Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Milwaukee’s Most Underestimated Leader?

MPS superintendent Gregory Thornton has quietly righted a ship that once looked ready to sink.

By - Nov 5th, 2013 12:01 pm
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Gregory Thornton.

Gregory Thornton.

It’s remarkable how seldom Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent Gregory Thornton pops up in the news. He’s been on the job about three-and-a-half years, which is about the average tenure for a big city superintendent, and has signed a contract that takes him through 2016. Yet he’s mostly known for occasional news stories with observers questioning whether he intends to stay in town. Meanwhile, he has quietly done a solid job running the schools.

You could argue that the two toughest public sector jobs in Milwaukee are those of police chief and school superintendent. Indeed, they may be the toughest jobs in the state. Both leaders must deal with all the social problems caused by the biggest concentration of urban poverty in Wisconsin, and the challenges that presents for cops and teachers.

As writer Erik Gunn observed in Milwaukee Magazine, both Thornton and Police Chief Ed Flynn are outsiders to the city who came with a fresh perspective and use data-driven strategies to improve the systems they run.  Yet, while Flynn is constantly in the news, Thornton largely operates below the radar.

Thornton’s biggest accomplishment may have been to simply stop the bleeding. “Financially, he’s righted the ship,” says school board member Terry Falk. “He’s made some tough decisions. There are a lot of people who thought we’d be out of business by now.”

Thornton took over a system with major legacy costs for employee benefits — driven by perks like lifetime health insurance for eligible retirees.  Even before Gov. Scott Walker’s move to slash government benefits, Thornton had worked out a deal with the teachers union, with the help of a more progressive union president, Bob Peterson, to increase employee contributions to benefits. MPS statistics show it has saved $150 million on government benefits on his watch.

Thornton has also made tough decisions to layoff teachers and cut other expenses to make his budget, without destroying the core product being offered by MPS.

In fact, he’s found ways to improve the system’s offerings. In an era where schools are jettisoning art, music and phy ed courses in the push to emphasize basic skills, Thornton has actually added 90 specialists in those areas. That is no small thing, given abundant research that art and music instruction has spillover benefits, helping students excel in other courses.

Thornton has also increased the International Baccalaureate program, the Montessori school offerings and Head Start enrollment at MPS.

To encourage graduates to enroll in a vocational or four-year college, Thornton has created two College Access offices on 27th and Fond du Lac and on 27th and Morgan which are open daily all summer and evenings and weekends during the school year. Each is staffed by a licensed high school counselor and aides who provide information and help to students and families. Thornton has also pushed the system to enhance its efforts to help students gain scholarships. Scholarship money going to students grew from $18 million in 2012 to $24 million in 2013.

Thornton at one point announced a plan to “bringing the central office to the parents by opening five parent centers throughout the community.” As it turned out he has only been able to create three such centers, at North Division and South Division high schools and the Washington High School of Information Technology. Still that’s another improvement.

Thornton radiates a can-do attitude about a school system that has been viewed in a negative light for years. “He has this confidence,” says Falk. “He’s always saying we’re going to get this done, never complaining. I think that permeates the community and creates a certain confidence in the system.”

That may help explain why he’s also stopped the bleeding when it comes to enrollment. MPS enrollment had plummeted since 2004, dropping by an average of nearly 3,000 students per year through 2009, but the system only lost about 1,500 in the 2011-’12 school year and actually increased enrollment slightly this school year.

Thornton has also made some inroads getting support from the business community, which gave up on MPS (in favor of school choice) back in the mid-1990s and hadn’t budged on the issue since then. He won a $20 million grant from General Electric’s foundation and took an MPS team over to Manpower Inc for advice on how to attract good teachers and administrators, and has created a partnership with the Greater Milwaukee Committee. All told, MPS has garnered $178 million in competitive government and private sector grants on his watch.

The MPS graduation rate for 2012 is 14 percentage points higher than the rate for the Class of 2000, its statistics show, but student achievement as measured on test scores hasn’t changed much. Thornton himself conceded students need to do better, and MPS officials hope the project to align curriculum with achievement ACT tests will have a long-term payoff.

Falk’s main criticism is that Thornton sometimes seems inaccessible, particularly to journalists. Thornton, he says, was stunned by how much attention the schools got and the need to handle everything in a very public way. “He was flabbergasted by this in his first year here,” Falk reveals, “he said, ‘how do you guys get anything done?’”

That was probably a factor in the case of the proposed sale of the Malcolm X school building, which created a firestorm of criticism, with Republicans charging Thornton was deliberately refusing to sell to competitors who run choice schools, and proposing legislation to force such sales.

Falk blames the whole thing on Thornton’s preferred way of doing business. Thornton worked for 30 years in a different environment in Pennsylvania and Maryland, where he was able to operate based on personal relationships and handshake agreements and there was less emphasis on open records and public bids, Falk says, “but that’s not how we do things in Wisconsin.” In the case of the Malcolm X deal there were far more details than it looked like, “but he hadn’t put anything on paper,” Falk adds.

