradley Tech High School and worked along with the educators and community to defeat it as part of my deep work every day coordinating that community school. I’ve been part of successful efforts to promote restorative justice and environmental justice practices and to increase student and community voice. In addition to recognizing the need for a collective response rather than an individual savior, I bring needed diversity to a school board that, if my opponent wins, would end up being majority white.”
2. Why should people vote for you, and not your opponent?
Gokalgandhi: “I am a proud multilingual, millennial immigrant woman of color with a deeply held belief in social justice and valuable experience in Milwaukee Public Schools. My experience as a Community School Coordinator gives me a unique understanding of one of MPS’ most sought-after school models. I worked every day with educators, students, families, community partners, and administration. I will work closely with all members of the MPS community to make sure our work is centered on our students, advances equity and inclusion, and vigorously defends public education. Milwaukee Public Schools serves some of the most impoverished ZIP codes in the country and has a student population of approximately 90% children of color. Representation matters. My election would ensure the MPS school board remains majority people of color.”
Brower : “I completely acknowledge that my life experience as a cisgender white man is different from many of my students and many in my community. Having been an MPS teacher for seven years, I’ve seen firsthand the inequities that MPS’ majority Blackand Brown students face in school and in our communities. Being a co-parent in a multiracial family in Milwaukee, members of my family face many of the struggles that families in Milwaukee face: balancing working from home while supporting our child while attending school virtually, having to ensure internet connectivity, and trying to support our child dealing with the stresses of a pandemic. I am running for this office not to be a white savior but to make the change that will bring about a better world for my family, all Milwaukeeans, and to do what all white people in Milwaukee should be doing: standing in solidarity with the social movements that are fighting for structural change. The main focus should be ensuring that our representatives truly represent our values for a quality and dignified life for all by fiercely fighting for systemic change.
That’s why one of my main platform points is to democratize education — ensuring that underrepresented communities have a voice in school and district-wide decision making.”
3. For Brower: In February 2020, you ran for city comptroller. Less than four months later, you registered your campaign for school board. What would you say to someone who believes you are just looking to hold any political office and are not interested in the school board specifically?
Brower: “I’ve run for office twice because elections have real consequences on my students, family and community. In my years as an active leader in Milwaukee, I’ve seen too many politicians in this city make decisions based on what will advance their political careers and get them re-elected rather than fight back against the status quo and have the courage to make the difficult decisions that will lead to systemic change. I ran for comptroller and I’m running for school board because both of these elections lacked candidates bold enough to call for systemic change and who identify as democratic socialists. After I lost the February 2020 primary for comptroller, I was exhausted and thought I’d never run for office again. Then, when the incumbent in District 5 decided not to run for re-election, people in my community encouraged me to run for this important position because I’ve been fighting for strong public schools as an MPS educator and union leader for seven years.”
4. For Gokalgandhi: Your platform calls for the creation of “an inclusive initiative for young women and gender nonconforming students” similar to the Black and Latino Male Achievement program. If you were including this initiative in last year’s budget, what would you take out in order to fund this initiative?
Gokalgandhi: “I will tap into and learn from the work that has already been done in this space, bringing together educators and individuals who have contributed to systemwide change. I will ensure strong participation from students, parents, guardians, etc. and the community. We can create an initiative for young women and gender nonconforming students without disrupting the funding of the current Black and Latino Male Achievement Program. MPS still has a large budget for Contracted Services which needs much closer scrutiny. There are contracted services which can and should be done by MPS employees. As we continue to fight for equitable funding for MPS, I will draw on my experience in the funding community to identify partners who support public education to assist in this effort.”
5. For Brower: The Wisconsin Policy Forum recently released a report highlighting the interpersonal and institutional obstacles facing teachers of color in Wisconsin. The MPS board also recently created a task force to address the shortage of teachers in central region schools. How would you recruit and retain teachers of color in MPS, particularly to staff historically understaffed schools?
Brower: “Hiring and retaining more teachers of color is one vital component to closing the opportunity gaps for students of color in MPS and is something I will fight for on the board. A key piece in the recruitment and retention of educators of color is the need to create anti-racist school working environments. Some things I would do as a school board director to accomplish this would be to 1) fight for salary and benefit increases that are competitive with other more white and wealthy districts; 2) have mandatory anti-racist professional development trainings for all school staff and administrators; 3) include teachers of color in school and districtwide decision-making; 4) make sure that teachers of color receive the support they need — especially during the early (and usually the most difficult) years of teaching — such as providing special professional development, coaching and mentorship opportunities specifically for teachers of color.”
6. For Gokalgandhi: You have brought up the need to fight for equitable funding. Would this necessitate receiving more funding from the state Department of Public Instruction, and, if so, how would you see that that happens?
Gokalgandhi: “There are three components to this challenge. First, we must make stronger demands upon the state and federal governments to do their part. We must fix the state funding formula and insist upon full reimbursement for transportation, special education and other costs unique to our urban school district. We recognize that for state government, with an intransigent Legislature, that will take time, but we will help build the power for change. Second, we also must get creative about local funding, including supporting referenda to raise funds so that we have adequate resources. Third, we need to leverage philanthropy to supplement the needs of our students and stand with us in the fight for equitable funding. Clearly, philanthropy must not play a role in governance or interfere with local control of our district. As we fight for the best state funding formula and expanded federal dollars, we should do what we can to meet those student needs right now.”
In case you missed it: Here’s what you need to know to vote in the April 6 spring election