Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Is Superintendent Korte In Trouble With The School Board?

By - Aug 22nd, 2001 12:11 pm

At first glance, Milwaukee school superintendent Spence Korte looks like he could be on the chopping block. One school board member predicts he could be gone in one year. A recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial informed readers Korte has been working for seven weeks “without a contract” and his status is “in limbo.”

Korte does have a contract, but he’s waiting to hear what the board’s goals are, and whether he will be more than a figurehead.

In fact, “the Journal was completely off base,” board member Jennifer Morales says. According to several board members and Korte himself, the superintendent has a contract that is good for two more years. Under state law, the board would have had to give Korte four months notice of termination before his contract expired on July 1st; since no notice was given, Korte’s contract was automatically renewed for another two years.

But if the Journal Sentinel was dead wrong on the details, it did capture the spirit of an obviously divided board. Board members had been talking about creating a new contract for Korte, rather than simply letting the current one continue by default, but those discussions have foundered. “I think they’re having serious problems figuring out how they’re going to work with each other and I’m kind of a lightning rod in that discussion,” Korte says.

The old school board had been united behind Korte, but the last round of elections brought in new members like Morales and Peter Blewett, who had the backing of the Milwaukee teachers union, and who seem less excited about Korte.

Some board members are optimistic they can come together. “I really don’t think there is that much disagreement among us,” says board member Joe Dannecker. “I think some people are disagreeing just to disagree. There seem to be some ego clashes.”

“It’s not as much egos as it’s political payback,” charges board member Kenneth Johnson, which appeared to be a shot at newcomers Morales and Blewett.

Morales says she was a victim of the old board as a parent. “We’re arrogant,” she charges, speaking of both the board and the administration. “We need to take parental concerns seriously. We don’t treat people respectfully.”

“I totally disagree with that,” says Johnson. “We haven’t been a board that panders to special interests and the same 25 people who show up at every meeting.”

This kind of squabbling adds difficulties for a board that has “people representing a full range of opinion on the issues,” according to Morales.

Nor does it help that the new board president, Lawrence O’Neil, “didn’t run on any particular vision or agenda,” as Dannecker puts it. “He really hasn’t been our strategic planning leader to this point.”

The previous board went on a series of Saturday retreats, notes Johnson, “so we all understood where we were going. We got on the same page after we had the retreats.” This time around, says Dannecker, “you’re talking long Saturdays, I think.”

Still, board members seem to agree they need some retreats again, and expect board member Jeff Spence, who is chair of strategic planning, will set these up. “We need to talk about how success is measured, how we as a board are going to measure Korte’s performance,” Johnson says.

The recent poll had dreadful results for Gov. Scott McCallum. It looks like any Democrat would run a strong race against him.

In the meantime, Korte does not seem too concerned about his contract. In fact, he is probably in a very strong position to get a job elsewhere, whereas the board would be hard put to find an equally capable successor. The recent history in Milwaukee, with national searches that ended with choices like Alan Brown or Robert Peterkin, suggests how hard it can be to find a strong leader for a big city school system.

For Korte, the situation is simple. “I’ll work very hard if things are going somewhere,” he says. ” I’m not interested in being a figurehead.”

Trouble for the Governor

The recent poll on the governor’s race offered dreadful results for Scott McCallum. After eight months as acting governor, and a chance to seize the initiative on a variety of budget-related issues, he has acquired astonishingly high negatives: only 30% of respondents have a positive view of McCallum, while 21% have an unfavorable view. McCallum is already running behind Attorney General Jim Doyle and is barely ahead of Congressman Tom Barrett (D-5th District), which seems like very good news for these two Democrats, but upon further observation, mostly shows how weak McCallum is. Even state Sen. Gary George (D-Milwaukee), who has little statewide profile, polled 25 percent of the vote when pitted against McCallum, who got 43 percent.

At this point, it appears, any Democrat would run a strong race against McCallum. The race is so wide open that Congressman Ron Kind (D- 3rd District) is now on the verge of announcing. And behind the scene, possible Republican challengers like Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen are doubtless chomping at the bit to run in the GOP primary against McCallum.

Trouble for the Mayor

It’s become obvious the Journal Sentinel is out to get Mayor John Norquist. A front-page story chastised Norquist for not making time to greet President George Bush on his visit here. Deep into the story, we learned Norquist actually was not invited to meet with Bush.

Just one year ago, the MJS might have ignored the story or even speculated as to whether Republican Bush was snubbing Democrat Norquist. But the newspaper, from its editorial board on down, appears to have reached the conclusion the mayor is a bad guy. The tip-off was that the paper, in the absence of City Hall reporter Greg Borowski, assigned the story to Meg Kissinger. Of the hundreds of journalists at the paper, Kissinger is known as one of the sassiest (or irreverent, as we like to say here at Milwaukeeworld). Kissinger turned in a typically punchy story accusing Norquist of bad manners.

One theory floating around is that the mayor’s handlers, prior to his election, muscled the MJS to lay off the Figueroa story, arguing that it was a non-story. Now, the theory goes, the newspaper is getting its payback. Whether true or not, the story reflects the perception that Norquist has run afoul of the MJS. The mayor’s aides seem completely frustrated by the coverage their boss is getting, and perplexed as to how they might solve what has become a major media problem.

That is a perilous situation for a sitting mayor, all the more so should he decide to run for reelection. As the latest broadside against the mayor by its TV-radio columnist Tim Cuprisin proves, the city’s only daily newspaper can make life very, very hard for John Norquist.

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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