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Principal Musical Chairs
Milwaukee Changes Principals at a Breakneck Speed

Next year, Milwaukee’s Bay View High School will have its fifth principal in four years. Pulaski High School will have its fourth principal in four years. Principal changes are taking place at all levels of the district; the greatest changes are taking place on the high school level.

The previous Milwaukee superintendent, William Andrekopoulos, was criticized for rarely removing ineffective principals. Now the present superintendent, Gregory Thornton, is removing principals at a breakneck speed.

Some recent principal changes are a direct result of the new state bargaining law which impacts salaries and benefits. Many school employees are retiring in order to lock in earned benefits before additional cuts hit their pocketbooks.  Many principals are of a similar age, baby boomers, who would be retiring en masse anyway. Other principals are leaving one school to be assigned to another because the new assignments are a better fit or their talents are greatly needed elsewhere.

But the bottom line is that Thornton isn’t wasting time if a principal is shown not to be up to the job. He is more than willing to change principals in the middle of a school year if things are not working out. One might question whether Thornton is picking the right people to be principals in the first place. Thornton counters that the pickings are slim, and he is taking the best people available.

There are two ways a general manager can build a professional baseball team. He can act like the New York Yankees and just buy excellent players. Or he can act like the Milwaukee Brewers and try to build his players through its farm system. Milwaukee’s principal farm system is deficient.

Like most school systems, Milwaukee has relied on colleges and universities to do the job of principal development. But nationally, higher education hasn’t had a particularly stellar track record in this area. Prospective principals are advanced through higher education based upon coursework rather demonstrated management skills. Colleges and universities are changing, but not fast enough.

Thornton believes that Milwaukee Public Schools itself has done little to develop a good farm system. A handful of school districts around the country have created their own principal development system often in conjunction with local higher educational institutions. Thornton hasn’t done that, and the fact that Milwaukee didn’t do much before he got here is beginning to wear a little thin now that Thornton is completing his third year as superintendent.

So how about being the Yankees and just buying good principals from elsewhere? This spring, MPS took out ads for several weeks in the weekly magazine, Education Week, calling for individuals to apply for principal positions in Milwaukee. Thornton says that the district identified several excellent candidates.

But relying on such recruitment has its limitations. If the economy picks up, prospective school managers are likely to find better pay and working conditions in the private management sector. Then there is the question of teacher development from which schools historically draw their future principals. If teachers continue to leave the profession at an increasing rate, there will be fewer leaders to draw upon coming from the teacher pool.

Few principals are likely to come to Milwaukee Public Schools ready to do the job on their own. The district needs to do more to develop the principals it already has. While MPS does have regional directors that oversee existing principals, the training and mentoring they are offering is clearly not enough. All of this costs money, but the cost of doing nothing may be even greater.

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