Since then, the controversy has died down. MPS has worked with the city of Milwaukee to nail down the details of the deal, and city lobbyists have made progress on compromises that would make the proposed legislation less inflexible regarding the sale of MPS school buildings.

On a short-term basis, the incident may have hurt Thornton’s image. But when you compare his tenure to that of his predecessors, there has been a lot less turmoil (the superintendent has benefitted from a more unified school board, Falk says) and a lot more confidence about the system radiating to the community. Thorton has, on balance, done a solid job in a very difficult position. Which is good news for Milwaukee.

Short Takes 

-Largely overlooked in all the hubbub over Malcolm X school was veteran journalist Alan Borsuk’s revealing piece showing that most of the so-called empty MPS buildings are actually old, decrepit and unwanted, while most of the usable buildings have been put to good use by MPS.

-Thornton has also been strategic about his salary, letting it be known he was being considered for a job elsewhere, and even complimenting Journal Sentinel reporter Erin Richards (“You’re good”) for reporting this, and then winning a new contract from the school board.  The contract in essence gives him a 3.1 percent lump-sum bonus over and above his base salary of $265,000, which will carry him through 2016. I’d say he’s worth it.

Categories: Murphy's Law

10 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Milwaukee’s Most Underestimated Leader?”

  1. Patty Thompson says:

    Bruce, perhaps you can expand your sources beyond just one school board member.

  2. Andy says:

    I sort of agree with Patty in a way… I think this story would be much better served if in a longer expose’ on Thornton and how he’s affected MPS. I want to believe things have improved or even that they are capable of improving, but I need more then this. In any discussion about how he has improved MPS, I need to see the low test scores addressed as well. Thorntons performance is just too big of a topic for an article this size.

    Maybe we can see more down the road? Make me believe Bruce, make me believe!

  3. Patty Thompson says:

    See, Bruce, it’s because we all appreciate your writing expertise and your ability to get to the heart of the matter!

  4. bruce murphy says:

    To Andy and Patty: Long exposes are really not what we’re able to do at Urban Milwaukee. I did reference the Milwaukee Mag story, which was probably 5,000 words or so. I think of my columns as the longtime political columnist Walter Lippmann used to describe his, as a “beam of light” on an issue or issues. I think this is a different take than anyone has offered to date on Thornton, but it’s not meant to be the last word. I’m sure he’s a subject we’ll return to in the future.

  5. Josh Zepnick says:

    Good piece on Thornton and how he has leveraged the many positives of MPS to gain further strength amidst an often dismal political climate or public attitude. In my capacity as a State Legislator and Chair of the Milwaukee Delegation, it’s been a refreshing learning experience to meet with Thornton and his team including 2 recent “Tours of Milwaukee Schools” which have included Democrats and Republicans, Milwaukee legislators and folks from other parts of the state. We have seen how some tough decisions, savvy collaborating with employees/union, and a very spirited, passionate personality that Thornton exudes have combined to achieve results that frankly would surprise many people who have opinons, one way or another, about MPS. The tours made a huge impact for myself and my colleagues: motivated students, talented educational staff, courage and creativity in management. He is frank and blunt as well as upbeat and positive. Those don’t always flow well with others in Milwaukee leadership positions, where self protection or parochial turf issues overtake getting things done. I was one of those who was in both cases, Thornton and Chief Flynn, was skeptical…but perhaps them coming from different areas and willing to shake things up along with both individuals having strong political instincts and powerful behind the scenes champions is just what’s needed. I’m impressed with the results at both MPS and MPD. As for Walter Lippman, have not heard his name since Graduate school at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Was never a fan of his view of citizens and democracy: (Wiki) “Early on Lippmann said the “bewildered herd,” his way of referring to the masses, must be governed by “a specialized class whose interests reach beyond the locality.” This class is composed of experts, specialists and bureaucrats. The experts, who often are referred to as “elites,” were to be a machinery of knowledge that circumvents the primary defect of democracy, the impossible ideal of the “omnicompetent citizen”. So, I’m more with John Dewey on that front. Lippmann was also wrong on America’s need to respect the growing Soviet Union and wrong on the eventual link between Soviet and Cuba.

  6. Bruce murphy says:

    Josh, interesting comment on Thornton, thanks. As to Lippmann, I don’t agree with some of his views, and his style of writing probably wouldn’t work today, but he didn’t dumb down his columns and was hugely influential in his day.

  7. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Over the last 50 years I have read thousands of articles about supers, teachers, testing curriculum, organization, funding but damn little on how the present board and super are going to teach better. How have reading scores changed in the last 40, 30, 20, 10 years despite the tremendous increase in funding? Nothing else matters.

  8. Paul Calhoun says:

    Is it not true that Milwaukee Public Schools test scores rank just above Detroit which is dead last?

  9. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    The apologists for the leadership on the school board, the multi number of failures of supers and the leftists leaders cover their asses every day with columns like this and then the hard facts come out, like today in Journal, and they lie, lie and lie and keep going on destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands of kids. Bruce you should all go down to the schools and apologize to these kids ever day for the Liberals failures in this community.

  10. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Where are the comments about the latest news about the accomplishments of the people in Milwaukee?

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