Photo by Patti Wenzel

The Milwaukee Public School Board voted to give incoming superintendent Dr. Gregory Thorntoneverything he wants to do his job at the expense of hundreds of professionals who work directly with children. In addition, the board approved an amendment that implemented two furlough days within the district to save the jobs of district painters and other tradesmen. The tradesmen also agreed to accept the district’s lower-cost health plan to avoid the chopping block

Efforts by Board Member Annie Woodward and Board President Michael Bonds to eliminate district administration positions and use the savings to fund a small number of teaching and para-professional positions were easily defeated by large majority votes and vehement argument from outgoing superintendent William Andrekopoulos at Thursday’s special board meeting to approve the proposed 2011 MPS budget.

He described the positions targeted – an administrative coordinator in the superintendent’s office, a secretary for the new Accountability and Efficiency Officer, the assistant safety director and a variety of maintenance workers, as essential to the district and desired by Thornton.

“This position is critical and the person is highly skilled,” Andrekopoulos said about the administrative coordinator. “Dr. Thornton feels this position is important to his transition and running of the office. It would be extremely unfortunate if this passed. You spent a lot of money to hire a new superintendent and provide for his transition and he will start the ground running.  But if you eliminate this position it will set Dr. Thornton back months and will ruin your relationship with him from the start.”

Board member Terry Falk summed up the overall feeling of the board to give Thornton whatever he wanted. “I would like to give him the rope he needs to do what he thinks is right, or to hang himself.”

Other board members noted that the elimination of administration positions would only make a small dent in the hundreds of teacher and para-professionals being eliminated and that it wasn’t a strategic solution. Others asked that the board take a closer look at the perceived “top-heaviness” of the district at a later date.

That top-heaviness grew as three people were appointed to serve as Regional Executive Specialists, a position that will provide support to building principals and also hold them accountable for the success of their students. The job is similar to a current one in the administrative offices, but the new year will transfer management responsibilities to two new labor specialists. Again, moves that are wanted by Thornton to fulfill his goal of improving achievement among students.

Dr. Gregory Thorton, photo by Patti Wenzel

Some of the approved amendments to Andrekopoulos’ budget seem toothless. There are three that require a two-day furlough for all district staff during the annual state teacher’s convention and agreement by three unions to take the district’s low-cost health coverage or pay the difference between the low and high-cost plans. If the concessions occur the  district could restore five assistant principals, 21 digital technology positions and art, music and Phy. Ed teachers current slated for layoffs.  But acceptance of health care concessions are highly unlikely, according to Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association President Mike Langyel, ultimately keeping teachers out of the classrooms.

One amendment returned 5 guidance counselors to the schools, by taking $500,000 from a $1 million charter-school retention fund.

Bonds took a couple shots at a proposal to place $9 million in bonding for an MPS commissary kitchen. He asked for $4 million be moved into energy efficiency projects, such as using solar panels to heat the swimming pools in MPS, $300,000 to upgrade technology at the administration offices and $500,000 to make improvements at Washington High School for a culinary arts program. He added that he was against approving a $9 million bond issue for a project he hadn’t seen materials for prior to the meeting.

Bonds backed off his amendments when the facts were presented. The district’s bonding expert and facilities manager explained that there was $5.9 million in energy efficiency projects in the proposed budget and the pool project would only cost $2 million with the savings taking almost 27 years to materialize. The technology upgrades at the central office would only cost $10,000, not $300,000 and the improvements at Washington could be completed using a school construction fund loan and paid off in 14-17 years.

When Bonds was convinced that approving the $9 million commissary, which could save the district $2.8 million annually in food, wage and benefit costs, was not actually an approval of the plans or even an agreement to sell actual bonds, he backtracked. In were the Washington High improvements paid for with a loan; in was the technology upgrade using funds yet to be discovered in the technology department and out was the plan to heat swimming pools with solar power.

Finally, the board tackled a pressing issue – court reporters taking verbatim minutes at board meetings. Not once, but twice, they voted to eliminate a court reporter from regular board meetings, for a savings of $5,000 annually. Last year, the board stopped using reporters in committee meetings relying on recorded minutes. Falk explained while the $5,000 savings was small “if we find ten other things at $5,000 we’ll have $50,000 in savings and if we find 100 things we’ll save a half million.”

The first vote failed as board members were concerned they wouldn’t have a written record of their meetings. But after a break and huddle with the technology officer the board came back and voted to eliminate the reporters and look for software that will record voices and transcribe simultaneously.

Yes, this is your school board and it will only cost you $1.3 billion during the next school year to keep them. Here’s hoping that buys enough rope for Dr. Thornton to do his job.

The tax levy and mil rates will be set in October by the city of Milwaukee.

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