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Milwaukee columnist reflects on MPS Superintendent Keith Posley's tenure, which ended amid financial crisis

MPS Superintendent Keith Posley visits a classroom at the start of the 2022-23 school year
Emily Files
MPS Superintendent Keith Posley visits a classroom at the start of the 2022-23 school year.

On June 4, Keith Posley’s six years as superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools came to a sudden end. He resigned after an hours-long, closed-door school board meeting. This came after the State Department of Public Instruction (DPI) announced that MPS was months late submitting required financial reports.

DPI withheld millions of dollars from MPS because of the late reports. MPS is also at risk of losing millions of dollars because it submitted incorrect financial information for previous school years. MPS is working with DPI on a corrective action plan.

Posley’s resignation is effective June 30, but finding his replacement is only one of many mounting challenges ahead for the MPS system. Alan Borsuk joined Lake Effect's Audrey Nowakowski to discuss Posley’s tenure and some of the most pressing issues that need to be addressed — including rebuilding the community’s trust. Borsuk is a senior fellow in Law and Public Policy at Marquette Law School, and was a longtime education reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for which he is still writes education columns.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

What was your reaction to Posley's time at MPS coming to an end like this?

Well, when I first heard that they had not filed these audit reports with the state I was totally floored. I mean that was just like basic work 101 for this stuff. And at that point it was clear that he (Posley) had to go. I mean he just had no base of support, not with the board, not with the public, not with anyone in the system.

… Somebody had to pay the price. The problem is that firing him — and even though he officially resigned, he was fired, I think that's a much more accurate term — doesn't solve anything in itself. In fact, in some ways it makes things worse. Like who's gonna run the ship now?

Do you think Posley was unfairly scapegoated, or was this on him for not submitting these reports to DPI, or at least not notifying other people of the situation they were in?

Well, certainly it wasn't a one-person list of who's at fault. There's probably a long list of people who are at fault, but he's the captain of the ship and the captain takes responsibility, you know? And he does deserve to take responsibility, to be assigned responsibility, for just really fundamental inadequacies and how they were running the place.

With those inadequacies, we should note that Posley did get a $160,000+ payout. Is that standard?

It's kind of standard. His contract goes for another year, so he was shorted a year on his contract, although there were also provisions for how he could be fired. So it's pretty standard. He was getting paid a little over $300,000 a year — $160,000 is really an underestimate because he got also $30,000 some in in pension benefits plus unused vacation time, and so on. I bet the final figure will be well over $200,000. And is that par for the course? Probably. Is that going to go over well with a lot of people both within the system and out in the general public? No. I mean you say, "Wait a minute, the guy screwed up the system and now we're paying him a whole bunch of money to go away?"

This is also right after a referendum for more money was narrowly approved, so what are your thoughts on the sequence of events?

Well, I hope there is a, shall we say, serious and level-headed and not just partisan and emotional examination of this question. I would venture to say that if the referendum were held today in the light of this coming out — that they've made major errors in their reporting, they're over eight months overdue on submitting audits and such — very little question that it would get clobbered. And did either they or the DPI, or both, keep this quiet until after the April election? That's a really good question. I think there's a pretty good chance that might be true.

Best as I can guess, undoing the referendum, having a do-over or holding back the money or something, that's going to be really hard. Whether there's lawsuits, whether there's action in the legislature — once you approve a referendum, I've just never heard of it being undone.

There's a theme of just general uncertainty even before these DPI reports or the failure to submit them. There's a lot of murkiness about what the referendum money would go towards and there wasn't a specific spending plan either. So was this a common theme for Posley's tenure — just a general lack of answers, explanations and transparency?

I can answer that in one word: yes. And this goes back before him. For reporters, people like myself or from anybody else attempting to cover MPS, they were so reluctant to give answers that you could ask them a question it could be weeks before you got an answer. Once upon a time, you could go to schools, you could call up principals, it was much easier to get things done and the whole operation was much more open.

Things changed when a guy named Greg Thornton became superintendent in 2010, and Dr. Thornton really wanted to have control of the message and everything had to go through him and his very influential assistant. You could not call up people below them in the system. This is a public business. It's public education, so it didn't start with Keith Posley, but yeah, they were impossible to deal with.

I do want to note one of Posley's Five Priorities for Success did include "ensuring fiscal responsibility and transparency." Apparently the MPS Board claimed not to know the true financial troubles that MPS is facing. Does this tie into an overall closed-off sense to access or information in general if this is even within the board ranks or administrators?

Well, it ties into more things than that. There was a lot of turnover in central office in the time that Dr. Posley was the superintendent. I didn't keep score of how many finance directors and human relations department directors and all the other academic positions they went through, but it was a lot. And I'm not at all sure they had the A-Team in there doing stuff. So that turnover and question of competence in the central office cabinet level-positions is legitimate. But don't let the board off the hook either — the board hasn't been exactly jumping all over them to get answers.

