By Jay Bullock Special to Published Mar 03, 2014 at 4:09 PM Photography: Bobby Tanzilo

It's old news now that Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton is stepping down to take the helm of the public schools in Baltimore. His four-year tenure here sure seemed brief, but according to those who know, that's about average for leaders of big urban districts.

Finding and keeping good leadership at the top is just hard in districts like MPS. Some of my OnMilwaukee colleagues have already weighed in on Thornton's departure here and here, and I agree with a lot – but not all – of what they have to say.

For example, Dave Begel asks that the new superintendent leave principals much more to their own devices at schools. "No telling schools what to do," Dave says. It didn't make it into the Baltimore Sun story, but one of the things I stressed to the reporter I talked to for their tale of Thornton's Milwaukee days was that Thornton did well by re-centralizing a lot of decisions (something also covered at OnMilwaukee this past week) and turning MPS more into a school system rather than a system of schools, in Thornton's words.

I've been teaching in MPS long enough to have seen the pendulum both where Thornton's leaving it and over where Dave wants it, and it is not always a good thing to give schools total autonomy. MPS's comprehensive literacy plan and math and science plan, which standardize methods of teaching reading and math across the district, were reactions primarily to an outrageous student mobility rate, but they are starting to nudge scores in the right direction. Turn decision making about curriculum back over to individual schools and we'll be back to two dozen reading programs and falling test scores in no time.

Which brings me to my point this week. Over the last two months, the MPS board has been considering – and finally adopted last Thursday – a plan to address its persistently low-performing schools. I've been to the meetings where the plans were discussed and where the board took testimony; I wrote about January's board decision to not decide here.

One thing brought up as much or more than anything else by teachers, parents, and students from these low-performing schools is the leadership of their schools, the principals and assistant principals who oversaw these schools as they fell into low-performing status. Not that people complained about any by name – though a few did by implication; rather, they complained that the leadership in their schools was inconsistent.

Four principals in six years, six principals in 10 years, pick your number – it probably came up. Twice in my own time at MPS, at two different high schools, I worked under three principals within a matter of months, including one woman appointed principal even though everyone knew she had just three months until retirement.

I'm currently teaching at MPS' Bay View High School. When I walk from my classroom to the main office, I walk by the portraits of Bay View's past principals, starting with Gustav Fritsche in 1914. The first three portraits cover the first half-century of the school's existence. I love our current principal – but he is our fifth principal in four years, both a dramatic shift from the way it used to be and, I think, representative of the fight to maintain consistent leadership in struggling schools. Or just to develop quality leadership talent within the district.

MPS is not unaware of this problem, having previously partnered with New Leaders, a national non-profit designed to identify and prepare administrators for challenging urban environments. (New Leaders is currently working with Baltimore – so welcome back, Dr. Thornton, I guess.) When that partnership ended in 2011, it was clear the break-up was not amicable, which seems another strong piece of evidence that MPS's leadership problem is bigger than just filling the top spot.

I don't know what the answer is, exactly. When I talk about this with other people, including two current board members, they ask me why I don't become a principal; fact is, I love the classroom and I would not be happy doing discipline or budgets or evaluations. I am not management material. The MPS board took a step in the right direction by insisting on a three-year commitment from principals at low-performing schools covered by the new plan for turning them around.

This is not foolproof – I once worked under a principal who pledged he would be there for five years; he lasted eight months. But I think it does suggest that the district is going to make a commitment on its end not to pull leaders from schools seemingly on a whim, as happens too often. The board will need to hold the next superintendent to that promise.

As for who the next superintendent should be, I have a favorite candidate. Pretty much from the second Thornton's leaving was confirmed, I started suggesting Demond Means, superintendent of the Mequon-Thiensville schools since 2007. He lives in Milwaukee, so he knows the politics of the state and the state of the city's schools. Moreover, he's shown that he can commit to a district, having been in that district since 1994, according to his bio on the district's website. Whether the current board would be interested in Means – and more importantly, whether he'd be interested in us – remains to be seen.

But I do hope that whoever the board ultimately pursues for the position gets asked not just about what he or she would do leading MPS at the top, but also about leadership in the middle, how to find, train and keep quality leadership in the schools that need it most. That question, I would argue, is by far the most important one the board can ask.

Jay Bullock Special to
Jay Bullock is a high school English teacher in Milwaukee, columnist for the Bay View Compass, singer-songwriter and occasional improv comedian.