The following questions were put together by the South Milwaukee Parent Advisory Group and answered by the two candidates, Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek), the incumbent, and Jack Redmond (D-Oak Creek), for the State Assembly District 21 seat.
The group said it was attempt to give voters a helpful guide to evaluate the impact the candidates could have "on our outstanding public schools."
The 21st District State Assembly seat includes Oak Creek, South Milwaukee, and a small part of Franklin. Both the questions and the resulting answers are being presented here unedited by the South Shore Now, which had no role in its preparation or presentation, other than the addition of pictures and an election logo for this online-only posting.
What do you see a the greatest challenges facing our public schools? What is your view of public schools overall? What are some of the strengths and assets of our schools in Oak Creek and South Milwaukee?
This past session I was appointed Chair of the Speaker’s Taskforce on Urban Education. The purpose of this taskforce was to tour the six largest school districts in the state and identify issues that the legislature could address. The concerns that were brought up most often were mental health, poverty, teacher recruitment and mentorship, and truancy. After traveling the state and hearing the concerns from six school districts, I found that their concerns were the same ones I was hearing from my local school districts. Earlier this year, when I met with the South Milwaukee Parent Advisory Council and the superintendent of the district, we discussed my findings and agreed that addressing some of these areas of concern would not only benefit those urban school districts, but would also benefit my local school districts. In the next session, I intend on working diligently to pass legislation as a result of these recommendations.
The school districts in this area have some of the finest students and faculty. That is the reason why people have told me during my time in the legislature and on the campaign trail that they are very happy with their school districts. It is also the reason why I send my child to our local public elementary school. We are lucky to able to count on our local schools and be proud of what they have to offer.
One of the greatest challenges is school funding, and providing the great Wisconsin education that parents and taxpayers demand. Politicians in Madison are slashing funding for public schools, and diverting large amounts of public education dollars to unaccountable private schools in the statewide voucher program. Over 56 schools in this experiment on our kids’ education have been terminated from the program by the Department of Public Instruction since the 2003-'04 - costing taxpayers $176 million that should have gone to public schools. This loss of public school dollars comes during "the biggest cuts to education in our state's history,” the recent $1.2 billion in cuts included slashing $792 million in direct state aid to kindergarten-through-12th grade schools. Overall - Wisconsin public schools are some of the best in the nation, but they cannot stay that way with the shock to the public school system with dramatically less funding. In 2016 alone, there were 74 referenda requests for $863 million by local school systems, which are struggling to keep great educators and pushing back vital building repairs and drastically cutting programs. One of the greatest strengths of South Milwaukee and Oak Creek is the care and parental involvement of folks dedicated to saving our public schools. Our key asset is our children, who despite larger class sizes and disappearing programs, continue to achieve - but for how long under these conditions? Our children shouldn’t be the subject of policy experiments and questionable private and for-profit schools funded with taxpayer dollars. Our excellent public schools are crumbling under the pressure. Things in Madison need to change before the negative impact destroys educational outcomes, and destroys the perception that Wisconsin is a great place to move your family or business because of our world class schools.
Do you support revenue limits, in their current form, as an equitable and fair way to fund public schools? If yes, would you propose aligning per pupil adjustments to revenue limits with inflation (Consumer Price Index) as they were in the past? If no, what would you propose as an alternative?
Wisconsin is a high tax state and we need to do everything we can to control our property taxes. We have to be cautious when changing revenue limits because it will increase property taxes and make it unaffordable for seniors to continue to live in Wisconsin. If a school district needs increased revenues they currently have the means to do so in the form of a referendum where all taxpayers will have the opportunity to let their voice be heard.
