Three questions for the new superintendent
August 27, 2009
By Jay Bullock
I have often said the only constant in MPS is change; that’s a bit of a simplification. One of the things you might expect to change a lot, based on past experience and what goes on in urban districts around the country, has actually remained constant: current Superintendent William Andrekopoulos is in his eighth and final year in that position.
Now, who gets to choose his successor, that’s the up-in-the-air part. The current elected school board, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the governor, State Superintendent Tony Evers, the Sorting Hat from Hogwarts-all seem like reasonable guesses at this point.
It probably won’t be me. However, that isn’t stopping me from wanting to ask questions of potential candidates.
1. Why Milwaukee? Our last two superintendents have been promoted from within, both principals of successful district schools. Indications are that the search for a new one will be national, with the hopes of landing a game-changer or a rainmaker or some other optimistic cliché for the job. This is no small thing. MPS faces some significant challenges over the next few years: state sanctions, embarrassing test scores, the nation’s largest achievement gap between white and minority students, a looming financial crisis of unprecedented size, disengaged parents, rampant poverty.
So why would anyone want to take that on? What is it about Milwaukee, potential candidate, that makes coming here appealing?
2. How do you plug a $2 billion hole? The budget problems MPS faces are not the fault of the current superintendent, or even any one of the previous leaders of the district, or even of the district itself exactly, but a confluence of dozens of factors mostly beyond our control. That doesn’t mean, of course, that people won’t expect the new superintendent to fix things.
MPS is facing unfunded retiree expenses of more than $2 billion; the McKinsey & Co. audit released last spring noted that even if the district realized the hundred million in annual savings it identified, a few years from now MPS would be broke anyway.
There is no appetite for new taxes, and state budget problems make miracle cures unlikely that way. Even health care reform in Congress seems to be stalling, something that could have helped cut some costs at least a little bit.
So what would you do, potential candidate, to find creative and significant ways of financing the district?
3. How do you plug that hole without significantly affecting achievement? I detailed above some of the significant problems facing MPS. We have outstanding programs among our 200-plus schools, and even pockets of success within many struggling schools. But these are not enough to move the numbers significantly, and they have generally proven hard to replicate.
Which is not to say the last couple of superintendents haven’t tried: If there’s a reform out there somewhere, MPS has given it a go in the last decade. If there’s a grant to be had, MPS has chased it.
And yet the numbers refuse to budge. What would you do to change that?
More Questions Remain
How do you address a dearth of quality school-level leadership in MPS? How do you convince the state’s best college graduates that teaching here is not really as unappealing as it sounds? How do you bring back students and parents who have fled for voucher or suburban schools? How do you convince the parents still here that they must be more involved? But the three above lay out the basics-and the answers candidates give to those should offer a solid picture of what their tenure will look like.
For the Future
I wrote a couple of months ago about the merger of Bay View High School and Fritsche Middle School, from the perspective of staff worried about what the final product will be and whether they will be a part of it.
That final product isn’t here yet, and won’t be for two more years, but you’ll notice some changes as school starts this month.
The biggest change is that Bay View’s ninth-grade students are located at Fritsche. Also at Fritsche, for at least part of the day, are about 20 Bay View High School teachers for those ninth graders. Ninth graders will walk to the high school to participate in sports and pep rallies and such.
The two schools hope to have selected a name by early this fall-subject to school board approval-for the combined 6-12 program that will occupy the high school starting in September 2011. And the high school is already gearing up to replicate some of Fritsche’s features, such as a Project Lead the Way technology lab.
Keep an eye on the Compass for more information about the merger as it proceeds.
Jay Bullock is an English teacher at Bay View High School who blogs at folkbum.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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