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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014

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The school board must find a leader who can bring the community in, make allies of enemies and inspire more families to be a part of a public school community.
The school board must find a leader who can bring the community in, make allies of enemies and inspire more families to be a part of a public school community. (Photo: Milwaukee Public Schools)

Picking a new superintendent isn't easy, but this board can do it

It’s a popular and perennial hobby in Milwaukee to beat up on the Milwaukee Board of School Directors and its members. Their job is an important one and it’s naive to think we will always agree with all nine school board directors.

They’ve always been an easy target. For a single, distant example, even years after the district in 1912 changed the designation of schools from district numbers to street names (for example District 16-2 became Clybourn Street School), pols and pundits raged against that seemingly uncontroversial decision.

The point is, there’s little glory in being a school board member in Milwaukee, and likely in most major American cities. Here, the job is paid as a part-time position, but one need look only at the slate of board and committee meetings to get a sense that this is at least a full-time position. After all, these meetings are just one facet.

There are also meetings with schools and community members and interested parties of all stripes. And those folks call and text and email all the time. It is a school board member’s job to be available to constituents and stakeholders. And there is that binder of reading material a school board member gets regularly. More reading than most people do in a year arrives each month.

Now, I’m not saying every board member ever has been as engaged as his or her colleagues. And I’m not saying every board member ever has fought as hard for Milwaukee’s children as his or her colleagues. And I’m not saying every board member ever has read that binder as attentively and comprehensively as his or her colleagues.

There’s room for improvement, surely, but if you frequent board meetings, you’ll quickly get a sense of the passion and dedication that fuels these talented and qualified adults (Mark Sain is a retired firefighter and Jeff Spence works for the MMSD, for example) to take on this second job that, on most days, likely feels thankless and insanely stressful.

Still, they show up day in and day out and work hard.

At the moment, the board is tasked with, among many other things, selecting an interim superintendent to replace the outgoing Gregory Thornton and then choosing a long-term replacement. They’ve already been working toward that end, including at a closed session meeting on Vliet Street Wednesday night.

What does the board need to find? Only this...

  • An interim superintendent that can keep the ship afloat during the search. Someone who can prevent panic, unite the community of students, parents, teachers, administrators and citizens to move forward during the transition.
  • Someone who can protect Milwaukee’s Public Schools from becoming the playthings or get-rich quick schemes of private operators.
  • Someone who will fully support early childhood education for ALL Milwaukee 3 and 4-year-olds and can convince Madison to fund it.
  • Someone who will nurture and continue to grow the district’s best-performing schools – be they traditional, IB, Montessori, language immersion, bilingual programs – and make that success contagious by spurring and encouraging shared knowledge.
  • Someone with the passion and knowledge to fuel innovation in classrooms.
  • Someone that can rebuild bridges between Vliet Street and teachers and administrators, who – one need look only to Facebook this week to see – have felt excluded and worse in the past few years. The blame for that can be spread well beyond the district offices to Madison.
  • Someone who engages and listens to parents.
  • Someone who can continue to cut the dead weight at every level to free up more money for classrooms.
  • Someone who can bring the community in, make allies of enemies and inspire more families to be a part of a public school community.

Will that person be someone who knows the district intimately? Or will it be someone bringing in fresh ideas? Maybe those are the same person.

Can this school board do this? I have faith. I know a number of board members and each and every one is worthy of his or her seat and his or her title.

From the veteran experience and knowledge of Larry Miller, Jeff Spence and Terry Falk, to the passion of the newer, but now-experienced Mark Sain and Meagan Holman, to the fire of the rookies Tati Joseph and Claire Zautke (I exclude Annie Woodward and Michael Bonds only because I don’t know them), this is a board that CAN find a perfect fit, as challenging a task as that is.

Some will cheer and some will jeer whoever is ultimately selected – and I may be among those cheering or jeering – but I have faith that the school board CAN make the right choice for my children and all Milwaukee’s children, and I believe that we need to make ourselves part of the discussion and work with the board.

Though it may feel like an enduring tradition, standing idle on the sidelines hurling epithets is the one thing responsible Milwaukeeans cannot do.

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