Outside of Milwaukee County, 35 high school principals from southern Wisconsin wrote a letter to politicians in Madison in 2015: "Since the onset of revenue limits in 1992, our school districts have been reducing and eliminating programs and resources. We are burdened by the cumulative effects of budget cuts resulting in increased class sizes, cut programs and deferred maintenance plans." If we’re establishing revenue limits, adjustments somewhere close to inflation seems to be the minimum that is necessary to simply maintain our schools. That’s an issue that our community will have to debate and come to consensus on. Ignoring the need for improvements, endless referenda and battling to maintain services under yearly budget trimming isn’t sustainable. Lots of parents own homes in South Milwaukee and Oak Creek, we’re still dealing with ten, twenty, sometimes thirty thousand dollars or more in lost home value since 2007/2008. A few bucks in property tax relief isn’t worth failing schools or slashed education budgets. When you compare the tiny “tax relief” to the hundreds of dollars of yearly fees for any kid to attend public school - the joke being played on hard working Wisconsin taxpayers is apparent. The “tax relief” and “holding the line on taxes” pitch cloaks the struggle of schools, as well as skyrocketing local government and local school fees, as revenue schemes are erected to bridge the shortfalls. This nonsense budgeting must end in Wisconsin.
Will you support placing restrictions on when school district referendums may be held? Why or why not?
Generally, I do not support placing mandates on local government. However, in order to make sure that every voter’s voice is heard concerning funding for our schools they should be held during regularly scheduled elections.
Local schools and local government should have more say in when referendums are held and how schools are funded, I am not in favor of restrictions.
What can be done to address the current teacher shortage issue and ensure that we have highly qualified teaching staff for our students now and in the future?
One of the best ways to help our teachers grow in their profession is to encourage more mentorship programs. We found during the taskforce that new teachers who had mentorship during their first few years of teaching were more confident and less frustrated when dealing with stressful situations in the classroom. Additionally, we can look at finding ways to incentivize teachers who have been in the profession longer to provide mentorship for new teachers.
Wisconsin leads the nation in questionable teacher hiring practices. We’re playing with the notion of certifying teachers without any college degree, something done literally no where in our entire nation, so the issue of “highly qualified” individuals molding our youth is paramount. These are tax funded employees. Right now, public school teachers (like my daughter) who’ve invested endless dollars and years in an education degree and continuing education feel they have a target on their back, and that creates immense stress on educator families. Find me an industry or an Economics professor that proves you can slash pay, and slash benefits, and slash the guarantee of job security and get the same quality or quantity of workers now or in the long run. A few things need to happen to address the shortage: politicians in Madison need to change their tone and make children and funding their educators a priority instead of making public educators the daily scapegoat. Besides stopping the assault on public school teachers in the media and on the campaign trail - college students also need to see and hear the signal that Wisconsin is serious about taking care of our educators and providing good jobs for life. Without a family supporting wage, where you can actually buy a home in the community you teach in, why would a college student invest in an education to become a Wisconsin teacher? Why would a quality educator move to Wisconsin? The best funded school districts are now (post Act 10) poaching teachers from rural and less affluent school districts, opening up the possibility of legal challenges, giant legal costs and worse: greater educational disparities. The math doesn’t add up: less pay, worse benefits and constant demonization does not equal great Wisconsin public school teachers now or in the future. WTCS and UW systems train some of the finest educators in the world - both of these institutions need increased funding to support the training of great educators. Teachers and the future educator marketplace both need to see two things: love (very public appreciation) and dollars, which applies to all organizations that want a great workforce.
Will you support providing additional state funds to help local school districts that have disproportionately high numbers of low-income students, special education students or English language learners to address the needs of these students?
I support additional funding for interventions to address the needs of students who are falling behind academically or have special needs.
Innovative programs need vital funding. You cannot overcome obstacles in education greatness without key funds to provide that boost. Socioeconomic status, differences in language skills or other abilities shouldn’t impact outcomes in a great state like Wisconsin. If Madison politicians were dedicated to all taxpayers paying their fair share - we certainly could fund ancillary programs to equip all of our kids with the skills to achieve in school and the workforce. These are the workers of tomorrow that will take over commerce, government and industry in our South Shore neighborhoods. I will support additional funds to equip our youth with vital skills for success.
