Photo courtesy of Matthew Gifford for Board of Education
“We need to focus on the big picture and tackle the big problems we’re facing – for our schools and for our students – so that we don’t have the same issues recurring every year.”
WAUKESHA, WI – Matthew Gifford, 19, spends his free time mulling over school board meeting transcripts and talking to voters in the suburbs of Milwaukee in Waukesha County, where he is hoping to become the newest member of the Board of Education for the Waukesha School District. Gifford would be the youngest elected representative in the state of Wisconsin as well as the first openly queer member of the Waukesha Board of Education.
“I don’t want it to be a thing that I’m gay. I don’t want that to be a major thing. I want everything to be focused on policy, but at the same time, it is something that separates me from the other candidates,” says Gifford.
Growing up gay in the Waukesha school district, Gifford’s experience was different even from many other queer students in the district. “I didn’t face as many problems as some other LGBT students, I’ve been very privileged, but there were definitely challenges and bullying along the way,” he says. He believes his experiences have given him a unique perspective that he feels could help address underlying problems in the school district.
Gifford wants to take a more meaningful, progressive approach to issues such as bullying and homophobia. He wants schools to provide students with more than just surface-level knowledge about bullying and teach students not just what is wrong but about why it is wrong. Schools should teach the history of issues like homophobia so students understand the full impact of specific words and actions, Gifford says.
On top of bullying, school safety in general is a big issue for Gifford. The 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, was greatly upsetting to Gifford, who has since worked with students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to organize his own community on gun violence prevention.
Gifford’s activism made national headlines last March as a senior at Waukesha North High School when he organized a group to participate in the March 14 National School Walkout in solidarity with the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting. He led more than 70 students to a 17-minute silent protest outside the school, despite Waukesha School District Superintendent Todd Gray’s February 21 email to parents threatening that “participation in a walkout is disruptive and against school regulations, and will subject students to disciplinary measures.” Waukesha was one of two school districts in the country known to have threatened punitive action against students who walked out on March 14; the other was in Needville, Texas.
Ultimately, the Waukesha school district took no action against Gifford or any participants of the walkout. Looking back on Todd Gray’s initial statement, Gifford says, “It is crucial, if you are going to make a public statement, to be clear and correct, instead of implying that you are going to bring disciplinary action against students.”
Now Gifford wants to take his experience and outlook to the Board of Education. “I feel there needs to be some long-term thinking, because right now we have no solutions, it’s just short term referenda,” says Gifford. “We need to focus on the big picture and tackle the big problems we’re facing – for our schools and for our students – so that we don’t have the same issues recurring every year.”
In many ways the town of Waukesha is a metaphor for its schools. Founded as a spa town in the late 19th century, Waukesha was known as the “Spring City;” its natural spring waters made it the Saratoga of the West. But over time, the mineral springs were taken for granted, overexploited. The springs dried up as the city grew to eventually become buried under brick houses and asphalt. Just like the mineral springs, Waukesha has taken its school system for granted, and its resources are beginning to dwindle along with its enrollment numbers. However, unlike Waukesha’s formerly majestic mineral springs, it is not too late for the schools.
Already, the current Waukesha Board of Education is expected to vote on a proposal by its Finance and Facilities Committee to close Blair Elementary School and redistribute its 304 students among neighboring elementary schools in order to increase efficiency and cut costs, despite Blair having a much smaller drop in enrollment in recent years than nearby elementary schools Lowell or Hawthorne. This is after the board concluded that enforcing a set of recently-passed safety requirements on the Blair property would be too costly. Closing Blair is estimated to save the district $500,000 per year in staffing costs, but according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the cost to complete renovations at Hawthorne Elementary necessary to accommodate the new students from Blair will cost at least $500,000.
Gifford says the board is not seriously considering the impact this proposal could have on teachers and other school faculty. Joe Como, the current President of the Board of Education, claims, “We don’t believe we would be laying off anyone; through attrition, people retire.” To Gifford, this sounds like forced retirement.
There are some legitimate reasons to potentially close Blair, Gifford says. The declines in enrollment across the district and lack of security are real concerns, but Gifford says the board has not handled the closing properly in regards to its impact on faculty and the community and has focused too much on budgetary concerns.
Gifford is a strong advocate for increasing school funding. On the idea of closing more schools to save money, Gifford says, “There are better ways to get a return on investment, but you need to invest first, and it’s hard to fund the schools in Waukesha because of the tax cuts that have passed in recent years.” Tax rates in Waukesha have been falling since 2012. Waukesha has lower local taxes than any of the surrounding districts and spends significantly less per pupil than the state average. Gifford wants to stop the board from cutting school spending any further, which unjustly devalues the education of the next generation, he says.
The election for Waukesha Board of Education happens in Waukesha, Wisconsin on Tuesday, April 2. Wisconsin voters can check their registration status online or register in-person at the polls on Election Day.