A Reluctant New MPS Superintendent?

A recent news article out of Pennsylvania raises several troubling questions regarding the newly-hired Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools.

In a controversial move last month, the MPS School Board announced that they had selected Chester Upland School District Superintendent Gregory Thornton to be the next MPS Superintendent, replacing William Andrekopoulos who announced he will retire in June.

But does Thornton really want to be in Milwaukee?

Moreover, given the uncertainty surrounding the governance of the state’s largest school district, has the School Board negotiated a lucrative contract for Thornton that would see him leave with a substantial lump-sum buyout if the State of Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction, the State Legislature, the Governor or the Mayor of Milwaukee gain greater control of the troubled district?

In an article in Wednesday’s Daily Times of Delaware County, PA, but written before he signed his contract with MPS, Thornton laments the uncertainty surrounding governance issues at his Pennsylvania district. 

They describe the current governance set up at Chester Upland: 

Since 2007, Chester Upland has been run by a three-member empowerment board appointed by Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat. With Rendell on his way out, Republicans in the state Senate are considering legislation that could radically altar the makeup of the board.

If passed, the governor would appoint one member of the board and Chester’s mayor and the elected school board — out of power since the state first took control of the district in 1994 — would pick the others. Such an arrangement would virtually assure the current board, responsible for hiring Thornton, would be replaced by a Republican-backed board.

Thorton offers some insight that should have everyone who is concerned about MPS wary of Thorton’s commitment to his new gig in Milwaukee.

He admits the controversy surrounding the Chester empowerment board as being the impetus for his move to Wisconsin.

“This [Chester] board has been very good to me, but, unfortunately, they are not in a position to (guarantee) stable leadership and stable governance going forward.”

He admits to the Daily Times: 

“If none of this was happening, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” 

So, MPS will be getting a new Superintendent who isn’t savoring coming to the city, as much as he is troubled about his current job and the uncertainty surrounding the structure of power there. (Note, Thornton is here as the result of  MPS paying an Iowa research firm $80,000 to conduct this search for a new Superintendent.)

But wait, Thornton thinks the Chester Upland School District’s governance structure is uncertain?  Did he do any research into MPS before accepting the new job here?  Not even a Google search? (Unlike the Iowa Search firm’s work, Google searches are free!)

Or did the MPS School Board calm Thornton’s fears by secretly negotiating a sweetheart deal that gives Thornton an option to take a lucrative buyout in the event efforts to reform MPS are successful?

The Daily Times provided insight into Thornton’s negotiations with MPS:

Thornton said he was holding out for language that would give him “the authority necessary to bring about change that will help kids improve.” He added there was nothing the Chester Upland Empowerment Board could do to make him stay if the Milwaukee Board of School Directors signed off on that language.

Yep, it appears MPS accepted Thornton’s terms. In a show of tough negotiating, the MPS School Board approved a contract Tuesday night that reportedly would pay Thornton $265,000 annually (up $5,000 from the salary they approved last month and $90,000 more than the current Superintendent’s salary) plus fringe benefits. The deal includes a termination provision (golden parachute) if the governance of the district changes and Thornton is dismissed. Plainly, if Thornton is dismissed as the result of the passage of an MPS reform plan, Thornton would be paid, in full, whether he remains as Superintendent or not.

So does Thornton want to be in Milwaukee, or is he just glad to be out of Chester? Either way, looks like he got one hell of a deal, and that’s without knowing just how lucrative his fringe benefits are.

The MPS Board is playing a game of chicken with the State Legislature. If MPS governance changes ever do pass, the gambit will cost taxpayers handsomely. 

Well, it wouldn’t be the first time taxpayers didn’t get their money’s worth out of the state’s largest school district.

By Brian Fraley
A MacIver Perspective