Madison School Board meeting

Supporters and employees of Freedom Inc., a local social justice organization, urged the Madison School Board on Monday to reject a proposed three-year contract that would continue the use of armed and uniformed police officers in the city's four main high schools. The board eventually backed the contract on a 4-2 vote, but the city and police chief say it will need to be renegotiated. 

A contract keeping police officers in Madison schools will have to be reworked after language the city attorney’s office says is illegal was slipped into the agreement at the last minute, likely delaying resolution of the controversy again.

The language, which would give the Madison School District final authority to remove a police officer assigned to a school, was added as an amendment to the school resource officers contract with the city at Monday night’s Madison School Board meeting. Members passed the proposed contract 4-2.

On Tuesday, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval said the School District had wanted to include the provision in the contract during negotiations, but it was not something the city would consider and was left out of the tentative agreement the board was set to vote on Monday.

In his daily blog, Koval said the city made it “unequivocally clear” that the measure was unacceptable.

“The question had been asked and answered ... as a non-starter,” Koval said in an interview Tuesday. “I think it’s language that might make someone on the board feel better.”

The contract still must be approved by the City Council, said Marci Paulsen, an assistant city attorney who negotiated the original agreement on behalf of the city.

She said she had not seen the amended contract, but any language that gives the school district unilateral authority to kick a police officer out of a school would mean the deal would have to be renegotiated.

“I would not recommend that it be presented to anyone in the city,” she said. “We don’t believe it is legal.”

School District spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson declined to address the city’s concerns Tuesday. In a statement, she said the district would work with police “to come to an agreement that makes improvements for our students and allows us to work together when issues arise.”

School board members T.J. Mertz, James Howard, Dean Loumos and board President Mary Burke supported the amended contract. Nicki Vander Meulen and Kate Toews voted against it. Gloria Reyes wasn’t present.

At Monday’s meeting, Mertz said his support for the contract hinged on whether the district had the ability to remove an officer “for cause.”

The current contract between the city and district expires at the end of the school year. It allows the Madison Police Department to station one armed and uniformed officer — currently known as an “educational resource officer,” but to be called a “school resource officer” under the new contract — at each of the district’s four main high schools.

For months, critics of the program have demanded that the district remove officers from schools, saying their presence negatively affects many students, especially students of color. They’ve called for additional counselors and other social services at district schools instead.

If approved, the new contract would run from August 2019 through June 2022.

The amended contract would give the district final authority to remove an officer from a school if a problem can’t be resolved between the district and city.

Koval and Paulsen said that would likely violate state law and Police Department labor agreements.

Koval said the city’s contract with its police union governs the SRO position and can’t be superseded by the School District.

State statutes outline seven standards for “just causes” to discipline police officers, and the Police and Fire Commission is responsible for administering those standards, he said.

“(School board members) feel they can dictate ‘for cause,’” Koval said. “I think that this was an issue in search of a problem.”

The new contract would also include a complaint process — separate from the Police Department’s existing complaint process — for students, family members and district staff to file grievances against an SRO.

It would also allow officers to occasionally wear a “soft” uniform or plain clothes at the discretion of command staff.

Officers could continue to provide information to students on laws, ordinances and the juvenile code, but they would be prohibited from providing legal advice to students.

Burke, the School Board president, said Tuesday she values the partnership with police and wants to work with the department to solve problems.

“This contract process has been very collaborative, and we hope it continues to be, so that we can come to an agreement to best serve all of our students,” she said. “We take very seriously the fact that as a school district, we are ultimately responsible for the adults who interact with our students.”

Koval said he’s felt that the district and Police Department have worked well to resolve problems in the past and hopes this is just a “speed bump.”

With the original agreement, Koval said SROs would have been held accountable and any concerns addressed with the help of the district. But he said giving schools the final say is too drastic.

“We still have that,” Koval said. “It’s in no one’s best interests to dig in and suggest (which officers) we send (to the schools).”

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. The original version incorrectly described the amendment the School Board voted on. While School Board member T.J. Mertz specified that officers could only be removed "for cause," the contract that was ultimately adopted does not contain that phrase.]

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