Do you understand and support the present funding mechanism for private school vouchers and independent charter schools? If yes, how do you propose to continue to fund both the private and public schools out of stagnant or shrinking educational budgets?
I support a parents right to choose what is the best education for their children. Currently, the funding mechanism for the School Choice program and Charter schools is less expensive than public school. If we were to do away with either one of these programs, it would actually be more expensive to taxpayers.
I do not support the current funding mechanism for private school vouchers and independent charter schools. Billionaires and multimillionaires are pushing very hard nationally to sell the idea of school privatization, so eventually they can buy and sell our schools. Across our nation these vast pools of money are purchasing elections and using Wisconsin as a test animal for experiments in failed policy. If I wasted $1 million dollars in my over 40 years in the private sector - I would be fired. Madison politicians have wasted over $175 million on failed schools without accountability. Many of the applications for these voucher schools are rife with grammatical and spelling errors, and many of the schools fail to have any accredited or experienced teachers or administrators. This is a historic theft of tax dollars, and a major theft of public school dollars going into the pockets of political donors - rich donors who don’t even live in Wisconsin. I pledge to push hard to reverse the stagnant and shrinking educational budgets. I pledge to push hard to greatly increase accountability in the existing voucher system, so we don’t waste another $175 million dollars without action or even acknowledgement of the problem in Madison. The majority of children, well over 70%, that are in the voucher system were already in private school. The voucher system isn’t a solution to our educational woes, it is an unaccountable cash grab, funded by ultrarich - out of state political donors.
What would be your top three priorities as a legislator next year?
1)Drafting legislation based on the recommendations of the Speakers Taskforce on Urban Education.
2)This past session we worked on tackling the heroin epidemic in the state with a series of bills called the H.O.P.E agenda. We need to continue to ensure that as a legislature, we are doing everything we can to stop the use of heroin in our districts and our state. I intend to work with my colleagues to expand what we started last session.
3)I will continue to fight for commonsense reforms that improve the business climate in this state. Making Wisconsin a destination for new businesses is essential to the growth of our economy and long-term stability.
One: voter education. I will continue knocking on doors after this election because voters, parents and taxpayers need to know the numbers. I will meet with superintendents and school boards monthly to establish a robust line of communication and use the office I serve in to amplify their concerns. Local governments will soon be choosing between funding schools or roads or fire and police; but we soon can’t afford all three and core services. The realistic long-term fix is educating voters, and informing them of the true forecast produced by this nonsense state budgeting.
Two: demand increased school funding and resources to equip our kids to compete in the global marketplace. My daughters both had great role models and coaches at Oak Creek HS. They both fought hard and won spots on the University of Wisconsin Marching Band. I built a home in Oak Creek over 20 years ago so my kids would have great schools. The diversity and beauty of our temples, churches, parks and wonderful businesses unleashed my children’s potential to achieve and thrive - and kick butt marching on every Big Ten football field. All boys and girls deserve access to public school resources - and I demand my six Wisconsin grand kids have those same opportunities as well.
Three: our US Veterans. I pledge to tour offices and care facilities for veterans, VA as well as County and State. I will visit continuously to build a rapport with staff, and identify reforms. Let’s get Veteran volunteers in schools: teaching respect and care for our Flag, teaching the lessons of valor and sacrifice. My father was a WWII veteran and purple heart recipient. When I was a Boy Scout at St. Sebastian and Pius XI High School, I learned at a young age how to share my God-given talents. Those who serve have unique obstacles, and the statistics on homelessness, unemployment and service members taking their own lives is appalling. I will work hard daily to impact these statistics. Similar to schools, a shift in focus and increased community involvement is just as important as vital funding for these efforts. I’m very optimistic Wisconsin can come together to overcome these difficulties to enjoy community-wide success.