Evers moving ahead with plans to audit MPS; focus will be on academics, operations

NOW: Evers moving ahead with plans to audit MPS; focus will be on academics, operations

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The office of Gov. Tony Evers announced Monday the governor was advancing two additional state-led audits of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). 

The governor's office said in a release it will begin to accept proposals from outside firms in the coming days. The audits Evers seeks go beyond the financial calamity facing Wisconsin's biggest school district.

While MPS is still working with state education officials to submit financial data that are more than eight months overdue, the governor's audits seek to explore the district's operations and academic processes.

Evers said in Monday's statement he was moving forward with the effort to find outside auditors after receiving the blessing of city leaders and the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, whose leaders' only public remarks since last week's resignation of Superintendent Keith Posley was a news conference in which they allowed only two questions.

"Importantly, not all auditors’ qualifications and expertise are the same," Evers' statement said of the search. "It is exceedingly important to me that the independent auditors responsible for conducting these audits have meaningful background and experience in school and classroom settings and auditing school districts and instruction."

Evers' office said the audit would be paid for by federal funding the state has received. According to a statement Friday from the governor's office, the money would come from "federal dollars available between underspending of previously awarded contracts and funding already allocated for Milwaukee that has not yet been spent."

Evers' communications director, Britt Cudaback, did not immediately respond to a message seeking clarification of those federal funding sources.

The last outside audit of MPS was in 2009, but that audit focused strictly on the district's finances.

State lawmakers CBS 58 interviewed Monday generally accepted the outside audits, but State Rep. Bob Donovan (R-Milwaukee) and State Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee) differed on what they hoped the audits would eventually achieve.

Donovan said he wanted Evers to appoint a new "special master" to run the district, possibly for longer than two years, as well as dissolving the board of directors. Donovan said the audits could then inform how the district would be reconstructed.

"A thorough audit conceivably could take a year a more," Donovan said. "We cannot allow [Evers and state education officials] to use that as an excuse to avoid other decisions that need to be made."

Evers has not indicated having any type of appetite for such drastic changes, and in recent years, the former state superintendent has often referenced local control when asked about specific school districts.

Myers said she hoped the audits would focus on improving the district's lowest-performing schools. She referenced the difference between Rufus King High School, considered one of the top schools in the entire state, and a number of neighborhood schools where more than 80% of the students tested out as "below basic" in reading and math on the most recent state report cards.

Myers specifically said she wanted MPS to do away with a current policy allowing experienced teachers to choose their school assignments. 

Posley's final proposed budget called for eliminating about 130 teacher positions; most of those would be teacher coaches, who would then be placed back into classrooms to fill teaching jobs that have remained vacant.

Posley defended the policy in a May 17 interview with CBS 58.

"I'm a firm believer that an employee works best where they want to be," he said.

Myers said such an approach would only worsen the divide between MPS' best-performing schools and its worst.

"When you let them pick, you create winners and losers in your own district," she said. "That's the tale of two schools in the same district, and the district was ignoring it. The board was ignoring it. The superintendent was ignoring it."

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu said he would've preferred to have the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) conduct the outside audit. 

"Governor Evers’ decision to move forward with an outside audit is disappointing," LeMahieu said in a statement. "And his administration must be careful to choose an auditor with no ulterior motives or other entanglements.”

In March, Donovan requested an LAB audit of MPS' last four years' worth of financial records. He said Friday the audit bureau said it wouldn't be able to tackle MPS' numbers until next year due to audits it is currently conducting. Because of that, Donovan said he didn't mind having outside auditors come in.

Latest on MPS money mess

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) confirmed the agency met again with MPS leaders Monday as the state works with the district to obtain the overdue 2023-24 financial data.

DPI Spokesperson Chris Bucher confirmed the state received an initial submission of MPS financial data last week, and "it will continue to work with MPS to address that data."

The state is also seeking a corrective plan from MPS outlining how the district will avoid financial issues going forward. MPS is already in line to lose a "significant" amount of state aid in the 2024-25 budget to make up for overpayments the district previously received due to inaccurate reporting.

The DPI publicly slammed MPS' second draft of an action strategy last week, calling for the district to submit a "real plan." Bucher struck a more hopeful tone Monday.

"The DPI had a productive meeting with MPS today," he said. "We've made a lot of progress towards a strong plan to bring them into compliance, and we are optimistic we will have a corrective action plan in place this week."

The MPS board is scheduled to hold a meeting Thursday evening. The agenda calls for a vote on the 2024-25 budget and to put together a list of interim superintendent candidates. 

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