The Year That Was

TCD’s top news stories of 2010

By - Jan 3rd, 2011 04:00 am
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Photo by Brian Jacobson

Pizza Man burns

Starting the year off on a heartbreaking note, East side institution Pizza Man burned to the ground in January, taking four other local businesses and several apartments along with it. At first it was rumored that the owners would rebuild; now there is a for sale sign on the empty lot that once created memories for thousands of Milwaukee residents. R.I.P., Pizza Man. We’ll always remember you.

MPS hires Gregory Thornton as superintendent

Dr. Gregory Thornton by Patti Wenzel

In what could be seen as a poke in the governor’s eye, the Milwaukee School Board hired Dr. Gregory Thornton as the next superintendent of the state’s largest public school system in the midst of a mayoral control debate.

Thornton is an interesting choice for a number of reasons, not least because he is the first MPS superintendent to be in favor of school choice. And not just open enrollment or public charter schools, but the Milwaukee Parental School Choice program that allows students to attend private and parochial schools not under the control of the district.

Thornton came to MPS with a team and philosophy committed to finding and executing best practices, whether modeling from other public schools or successful private and parochial schools.

“We are using everything at our disposal,” Thornton said. “We don’t know the code that will unlock the hearts and brains of students. We need a total school effort.”

Portions of the Zoo Interchange closed

The closure of  Highway 45 through the Zoo Interchange wasn’t long-lasting, but it did highlight a long-simmering misuse of transportation funds and the priorities of some state politicians.

Following a routine inspection, cracks in bridge supports were determined too dangerous to allow traffic over the northbound 45 bridges through the interchange and southbound 45 to eastbound I94. The bridges were immediately shut down and a reconstruction went into high gear. In less than two weeks, the detours and traffic jams ended and traffic returned to normal.

But the finger-pointing among politicians simply highlighted something many of us who drive the Zoo daily have known: the intersection is outdated, dangerous and falling apart, and should have been rebuilt as soon as the last concrete was poured on the Marquette. Instead, the crisis highlighted the misuse of transportation dollars to fill holes in the general budget and the politics that dictated that projects on southbound I94 and the Mitchell Interchange be moved ahead of the busiest intersection in the state.

Hopefully, the temporary repairs completed on the Zoo will hold long enough for a full reconstruction to begin.


Courtesy Office of Congressman Dave Obey

Dave Obey calls it quits

After serving 41  years in Washington, representing the northwestern quarter of the state, Dave Obey announced he would not seek re-election in 2010. It was a stunning announcement from the veteran lawmaker, who held one of the most powerful positions in the House, that of Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee (or keeper of the nation’s purse). Obey cited that he was “bone-tired” from his long service and wanting to spend time with his family and playing his harmonica.

He went to Washington with three goals in mind – to help make the economy fairer for poor and middle class working families, to expand federal support for education and to make it possible for every American to receive health care. Obey was instrumental in bringing millions of dollars to northern Wisconsin leaving numerous bridges, libraries, jobs programs and public health facilities as monuments to his power and a lasting legacy to his work.

While he was known for his gruff and intense way of conducting business, he was able to turn on the folksy, rural charm with the voters. Of the many times I covered him, Obey came across as a kindly professor willing to go over the most minute details of a bill with me. He will be missed, even by those who didn’t agree with his politics, and should be honored for his long service to the citizens of not only his district, but the entire nation.

MPS cuts hundreds of teachers; union finally makes concessions

Teacher rally by Patti Wenzel

Facing the loss of federal stimulus funding and health care costs that take up a more of the budget than the actual payroll, the MPS school board balanced next year’s budget by cutting 1,000 teachers, teaching assistants and substitute positions at the behest of outgoing Superintendent William Andrekoupolus.  Lost among the pink slips were first and second-year teachers who had won accolades for their work in some of the district’s toughest schools.

The laid-off teachers were vocal in their disappointment with the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association and its reluctance to discuss changing health benefit payouts with the district. Many of the teachers Patti Wenzel spoke to at board meetings expressed their willingness to pay more towards health insurance premiums or even switch to the lower cost insurance offered by the district if it would keep them in front of students.

For its part, MTEA representatives said they had not been formally asked to reopen the contract and change how health premiums were paid.

