School Board protest

Freedom Inc. organizers unravel a banner that says "No Cops in Schools" while disrupting the Madison School Board's monthly meeting.

For the second time in as many months, the Madison School Board moved to a closed room to finish its monthly meeting after activists overtook the auditorium of the Doyle Administration Building Monday evening.

Tensions slowly escalated during the roughly one-and-a-half hours of public comment, as Freedom Inc. organizers admonished the School Board for continuing to have police officers in the city’s four high schools. Freedom Inc., a local social justice advocacy group, has pushed the Madison Metropolitan School District to not renew its contract that keeps police officers in the schools. The current three-year contract lasts until the end of June 2019.

Though there were two speakers who still had to speak before the School Board, organizers at about 7:30 p.m began various chants, from “(expletive) white supremacy,” and “this is white supremacy,” to “community control of the police,” and “if we don’t get it, shut it down.”

Here’s some of the protests

— Negassi Tesfamichael (@_NegassiT) March 19, 2019

School Board President Mary Burke then said the governing body would enter a brief recess, despite the two speakers left in the public comment period. Members then moved to a conference room down the hallway where committees meet. The two speakers gave their testimonies in the closed room.

Disruptions led by Freedom Inc. shut down the School Board’s October 2018 meeting. The seven-person School Board had to have a special session in the days following that shutdown in order to pass its annual budget on time. The October shutdown led to added security guards at the Doyle Administration Building during monthly meetings and updates to the public comment procedures.

Matthew Bell, MMSD’s attorney, said in February when the School Board moved to a private room that it did not violate any open meetings laws, which typically require governing bodies and agencies to make sure their work is done in front of the public.

Security guards on hand at Monday’s meeting did not engage with the activists.

Joe Balles, MMSD’s safety and security coordinator, said after the meeting that the security team will debrief Tuesday and figure out next steps to make sure future meetings don’t have to be held in a private room.

“I’m very disappointed we couldn’t stay in the room, but unfortunately, we are here … I know we had to,” said Gloria Reyes, Seat 1.

But there’s seemingly no end to the tensions at Madison’s School Board meetings. Freedom Inc. organizers have vowed to continue their work until police officers are taken out of the city’s high schools. Meanwhile, MMSD is still trying to negotiate a contract renewal with the city. A major sticking point in those negotiations is whether to give MMSD the authority to remove an officer from a school if school officials find cause to do so.

Police Chief Mike Koval has spoken out fervently against giving MMSD that authority, saying state statute dictates officer discipline.

“There’s only one way around it, which is just to listen … this is going to keep happening,” Imaad Said, the board’s student representative, said of the School Board moving the meeting for a second time. “(Reporters) saw (district security officials) turn the lights off, turn the microphone off. And (the School Board) can leave, but that’s not going to do anything … that doesn’t help our argument that we’re trying to raise student, community voice.”

The results of next month’s School Board elections could also play a pivotal role in the future of the contract, as the group will have either two or three new members.

The School Board also passed long-awaited revisions to the student discipline policy on a 5-1 vote, with member TJ Mertz voting nay.

The Behavior Education Plan, which was first introduced in the 2014-15 school year as an alternative to the “zero tolerance” policy that had disproportionately affected students of color, had several changes set for a Feb. 25 vote before getting delayed to Monday's meeting.

Although the original goal of the BEP was to reduce the disproportionate amount of suspensions, some believe school staff don’t always report misbehavior because of a concern to get the numbers right.

Changes to the BEP include improving the policies in the plan itself, providing more resources and addressing implementation concerns.

Jay Affeldt, MMSD’s director of student mental, physical and behavioral health said last month that passing the revisions will help give staff enough time to process the changes before they are formally implemented next school year.

Monday’s meeting marked the last School Board meeting for two outgoing members: Dean Loumos, Seat 3, and James Howard, Seat 4. The two are not running for re-election. Loumos has served since 2013 and Howard since 2010. Mertz, who holds Seat 5, is running for re-election April 2.

Honorary declarations were made in support of Howard and Loumos at the start of the meeting.

“Things are really different. … We’re in a much better place than we used to be,” Howard said, reflecting on the progress MMSD has made, particularly in talking about race. “Nine years ago, the conversations we have regularly now, we were not having. We were not having those conversations.”

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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/ and at POLITICO.