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Northwestern Mutual CEO rips Milwaukee schools’ request for $252M property tax hike

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(The Center Square) – The head of one of downtown Milwaukee’s largest employers says voters need to say ‘no’ to the latest tax hike request from Milwaukee’s public schools.

Northwestern Mutual CEO John Schlifske wrote in an op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that MPS has failed to teach children with the billion-plus dollars it currently spends. And, he said voters should reject a $252 million referendum on the April ballot.

“Less than five years ago, MPS passed an $87 million referendum which resulted in Milwaukee property taxes going up. In addition, the district received almost $800 million of one-time financial support from the federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, quality went down as did attendance,” Schlifske wrote. “More money, worse results. MPS put an additional quarter-billion dollar referendum on the April 2 ballot, again which would be paid for through increased property taxes.

Schlifske said until MPS leaders can show real progress or real reforms, voters need to hold them accountable.

“This proposed referendum, like the earlier one, comes void of specifics or details on how it will improve educational outcomes. Only 16% of MPS students are testing at grade level in reading, and in math its less than 10%; these statistics are even worse for people of color,” Schlifske added. “In 44 MPS schools less than 10 students in each school are on grade level. What gives the students, parents, and taxpayers any sense that we can expect different results from a new permanent 26% increase in property taxes?”

Milwaukee school leaders say they need the $252 million property tax increase to “sustain the district’s educational programming. “

“That includes offering career and technical education programs, attracting and retaining certified educators, and further improving art, music, physical education and language programs,” MPS said in a statement.

MPS says it is looking at a nearly $250 million deficit next year.

Schlifske said Milwaukee Schools should not be.

“MPS has seen a 24% decline in students per building since 2000, which has resulted in a significant overspend on buildings at the cost of classroom resources. Hiking property taxes while running inefficiently is perpetuating the same fiscal challenges, and we should not expect a different result from this new referendum,” he wrote.

Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, ripped Schlifske for his op-ed, and blamed Wisconsin’s Republican lawmakers for the nearly 90 school districts in the state who are asking for tax increases this spring.

“The fact is Wisconsin is seeing a record number of districts go to referendum all across the state, seeking to make up for over $1.5 billion that the state is using to create an artificial, multi-billion surplus,” Larson wrote on social media.

“Our opposition to the referendum isn’t about more funding, it’s about quality and accountability,” Schlifske added. “Rejecting this referendum is not a rejection of public schools; it is a call for long-needed accountability. We owe it to taxpayers. We owe it to employers. We owe it to parents. But most of all, we owe it to our students.”

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