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The Madison School Board voted Dec. 17 to approve a contract to keep school-based police officers in the city's four high schools through 2022. 

The future of school-based police officers in Madison is up in the air following disagreement between the Madison School Board and the city.

Marci Paulsen, an assistant Madison city attorney, said last-minute changes to a proposed contract between the Madison Metropolitan School District and the Madison Police Department for school-based police services violates state statutes and the city’s contracts with the police union.

“Since (the Madison School Board) has changed the language, we are back at the negotiating table because we don’t agree to the language,” Paulsen said.

But a school district attorney disagrees, saying the amended language is “legally sound and reasonable.”

What was approved at the Madison School Board?  

On a 4-2 vote at its Dec. 17 meeting, the Madison School Board approved a contract that would keep police officers, known as school resource officers, at East, West, La Follette and Memorial high schools from August 2019 through June 2022.

The current contract is set to expire at the end of this school year. Under the agreement, the Madison Police Department stations one officer at each school and the district funds the positions.

School Board members Kate Toews and Nicki Vander Meulen were the sole votes against the contract. Gloria Reyes was not present for the vote. As a deputy mayor, Reyes said she likely had a conflict of interest regarding the SRO contract that would prevent her from voting on it.

Paulsen said the School Board and the city met prior to the meeting and negotiated agreed-upon language.

The agreed-upon contract was mostly similar to previous contracts on the use of police officers in high schools. One notable difference in the new contract was a clause that would allow SROs to wear plain clothes instead of a uniform.

What was added to the contract?

Instead of voting on the set language, School Board member TJ Mertz proposed an amendment, which ultimately passed unanimously, that would give MMSD the authority to remove an officer from a school if officials found cause to do so.

“One of the most important checks and balances is selection, and, in particular, removal,” Mertz said at the meeting. “Without some form of removal, I can’t support continuing the contract.”

Mertz and School Board president Mary Burke pointed to a recent state law that requires school staff to call the police if there is an imminent threat, arguing that the amended contract would give the district influence on how the police interact with students.

“It reinforced my belief that police would be in our schools,” Mertz said of the new state law.

Why is the amendment problematic?

Paulsen said the amendment outlines how police officers can be disciplined — such as removal from a school — which is under the authority of the chief of police set by state law and the city’s police union contract.  

“You can't predetermine discipline. Under the statute, you have to go to the Police and Fire Commission,” Paulsen said. “You can’t just have a blanket rule.”

The PFC has the authority to appoint chiefs, approve promotions, discipline officers and hold hearings on disciplinary matters.

The School Board was aware of the city’s stance ahead of the vote. Paulsen reviewed the proposed amendment a week before the meeting and rejected it at the time.

Chief Mike Koval adamantly opposed added language.

"We had never agreed (nor will I ever agree) to language regarding the ability to remove an officer for 'cause,'" Koval said in a blog post. "The School District floated this language out last week and it was made unequivocally clear that I would not agree to this language."

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The school district does not believe there is a problem.

“The district is confident that the amended language is legally sound and reasonable,” Matt Bell, MMSD’s general counsel, said in a statement. “The Board of Education and the district’s negotiation team will evaluate our next steps once the city completes its review process.”

What happens next?

Because the city rejected the language, there is no contract.  

“It hasn’t been signed by all parties so at this point it isn’t binding on anyone,” Paulsen said.

To have a valid contract, both parties need to agree. The contract was set to go before the City Council in January, but now its future is likely delayed as both parties work out an agreement.  

It’s unclear how long the negotiation process will take. Traditionally, the contract has been finalized by June or July, according to Mertz. The last time the contract was renewed, the process dragged into August.

Mertz said if there is no agreement by the time the 2019-20 school year starts, the School Board could look at other enhanced security measures.

If the school district and city are able to negotiate mutually agreeable language, then the new proposed contract would be up for approval again from the School Board. Then, the City Council would need to formally adopt it.  

“It’s never a done deal until all parties have signed it,” Paulsen said.

 

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Education Reporter

Negassi Tesfamichael is the local education reporter at The Cap Times. He joined the paper in 2018. He previously worked as an intern at WISC-TV/Channel3000.com and at POLITICO.

Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.