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Madison Police Department officer Zulma Franco, a Student Resource Officer at Madison East High School, pictured during her shift June 5. The Madison Finance Committee recommended moving forward on a contract to keep police in the city's high schools. 

The city Finance Committee recommended Monday moving forward with a plan to keep police officers in Madison’s four main high schools, with the option to drop one officer for the 2020-21 school year.

On a near-unanimous voice vote, the committee recommended that the city allow the mayor, police chief and city clerk to sign a three-year contract with the Madison School District that would continue to station police officers, known as school resource officers, at East, La Follette, Memorial and West high schools.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said she supports the contract because it gives the school district the flexibility to eliminate SROs in one of the schools, allowing that high school to try a different approach for ensuring the safety of students.

“I’m hopeful that they will explore other ways to keep our schools safe,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I’d be willing to work on that with them.”

Two community members spoke in opposition to the measure, arguing that SROs don’t actually increase safety in schools.

Gregory Gelembiuk said having police in schools “exacerbates the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Assistant Police Chief John Patterson acknowledged that disproportionate numbers of students of color are arrested in schools, but said the arrests are not always made by SROs. Patterson also said few students are arrested and the number of citations has declined every year over the past four years.

Ald. Donna Moreland, 7th District, said despite her concern over the disproportionate impact on students of color, “something has to be done” to protect students from school shootings.

Despite the controversy over police in schools, the committee noted that having SROs is up to the school board, which already narrowly voted in favor of keeping police in schools.

“The substantive decision on whether to have SROs or not in schools is the school board’s decision, not a city council decision,” said Ald. Shiva Bidar, 5th District.

The city is deciding whether to approve the school board’s request for a service — the use of the city’s police officers — without a cost to the city, Bidar said. Under the contract, the schools would pay for the SROs.

Ald. Rebecca Kemble, 18th District, opposed the measure because she does not think the city should provide full-time police officers to any entity other than the city. The Madison Police Department is already stretched thin, she said, with a shortage of patrol officers and some having to work overtime.

“It makes zero sense to me to let four of our officers go to an outside entity, be it public or private,” Kemble said.

Ald. Keith Furman, 19th District, also expressed concern over whether Madison School Board President Gloria Reyes should have recused herself from the school board vote because she works for the city and used to work in the mayor’s office. City Attorney Michael May said he does not think there is any sort of ethics problem for the city because Reyes no longer works in the mayor’s office, but that the school needs to determine if there was an ethics violation on their end.

City attorney contract

The committee also recommended renewing May’s contract as city attorney for another five years, despite allegations from members of the Community Response Team that May is “unethical” and “extremely biased” toward the interests of the Madison Police Department.

The Community Response Team is a group of Madison citizens working to address policing and public safety issues. The group submitted an eight-page complaint against May, outlining nine instances in which they argue May or his staff were biased.

“One incident is an accident, but nine incidents is a pattern,” CRT member Amelia Royko Maurer said.

The incidents include a spat on Facebook between a member of May’s staff and Royko Maurer, “damaging” comments May made about a CRT member at a city council meeting and “incorrect” legal advice May has given the city related to work of the Madison Police Department Policy and Procedure Review Ad Hoc Committee. The incidents date back to 2015.

The ad hoc committee was tasked with completing a comprehensive review of the Madison Police Department after an officer-involved shooting in 2015. The CRT has been providing feedback to the ad hoc committee.

May said the Facebook post was “inappropriate,” and was handled within his office. In terms of his legal advice, May said it is easy to find another attorney disagreeing with his legal opinions because “that’s what attorneys do.”

“My bottom line is I do think I provided good services over 15 years,” May said.

Committee members recommended renewal of May’s contract for another five years on a near-unanimous vote.

Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, said there were no complaints about May’s legal advice beyond decisions related to the ad hoc committee. Committee members were also allayed by Rhodes-Conway’s plan to have yearly evaluations of May’s performance.

“I have found him to be an able and competent lawyer to the extreme,” Verveer said.

The Madison City Council will vote on May’s contract and the SRO contract at its July 2 meeting.

Editor's note: The story was corrected to reflect that Gloria Reyes still works for the city of Madison, but not in the mayor's office.

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Emily Hamer is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She joined the paper in April 2019 and was formerly an investigative reporting intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.