Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Can the New State Superintendent Succeed?

By - Jul 2nd, 2001 12:47 pm

Herbert Grover is not impressed with the credentials of Elizabeth Burmaster, the new State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Grover, who formerly held the position and now is a consultant helping school districts hire administrators, says he couldn’t recommend Burmaster for a position running the Green Bay school district, much less the entire state. “Maybe for a starting superintendent of a district with less than 1,000 children,” he says. “She has no terminal degree. She has a masters but no administrative preparation.”

“Thompson was starving DPI,” says Bert Grover. “She could be inheriting an empty box.”

Ken Cole, head of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, says “it’s going to be a steep learning curve for Burmaster. She’s been a principal [at Madison West], but this is very different.”

Burmaster also lacks experience working with the legislature, which has led some to question how effective she can be. “The legislature is a difficult arena,” says Cole. “I think it will take time for her to feel comfortable with how it works.”

As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, Burmaster is inheriting a Department of Public Instruction whose power has been diminished after years of attacks by former Governor Tommy Thompson. “They’ve been dying the death of a thousand cuts,” says Grover. “Thompson was starving them. She could be inheriting an empty box.”

Statistics from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau show the number of employees in DPI dropped from 734 in 1990 to 617 in 1995, during a time when most of state government was expanding. Since then, some of that loss has been made up, as the number rose to 657, but LFB analyst Layla Merrifield says this probably represents a growth from federal funding, not state funding.

DPI would have shrunk even further if not for the legislature’s decision to expand the state testing program, which required more employees to handle it. Burmaster’s predecessor John Benson embraced this issue, but he was really responding to pressure from Thompson and the legislature.

“Burmaster’s going to have that same problem as long as education is such a priority,” Cole predicts. “The legislature and executive will be advancing a lot of the key ideas. DPI will be more the implementer of ideas than of her own ideas.”

Burmaster seems formidable, with plenty of steel behind the smile.

Burmaster herself concedes DPI has been hurt: “Education has been a real battleground and that’s had a paralyzing effect,” she says.

But Burmaster exudes optimism about what she can accomplish. She makes much of the fact that the people have spoken, and voted for her ideas. Most observers would probably argue Burmaster won largely because no one particularly liked her opponent Linda Cross, who was already a two-time loser for the position.

Burmaster was fairly effective on the stump, but one-on-one, she’s more impressive. She radiates warmth, has a winning smile that appears often, and lives up to her friendly nickname of Libby “She’s very engaging,” says Cole.

But at age 47, she also seems formidable, with plenty of steel behind the smile. She quickly corrects me for suggesting she might operate as a cheerleader for public education. “Not the cheerleader. Maybe the quarterback.”

Burmaster is articulate and energetic in handling questions. She presents herself as a champion of public education, and talks about the need for smaller classes, more emphasis on reading instruction, and more efforts to recruit, retain and improve the training of teachers. No surprises there.

But on sticky issues, she offers smart, nuanced positions. Rather than pushing to dismantle the Milwaukee school choice program, Burmaster suggests it should be subject to the same accountability as public schools, to see if choice really works. She is willing to go along with the push for a state high school graduation test, which will expand her department’s power, but wants each school district to decide if the test should be a prerequisite for graduation, a stand that will please local administrators.

Grover was surprised by Burmaster’s appointments. “She’s put together a better administrative team than Benson had,” he says. Grover notes that Burmaster has appointed very good people who also have connections to key power bases: Tricia Yates, Burmaster’s executive assistant, formerly worked with the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state teachers union, which provides a natural connection. Tony Evers, her choice for Deputy State Superintendent, lost to Burmaster in the primary and formerly worked as chief administrator of Cooperative Educational Service Agency 6, which serves 42 school districts and gives Evers a strong connection to school administrators.

But Burmaster seemed to draw heavily on Madison people for her appointments, which drew criticism from Milwaukee officials. It has also concerned smaller school districts from the northern half of Wisconsin, Cole says. “I have heard people say, ‘oh, it’s all Madison appointments.’ That will be a problem for her: how she demonstrates that she understands the problems of all districts.”

But Burmaster promises to be the superintendent of all the people and says “you’re going to see a significant presence on my part in Milwaukee.”

If Republican legislators are to take Burmaster seriously, they must be convinced she is not in bed with the powerful teacher’s union, which has always been aligned with Democrats. Because Burmaster was not well liked by the Madison teachers’ union, she did not get the WEAC endorsement until after the primary, and didn’t rely on WEAC to get elected. “She doesn’t come with a lot of political baggage,” Cole says. “I think she’s positioned to be way more independent than her predecessor. And that will be good for everyone.”

To judge by how Burmaster won election, she seems to be a very focused and shrewd operator. She gained the incumbent’s endorsement and may have been tipped off that Benson was going to retire. Long before he disclosed his plans, Burmaster was preparing to run.

“I met with her more than a year ago,” Cole reveals. “She was way ahead of the others.”

“Her campaign was tremendously well-organized,” says George Aldrich, who served as her fundraiser. Burmaster’s choice of Aldrich was strategic, as it gave the Madison-based candidate better access to Milwaukee money. And Burmaster was willing to invest $100,000 of her own money (reportedly mortgaging her home), which helped her lead all candidates in spending for the crucial primary election.

Is a smart candidate likely to become a smart superintendent? Cole, despite some reservations, would bet on Burmaster. “I think she will be good for the state,” he predicts.

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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