Education
4:17 pm
Wed February 19, 2014

Analyst: 'Frustration' May Have Led Superintendent Gregory Thornton to Leave MPS

MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton will leave Milwaukee to head up the Baltimore school district.
MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton will leave Milwaukee to head up the Baltimore school district.
Credit WUWM News

As the Milwaukee school board prepares to name an interim superintendent, one education analyst says outgoing Milwaukee Public School head Gregory Thornton took a new gig out of frustration.

Former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel education reporter Alan Borsuk says Thornton has taken a "very lateral move at the age of 59" to become the CEO of Baltimore Public Schools.

"Why would he take this job?...He was frustrated here, I think," Borsuk says. "He never said that publicly, but I feel pretty confident in saying that."

Borsuk, who is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School, says Thornton told him months ago that while change was happening in the Milwaukee district as "fast as they could change," it wasn't as fast as he wished.

"He was frustrated by the board; he was frustrated by the general inertia of change in Milwaukee, that things he wanted to get done couldn't get done," Borsuk says. "He just saw more frustration ahead on that score."

Thornton was named on Monday as the new head of Baltimore's public school system, a district similar in size to Milwaukee and facing similar challenges. Borsuk says another factor in Thornton's decision may have been that the Philadelphia native also wanted to return East.

The Board of Directors of Milwaukee Public Schools will start the process of replacing Thornton at a meeting tonight.

In three and a half years at the helm of MPS, Thornton faced several unique situations. When he was named as superintendent in 2010, the board of education was hoping to fend off an attempt by former Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle to turn the district over to mayoral control.

At the time, Borsuk thought it was an "unpromising situation," but says his early assessment of Thornton was wrong.

"Thornton was a much bigger-time superintendent, he was a much more formidable figure in the job than I had feared when he was named," he says. "So he was a major figure in the last several years."

Not only was Thornton successful in working with the state legislature, including Republicans, but he was able to use some of Gov. Scott Walker's more controversial measures in Act 10, such as cutting commitments to retirees, to stabilize MPS's business situation now and in the future.

"No one would say this publicly - no one had more to gain statewide than Greg Thornton did (from Act 10)," Borsuk says. "(MPS) was financially heading toward really a quite formidable and ominous cliff, so that was important."

While Thornton hoped to push MPS academics toward better test scores, Borsuk says there's been little evidence of progress. But he may have a better shot in Baltimore, where the district is under joint mayoral and state control and has different dynamics with teachers' unions.

MPS is now expected to name an interim superintendent to lead the district until a search yields a new leader. Borsuk says he suspects the board will go with an internal option, and guesses Keith Posley, who as regional executive specialist oversees all of the district's principals, is the likely choice for interim. Other possibilities include: Karen Jackson, HR chief, or Tina Flood, chief academic officer.

But as a former principal, Borsuk says Posley has the strongest presence and is well-spoken. That doesn't necessarily mean he'll get the full-term superintendent position; Borsuk also says there seems to be a curse against interims being named superintendent.

Whoever gets the job will almost immediately begin work on the district budget for next year, as well as address problems with low-performing schools.