On Tuesday, the Baltimore City Public Schools board approved the four-year, nearly $1 million contract that will bring MPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton to that city on July 1.
So, it was no big surprise that Thornton submitted his letter of resignation to the Milwaukee Board of School Directors Wednesday, effective June 30.
Shortly after, board president Michael Bonds issued a statement, saying, “I’m grateful for Dr. Thornton’s outstanding service to this community. He created a solid foundation on which to build. I want to thank him personally for his work on behalf of this district and wish him best of luck in future endeavors. Dr. Thornton will be missed professionally and personally.”
“Working together,” Thornton wrote in his letter, we have made significant progress in creating (conditions for success) for our students. Although there is still work that remains to be done – there always will be in urban school districts where our children bring the challenges of poverty with them to school every day – much has been accomplished.”
Who will pick up that work after Thornton’s departure is now the discussion. Unsurprisingly, names have surfaced in rumors surrounding both an interim and a permanent replacement. These likely unfounded rumors often contain names from within the district (such as Chief Academic Officer Tina Flood and Chief Human Capital Officer Karen Jackson) and from without (Dr. Desmond Means, superintendent of the Mequon-Thiensville School District).
Though the board has met at least once in a closed-door session to discuss the superintendent’s departure, it will meet again tonight at 7 p.m. The meeting, which was already on the books when Thornton’s letter was submitted, will, according to Bonds’ statement, focus on “preliminary discussions regarding the process of searching for a new superintendent of schools.”
“We’ve already discussed how we would go about a search and when that might take place,” school board director Jeff Spence told OnMilwaukee.com earlier in the day Wednesday. “In the next discussion, it would be about an interim.”
Spence expects that MPS would have an interim superintendent in place for the start of the 2014-15 school year as a search begins for a long-term replacement, who would likely start around July 1, 2015.
“We all realize that once we get his resignation, with the superintendent search cycles, most who would consider (the position) have probably already re-upped in their current districts or have taken different assignments, and most wouldn’t want to leave mid-year.”
Spence added that although planning for a permanent superintendent search will be underway by summer, the actual search would likely pick up speed in autumn. “Because,” he said, “the cycle that usually occurs (means) late fall is when folks will really start looking for other opportunities.”
Unsurprisingly, Spence – like other board members to whom I’ve spoken – is loathe to name any names of potential candidates, either within the district or without – interim or permanent.
“I can honestly say that, from my discussions with other board members, I have not had any discussions about who an interim would be,” he said. “I think what’s important for the board is to understand what qualities they’re looking for in an interim.
“I think that would be a healthy discussion, because you’re not looking necessarily at personality. You’re looking at skill sets and then you go out and do the match. I think it’s important that we’re all on board relative to those qualities that we’re looking for and then we can have the discussions on names and match-up the best folks possible with those qualities.”
In terms of an interim candidate, smart money is on an internal candidate. By July 1, the district’s budget and individual school budgets for FY15 will be in place, as likely will be principal appointments. Under Dr. Thornton’s leadership, the district has done a lot of work to implement district-wide reading, math and science curricula, and has re-centralized many budget items.
What is needed now is stability, sometime to keep the ship righted and sailing ahead until a permanent replacement is found.
“The goal would be to continue along that pathway,” Spence confirmed. “In all likelihood, from an interim perspective, I would imagine that there’s a high probability that person will be an internal. We’ve got initiatives that are the board’s initiatives and we want somebody who understands those initiatives and we want to stay on course.
“Our schools and our communities want, and they tell us this every time, ‘Let’s try to create some stability, let’s not create churn in terms of what we’re trying to achieve.’ So if we’re in the midst of talking with schools about their ongoing journeys, and we want them to build upon their successes, we don’t want a rapid shift for the upcoming school and a possible shift the year after. We want to create some consistency there.”
Spence added that the public will be invited to be engaged in the search for a new superintendent; a process in which the board will likely seek to strike a healthy balance between the stability it aims for in the interim and innovative approaches to the district’s challenges.
That search will most certainly be a wide-open open one, focusing on talent already in MPS and the city, and on talent from outside the area.
“I think we owe that to the people of Milwaukee. Are there capable people internally who are in the area? Yeah, there are capable people that we’ll consider, but it all starts with the board and community articulating what it’s looking for in terms of qualities relative to superintendent.
“The last time that we went through this was, obviously, four years ago and I’d imagine that the engagement with the public would be in the same vein that we did when Dr. Thornton was hired. There will be discussions with the community over vision and values, and what sort of skills and what sort of action are going to be best to deliver on those values.”
Is Spence concerned that with Thornton – who was seen to have been an able politician and adept at working with the business community – leaving and an interim at the helm, those who would like to see the district dismantled will see an opportunity?
“I think that we’ve got enough systems in place where you wouldn’t find voids that could be exposed and taken advantage of,” he said. “Those things very well may happen. I would never suggest that I have a true understanding as to what’s happening in Madison and why it’s happening or, for that matter, whether or not the mayor wants to take a different approach now that the opportunity is there.
“I think that my goal has always been to operate with those partners that could have a profound impact on our young people in a way that’s collaborative.”
On Wednesday, Mayor Tom Barrett said he does not feel the climate in Wisconsin is right to revisit the idea of mayoral control of the schools, something he pushed for in 2009 while the board was undertaking the search that would ultimately bring Thornton to Milwaukee.
“Here’s the problem I have with it right now. I still support that model, very much so. I’ve always felt that (to) the mayor of a large city that education is integrally involved in the future of the city, and that the mayor has to be a big part of that,” said Barrett. “When I broached this in 2009 there was not a single Republican elected official who supported it. Not one. I don’t know that that’s changed. And at that time you had Gov. Doyle, who I felt was committed to the Milwaukee Public Schools.
“I don’t feel the same way right now. I don’t know that you have a governor and legislature that are committed to the Milwaukee Public Schools. I think that their agenda is much more choice-driven and would not mind seeing fewer resources going to the public schools.”
Also, Barrett believes that Thornton helped bring MPS back from a fiscal cliff it was facing and that, too, altered his thinking – at least in the short term – about mayoral control.
“The argument that I was making was a fiscal argument,” Barrett said. “The district was headed toward a cliff at 90 miles an hour if you looked at the long-term. It was just out of control. We had the McKinsey Report that had a lot of recommendations. Many of those recommendations were implemented by the superintendent and the board. I think his legacy is that he got the fiscal house in order. And he did it at an extremely challenging time.”
Barrett added that, as he said in his State of the City address last month, he intends to be involved in the search for a new schools superintendent, though he stopped short of offering a concrete description of what that involvement would look like.
“I want to be very involved in the selection, I’m going to say what I think about the selection,” he said. “I’m going to weigh in whether I’m asked to or not because I think it is important that the mayor and the superintendent have a good working relationship.
“I think someone who sits in that chair understands how important it is to have a good working relationship with the city. I want the kids who go to the schools to do better – that’s the bottom line.”