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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Fair
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Walter Milton, Jr., Madison schools superintendent finalist, withdraws after quick pushback, Jennifer Cheatham remains
Milton withdrew from consideration Tuesday despite telling an <i>Isthmus</i> reporter hours earlier he planned to answer questions at a forum 'with an open heart.'
Milton withdrew from consideration Tuesday despite telling an Isthmus reporter hours earlier he planned to answer questions at a forum 'with an open heart.'

Only one superintendent finalist will be meeting the public at a forum Thursday at Monona Terrace at 5:45 p.m. Late Tuesday, the school board announced that Dr. Walter Milton, Jr., had withdrawn his name from consideration because the district "is not the right fit for him." Milton, who is currently superintendent of schools in Springfield, Illinois, spoke with Isthmus just hours before the board's announcement and seemed enthusiastic about attending the forum, saying he would answer questions from the public and media "with an open heart."

Milton had been named as a finalist for the position by the school board, which paid an Iowa-based headhunting firm $30,975 to develop a candidate profile and launch a three-month nationwide recruitment effort. But pushback against his candidacy grew quickly when past troubles at a previous district came to light. Multiple local media outlets uncovered 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 personal expenses to the district credit card.

The audit also found 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 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. Following the audit, Milton moved on to oversee the school district in Flint, Michigan. That tenure lasted 17 months.

Dr. Jennifer Cheatham of Chicago Public Schools is now the lone finalist, according to the district. Cheatham was appointed to her current post as chief of instruction in June 2011. According to her district bio, Cheatham focuses on 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."

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 the central issues leading 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 had been asking for weeks and months," Farmer says.

Cheatham did not respond to our request for comment, but the Madison School Board has released a glowing statement about her candidacy.

"In her time there, Chicago Public Schools have made significant strides in improving student achievement, and the schools that Dr. Cheatham specifically supervised made gains above the district average. Dr. Cheatham brings a depth of experience addressing the challenges of an urban school district and making improvements in the face of high need and dwindling resources. Those are the skills and expertise that we are looking for as we continue our path to improving achievement for all students."

A new hire could be announced as early as next weekend, according to school board vice-president Marj Passman.

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