May 15, 2005
In 1992, a call for help came in from employees of the Milwaukee Public Museum. Seems that privatization of the museum was on the table. Keep in mind that the Museum of Natural History is a gem. It is one of the great natural history museums in the nation.
We learned that Milwaukee County had already privatized the audio-visual department of the museum. The story is hard to believe. An employee went to the board with an offer to purchase $4.8 million dollars worth of equipment and film for one dollar. In return, he would "take this off your hands." Incredibly, the board accepted the deal and our lucky citizen had a corporation worth nothing on day one and $4.8 million on day two. He could walk into the bank and borrow lots of money. Collateral? All those assets he got for one dollar.
For reasons never fully understood, AFSCME Council 48 went along with the plan. The argument from "friends of the museum" went something like this: "If you privatize the management of the museum, donors will give more money than they would to a public entity and our private managers know how to manage."
In a debate at the Milwaukee Unitarian Church, an attorney for the privatizers argued, "We will show that we can run the museum, the zoo, the airport and the highways more efficiently."
The Milwaukee County Board approved, the Circuit Court seemed sympathetic to the worker's complaint but ruled, in essence, that it was a done deal. The Supreme Court affirmed and privatization was a "done deal."
Fast forward to this week. Millions of dollars missing; 45 percent staff cuts; disaster looming. The privatized Board governing the museum was surprised with the $4 million shortfall. So much for better management.
The losers? Students in the future, today's scholars, and the employees. A lesson learned? We shall see.
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