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Monday, July 14, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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EDUCATION

Madison school district superintendent finalists come with not insignificant baggage

Dr. Jenifer Cheatham and Dr. Walter Milton, Jr.
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After paying an Iowa-based headhunting firm $30,975 to develop a candidate profile and launch a three-month nationwide recruitment effort, and after screening 65 applications, the Madison school board has narrowed its superintendent search down to two finalists. Dr. Jennifer Cheatham is chief of instruction for Chicago Public Schools, and Dr. Walter Milton, Jr., is superintendent of Springfield Public Schools in Illinois.

Parents and community members will get a chance to meet both finalists at a forum at Monona Terrace starting at 5:45 p.m. Thursday night. But despite the exhaustive and expensive search, the finalists aren't without flaws.

Cheatham was appointed to her current post as chief of instruction in June of 2011 by Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, who has since resigned. According to her district bio, Cheatham's focus is improving urban school districts by "developing instructional alignment and coherence at every level of a school system aimed at achieving breakthrough results in student learning." Cheatham received a master's and doctorate in education from Harvard and began her career as an 8th grade English teacher. But she found herself in a harsh spotlight as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and district officials pushed for a contentious 7.5 hour school day last year, which became one of many big issues that led to the Chicago teachers strike in September.

"It was handled horribly in terms of how it was rolled out," says Chicago attorney Matt Farmer, who also blogs about Chicago school issues for The Huffington Post.

Farmer says pressure was mounting last spring for the district to explain how the longer day would work and how it would be paid for. Cheatham was sent to a community meeting he attended on the city's south side to explain the district's position.

"She did not, in my opinion, do a very good job. She was unable to answer just the most basic questions that all of us have been asking for weeks and months," Farmer says. "Perhaps she was sent out as the sacrificial lamb that night, but it was disappointing. What it told me is that a lot of these folks downtown are reluctant to speak up and reluctant to question their bosses and to say, 'Hey, why are you sending me out here if I don't have answers for these folks?'"

Farmer says he can't fault Cheatham for wanting to leave a district he describes as "dysfunctional." But he advises parents attending Thursday's forum in Madison to ask some pointed questions.

"Parents should ask Dr. Cheatham to explain to them the number of times she challenged, questioned -- even privately -- the folks to whom she reported about what was going on within their system. And how many times she just ended up having to play good soldier and take marching orders. Because that's a big problem in our district."

Cheatham did not respond to our request for comment.

Milton has been embroiled in his own controversies. According to Springfield's State Journal Register, he recently put forth a plan to cut $8 million from the district's budget for the 2013-14 school year, largely by eliminating teaching staff and closing two elementary schools. The cuts are needed to plug a gaping $11 million budget hole, prompting some school board members to question Milton's budgeting process.

"The financial condition of the district is deteriorating by anyone's standards," board member Lisa Funderberg told the State Journal Register. "When you overdraw your checkbook by $11 million, you don't find that to be a problem? The superintendent is ultimately responsible for the financial situation of the district."

Milton's performance also came under scrutiny after a 2007 audit (PDF) of the Fallsburg Central School District in New York, where Milton served as superintendent from 2003 to 2006. The audit found Milton was overpaid in salary, moving expenses and other reimbursements by $44,457. He was also found to have charged more than $7,000 in personal expenses to the district credit card as well as $17,810 in purchases that lacked supporting documents or receipts. Following the audit, district officials did plan to seek reimbursement from Milton, who by that time had moved on to oversee the school district in Flint, Michigan. That tenure lasted 17 months.

But it wasn't just the overpayments that raised eyebrows. The audit found that the district sidestepped its own bidding rules when it granted a contract to an educational consulting firm called Gateway Learning Inc. on Milton's recommendation. The district also went against policy when it failed to conduct a fingerprint background check on the head of the firm, Julius Anthony, who had earlier been convicted of sexual battery for fondling a 3-year-old boy. Anthony's office was located for a time in an elementary school and then a high school in the district. He eventually followed Milton to Flint, where he worked for the school system first as a consultant, then as executive director of curriculum. Anthony resigned when a background check there revealed the conviction.

Still, when Isthmus asked Springfield School Board President Susan White about Milton's leadership, she responded with a glowing letter of recommendation saying, "Dr. Milton's leadership has contributed to an increase in student achievement over the last six years. Through his committed service, Springfield Public School District has become a nationally recognized district. Dr. Milton is a dedicated educational leader and a critical and analytical thinker. He values the importance of having a vision and makes every decision based on what is best for children."

Milton responded to our interview request by saying that he is reserving all comment until he meets with the public and the media in Madison on Thursday.

Even if members of the community find the finalists to be lacking, chances are one of the two will be Madison's next superintendent. In a recent interview, school board vice-president Marj Passman told the Chicago Tribune that the new hire will likely be announced by next weekend.

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