Milwaukee’s Most Underestimated Leader?
MPS superintendent Gregory Thornton has quietly righted a ship that once looked ready to sink.
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.
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.
-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.