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Protests break out, shut down Madison School Board meeting

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Mary Burke of the Madison School Board is pictured at a meeting in the Doyle Administration Building in this file photo from May 2017. Burke drew the ire of some presenters during the public comment period of Monday night's board meeting. 

The Madison School Board’s monthly meeting adjourned early Monday night after a contentious public comment period spiraled out of control, leading members to take a quick vote to adjourn early without addressing agenda items, including a vote on the 2018-2019 budget.

"It's not acceptable," School Board President Mary Burke told the Cap Times after the meeting.

The public comment period, which lasted for roughly an hour-and-a-half, was filled almost entirely by organizers from Freedom Inc., the local advocacy group that has fought for racial justice in Dane County. Organizers repeatedly called on the Madison Metropolitan School District to not renew its contract with the city to have police officers in Madison’s four high schools.

The district’s contract with the city ends at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. At the end of 2016, the district set up an ad hoc committee to study best practices related to educational resource officers and review current research on their effectiveness in schools.

The board was set to vote to accept the report from the ERO ad hoc committee at Monday’s meeting. It detailed 16 recommendations, including several aimed at providing oversight mechanisms to hold EROs accountable.

However, these recommendations did little to quell Freedom Inc. organizers' concerns.

“We need to completely remove the police from our schools,” one presenter said. “And we need to invest resources in education that promotes leadership, wellness and creativity for youth of color. That doesn’t mean writing black excellence at the top of some bullshit-ass plan. Because before we can be excellent we have to have our needs met.”

“There’s so many other things you can do with that money instead of having cops in schools,” said Jessica Williams, an advocate with Freedom Inc. “Children have so many other needs.”

The group posted pieces of paper to one wall of the auditorium with numerous suggestions on what they thought the money that is slated for the EROs should be going toward.

About an hour into the meeting, the board voted to recess after one person refused to stop speaking after their 3-minute time slot, which is the typical time limit for each public speaker, had ended. Burke repeatedly tried to tell the presenter to finish up, despite a crowd boisterously cheering on the presenter and chanting “No cops in schools,” and “If we don’t get it shut it down,” as well as “Black kids matter.”

At one point after the meeting had entered a recess, some organizers went onto the auditorium stage in the Doyle Administration Building as others chanted and unfurled a banner in front of the crowd.

Burke became a frequent target of the presenters’ ire after she appeared to mispronounce speakers’ names as she called them up to the front of the auditorium. At one point, a presenter demanded that Burke correct the pronunciation of the prior speaker. Burke did not respond. Several other presenters mockingly mispronounced Burke’s name, which further escalated tensions as the meeting went on.

Williams praised one of her colleagues who spoke entirely in Hmong during her time slot.

“I love that. Y’all don’t even listen to the community anyways, so why even talk in English?” Williams said.

But Burke stressed that she was doing her best to pronounce names correctly.

"My intent is always to pronounce people's names correctly," Burke told the Cap Times after the meeting. "We do the best that we can."

Several district officials, including Burke, said this was the first time a School Board meeting had to be adjourned in recent memory due to such rancor.

“(The board) never stopped a meeting like this that I’m aware of,” said Barbara Osborn, the School Board’s secretary. “They’ve never adjourned because the crowd was out of control. It’s just never happened.”

Critics of the use of police officers in schools have become frequent attendees of School Board meetings in recent months, frequently calling for a shutdown of any police at the high schools. Some School Board members have voiced frustrations over how the criticisms are brought up, as many of the comments come during board meetings where ERO-related issues are not on the agenda, so members by law cannot respond to what is said.

Other School Board members signaled displeasure that the process spun out of control and derailed what was supposed to be a meeting to approve the budget before the Nov. 1 deadline.

“There’s a lot of passion here,” Dean Loumos, who served as chair for the ERO ad hoc committee, said after the meeting. “It’s unfortunate that we had to do this. We waited to see what to do during recess, hoping for it to calm down, but we didn’t see a way the meeting could go on.”

School Board member Nicki Vander Meulen was the only no vote on adjournment.

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“As much as I hate this, and I do not like this situation, I just want both sides to come to a peaceful agreement and that both sides are respected,” Vander Meulen said. “I don’t fault either side. Passions are high, tensions are high. I can’t vote against speech, and I know that’s controversial, but I can’t do it.”

Burke said the board is looking at options to try to alleviate some of the problems that came up at Monday's meeting that led to a breakdown. 

"We want to make sure speakers can see the timer, and we want to make sure speakers stick to the time limit," Burke said. "And we certainly will look at the use of our school security to make sure those who are disrupting the meeting are not allowed to do that."

Burke stressed that having an early adjournment prevents the board from conducting its regular business and prevents others who have come to speak on issues from doing so.

"Our goal is to be able to make sure that people who come to give public comment, which we value and which helps us make better decisions, can do so," Burke said. "It't not about whether I agree or disagree with anyone's position. It's that we're able to do it in a respectful environment so that all voices can be heard and the board can do its business. We are elected officials and that's what we have been charged with by the people who elected us."

As for the School Board’s agenda items that did not end up being discussed Monday night, the district said another meeting would be held later this week to approve the budget.

Kelly Ruppel, the district’s chief of staff, said that by law the school board has to pass a budget by Nov. 1. The meeting Monday still counts as the public hearing part of the budget, so the board can have a meeting to pass the budget without opening it up to public comment.

The 2018-19 budget tallies in at $415.6 million and includes property taxes of $308 million. Ruppel said in a previous board meeting that the portion of the property tax bill attributed to the school district is expected to decrease by $16 for the average value home.

The next board meeting for the passage of the budget will likely be on Wednesday, according to Burke, though the board is still finalizing details of the meeting before making an official public notice of the meeting.

Organizers with Freedom Inc. did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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.