By the time classes resumed in September, many of the teachers were hired back after others took early retirements or other jobs. And soon after that, Superintendent Thornton (on the job for just over two months) won concessions from the union increasing health insurance contributions by teachers, something that MTEA President Mike Langley had said was out of the question.

Was 2010 we entered an era of cooperation between the MTEA and MPS administration? Only time will tell.


Photo by Patti Wenzel

The Brew City Flood

Water, water everywhere… July saw the skies open and dump more rain on the county than had happened in years. The resulting flood on Milwaukee’s near north side washed an entire neighborhood off its foundations, filled the streets of Shorewood with wet, moldy furniture, toys and clothing, delayed the start of classes at Nicolet High School and even swallowed a Cadillac Escalade on North Ave.

There have been arguments as to root cause of so much damage:- seven inches of rain in a matter of two hours and steady rain for another 36 hours following; storm sewers closed by the city to accommodate road construction projects; the failure of the deep tunnels to capture rain water; even misguided neighbors who opened manholes to sewage lines to give water a place to go. No matter what was really to blame, thousands of area residents were uprooted from homes, jobs, and schools. The costs to repair the mess ran into the millions and the political fallout when FEMA refused to cover certain damages made some think this meteorological event was Obama’s mini-Katrina.

Eventually the Federal Emergency Management Administration came around and provided limited assistance to displaced homeowners, but for many it was too late. They had lost their homes and lifestyles to the whims of Mother Nature.

This train will not be stopped… Oh, never mind

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s infamous comment in July that the proposed high-speed train between Milwaukee and Madison would not be stopped provided a rallying point for conservatives and Tea Party supporters who threw their support behind then-gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker and his unequivocal promise that he would keep a proposed high speed rail project from coming to Wisconsin.

Some think Walker and his followers are being short-sighted for not taking the $810 million in federal funds for the project and will live to regret it. Others believe Walker did the right thing.

Republicans sweep mid-term elections

Probably the biggest story of 2010 was the wave of Republicans that washed over Madison and Washington in the November elections. Scott Walker elected governor; Ron Johnson completely surprising most everyone by ousting three-term senator Russ Feingold; the state assembly and senate turning red and the federal House also going to the GOP. Say goodbye to Nancy Pelosi and get the speaker’s chair ready for John Boehner, now third in line to the presidency.

President Obama acknowledged the “shellacking” his party received and even came to an agreement with the GOP to extend the Bush tax rates to all taxpayers with additional tax cuts in the payroll tax rate. But Obama held firm on repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and approving the START proposal with some Republican cooperation.

Could this be the beginning of a beautiful friendship?  Probably not.

Sue Sachdeva sentenced

Seldom have the mighty fallen harder in these parts than Ms. Sachdeva did after her arrest in December of 2009. Once a sought-after non-profit board member and all-around society grande dame, Sachdeva had been a trusted employee of Milwaukee-based Koss Corporation for 20 years, 17 of which saw her signing financial documents for the company as VP of Finance. But Sue had a dark side that manifested itself in binge shopping and largesse she couldn’t afford on her and her (soon to be ex-) husband’s salaries alone. By the time of her arrest she’d made off with over $33 million in Koss funds, some of which, at least, were used to purchase over 22,000 seized items, ranging from clothes and jewels to her Mercedes Benz – all to be auctioned off to help defray the company’s losses. In November she was sentenced to 11 years in prison, most likely to be served in Northern California, near her parents, who are now custodians of the Sachdevas’ children.

Laurie Bembenek dies without a pardon

Laurie Bembenek in 1981

Whether you see her conviction as a clear miscarriage of justice or dismiss it as one of the most oddly handled murder trials in Wisconsin history, nobody can argue that Ms. Bembenek attested to the last her innocence in the 1981 murder of her then-husband’s ex-wife, Christine Schultz.

Sure, she confessed and was convicted and sentenced. Sure, she escaped from prison and went on the run. But for many, that proves nothing. Within the last five years, new evidence in the form of confessions by crime lab employees points to a massive cover-up in the original investigation. Among those old enough to remember, heated debates still take place over whether the “Playboy Bunny Killer” really did it. Ms. Bembenek died in December in a hospice in Portland, Oregon. She was 52.

Did we miss one? What other major stories of 2010 have stayed with you? Feel free to share more stories below in the comments section.

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