Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Superintendent Burmaster Slaps The Governor Around

By - Sep 24th, 2001 06:00 am
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My, how times have changed. When Gov. Tommy Thompson was around, former state Superintendent John Benson walked carefully and seemed afraid of Tommy’s shadow. But the new governor, Scott McCallum doesn’t seem to frighten anyone. And the new superintendent, Elizabeth (Libby) Burmaster, is anything but a Benson-esque milquetoast. Nowadays the superintendent is the aggressor with the governor.

Consider the recent tiff over a seemingly minor issue, funding for the high school graduation test. Burmaster’s communications director John Kraus has announced that her Department of Public Instruction has decided not to continue developing the test, which is a key part of McCallum’s agenda. Even better, Kraus has blamed McCallum for the problem. “The fact is there’s no money for the test,” Kraus says. “It sounds like the governor is turning his back on the graduation test. If he’s not, when will he provide separate legislation [to fund the test]? The governor wants to have his cake and eat it too.”

The test was mandated by the legislature, though it moved the start date back by two years and thus cut the $9.2 million needed to print and administer the test. But McCallum’s budget veto left the old date of 2002 for implementation of the test in place. Since the governor cannot veto in more money, the $9.2 million is still missing.

But McCallum has suggested there may be federal money to pay for this cost, and has added he would support legislation to fund the $9.2 million if the feds do not pick up the cost. In the meantime, he has directed DPI to continue development of the test. The department, after all, was allocated another $5 million to finish its development. “They have the money to finish it,” says McCallum’s communications director Tim Roby.

But Burmaster refuses to continue working on the test. Kraus argues that without the $9.2 million that will eventually be needed to administer it, the credibility of the test is in question. “This is no place to cut corners,” he told the press.

But Roby rejects this as gamesmanship. “We know Burmaster has never supported this test,” he says. “They’re playing some games with it.”

Burmaster declared the high school graduation test “in limbo” after the legislature moved it back two years and suggested she’d rather see the money spent on testing going into instruction. “We’re not the business of producing good test takers,” she told me, while criticizing the emphasis on testing of all kinds.

“John Benson was behind [the high school graduation test] 100 percent,” says Rep. Luther Olson (R-Berlin). “Burmaster seems to be not a fan.”

Burmaster’s stance here seems particularly surprising, since McCallum has been very receptive to her, backing funding for the SAGE program and for four-year-old kindergarten instruction, two key issues for the superintendent. For that matter, McCallum approved a budget giving Burmaster’s department an 11 percent budget increase. Kraus doesn’t deny that Burmaster was happy about this. “We applauded the governor for doing the right thing on SAGE and four year old kindergarten,” he says.

But Burmaster has turned around and stalled action on a pet project of McCallum’s, something he helped create when he was Lt. Governor. Had Benson tried to deal with Thompson this way, the governor would have squashed the superintendent. Thompson, in fact, tried to eliminate DPI and left Benson scurrying to win his favor.

“Things have changed,” Olson notes. As to whether Burmaster is much tougher than her predecessor, he says, “I wouldn’t say a stronger superintendent, I would say a more vocal superintendent. She has some very active press people.”

Notably Kraus, who continues to insist there’s no money to pay for the test. “For the governor to turn his back on what’s in the budget, it’s just irresponsible,” he says.

But Roby says the DPI’s staff has already spent $2.5 million to develop the test and has another $5 million to finish that project. If federal money to fund the test’s administration doesn’t come through as hoped, he notes, “the governor’s veto message said ‘I will propose other funding.’ That doesn’t mean he’s going to support new legislation two weeks after the budget is passed.”

“If I were in her spot, I would meet with the governor and see how we can get this thing done,” Olson says of Burmaster.

But Kraus blames McCallum for the whole problem.”What’s his plan?” he asks. “If he knows something we don’t know, then why doesn’t he let everyone know?”

Short Takes

Gov. McCallum’s effort to raise money for victims of the terrorists turned into an embarrassment. The little publicized event was held at Milwaukee’s Italian Community Center on September 21, around the same time as President Bush’s address to the nation. Attendance was sparse, and one attendee predicted heads could roll in the McCallum administration because of the failure.

Marilyn Goes to Madison: The recent hiring of Marilyn Figueroa by State Sen. Gary George offers yet more evidence contradicting her claim that she had to continue working for the mayor because she lacked a college degree and was not marketable. Even Rep. Pedro Colon (D-Milwaukee), who was her first attorney, concedes the obvious. “Sure, she could have walked away [from the mayor’s office] to many jobs.” George is likely to use Figueroa’s help organizing in the Latino community for his gubernatorial bid.

More on the Gov’s Race: Dane County Exec. Kathleen Falk, a candidate for governor, hopes to get campaign funding from Emily’s List, the national group that bankrolls women candidates. But she didn’t make the first cut, her campaign manager Tom Russell admits. “They’ve been very encouraging,” he says. But if they don’t come through with money, that will damage Falk’s candidacy.

Falk, by the way, is the fiancé of Rep. Peter Bock (D-Milwaukee). Under the law, both must live in their respective districts. Will they be meeting in a motel in Jefferson?

Congressman David Obey is supporting Tom Barrett in the race for governor. Strategists for both Barrett and his competitor Jim Doyle agree about this, though Obey has made no public declaration and declined to be interviewed about it. “He hasn’t made an official endorsement but he’s been very helpful in opening doors for us,” says Barrett’s campaign manager.

As for Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, “he’s indicated he’s unlikely to endorse anyone,” Joel Brennan adds. He expects Norquist’s wife, Susan Mudd, will endorse her fellow environmentalist Falk.

Falk says she would welcome that endorsement. She also says she conducted a poll prior to entering the governor’s race, which showed it was wide-open. “The poll was the basis of my deciding to run,” she says. What kind of results did it show for her? “We’re not going to give that out,” Falk says.

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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