To touch upon the board, a lot of board members were teachers' union candidates, and a lot of proposals aligned with union goals, which Posley never really pushed back on. So let's touch upon Posley's relationship with and to the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, the staff union here. What stands out to you?

When Act 10 passed in 2011, the Republicans who backed this, especially Gov. Scott Walker, wanted to disempower the public unions and especially teachers unions. In many ways that happened, but Milwaukee is a place where it didn't really happen. The union does not have the same power over some things, but in actual practice, it pretty much does. The contract as it existed then largely is still the way business is done. And politically, the union is very influential.

To their credit, they moved more into aligning themselves with other organizations in the community, to building coalitions and support. The union is very influential and I believe seven out of the eight current board members are closely allied with the union or endorsed by them. There's not that much tension between the MPS administration and immediately across the street, the offices of of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association. That's a pretty warm relationship and that has a bearing on how a lot of things are done.

Posley had been with the district his entire career before he became superintendent in 2018. What was the context that he was hired into and some of the key challenges?

It wasn't very friendly. The then-superintendent was a woman named Darienne Driver. Very talented person, was on a different page than the board. Tensions had been building and then specifically there were differences over what to put in that budget. She wanted to cut teaching staff out in the schools and keep jobs in central office, she felt that was important to running the system well — that's kind of an interesting thought now that we've seen how bad the system is running — and the board was angry with her and they forced her out.

And Posley, who was near the top of the administration then, basically best as I know kind of behind-the-scenes was telling board members, "I'll do it for you. I'll cut central office and and keep those teaching jobs." Which was certainly the position the unions supported at that time, so Darienne was out [and] Keith came in as the guy who would do the board's bidding.

In many ways, that's an important part of his legacy. He did the board's bidding. He was a survivor, he was very good at navigating the politics of a highly political operation, and namely Milwaukee Public Schools central administration. He didn't change that much.

What else stands out to you about Posley's tenure and his impact?

Well, he had good goals. He had what he called the 1,825 Plan to emphasize early childhood programs to try to get more kids on track to be ready for kindergarten when they walk in the door. You know, a lot of the gaps in success in education between rich kids, poor kids, minorities — those exist the day kids walk into kindergarten, and Posley wanted to address that.

I mean some of that's outside of their realm. They have 4-year-old and 5-year-old kindergarten for that matter, to digress, the Head Start program, which they run about half the programs in the city, is also something they're under very serious sanctions for at the moment for inadequate operations. So the early childhood situation as far as MPS is concerned didn't really get better, but Posley had that goal.

He pushed what he called the 532O6 Initiative which was to improve schools in that ZIP code, which is often considered the most troubled zip code in the city, the most impacted by poverty and includes a list of schools that are almost all places with low success. And they brought in some extra social workers, psychologists, tried to strengthen staff. All of which was probably needed, but the results in those schools haven't really changed, they haven't gotten better.

It's ominous for the future of these children and for the city if we have that level of non-success in education, and it's something that isn't addressed very much. They don't like to talk about their problems, especially publicly. Either the school board or the administration, and nothing changed. COVID certainly hurt. COVID hurt in terms of student behavior, student mental health, attendance. This is true nationwide, but is really true in MPS.

[School success rates] haven't gotten better. It's ominous for the future of these children and for the city if we have that level of non-success in education, and it's something that isn't addressed very much. They don't like to talk about their problems, especially publicly.
Alan Borsuk

Do you think Posley accomplished what he wanted to? If we take away the way it came to an end, what significant progress do you think Posley made? Or did he not, and why not?

You know, this is like the question you hear in political campaigns — "Are you better off today than you were (in this case) six years ago?" And the answer is no, the system is not in better shape. The teaching situation — just recruiting teachers, retaining teachers, to be blunt, the question of quality of teachers is more urgent than it was then. That's not all Keith Posley's fault, but it's what's happened on his watch. They have had hundreds of teaching vacancies as the school year's unfolding the last couple of years. It's a system that's been held together in some schools, especially, but even as a whole by Scotch tape and short-term solutions, using unlicensed teachers to cover classrooms, paraprofessionals and others. It's a system that's not in a super healthy situation and that was true before some of these recent ominous things.

A new superintendent down the line will have to tackle a lot of these problems that have existed long before Posley. So talking about going into the future, what do you feel are some of the main challenges ahead for the district?

I think there's a new and deeper urgency about doing something, whether that's coming from either party in Madison or whether it's coming from local leadership. Milwaukee Mayor Johnson is beginning to talk more strongly about what needs to be done than has been historically true for mayors in Milwaukee going back many, many years. And Mayor Johnson seems to be eager to get involved in some form — not taking over the district. So there's new urgency, there's new concern, there's certainly hot and very troubling issues on the front burner: the finance controls, the Head Start problems, the whole question of MPS revenue.

My guess is that the short-term problems including hiring a new superintendent, something will work out. It may not be happy and there may be some cost to pay even in terms of lost state aid for MPS. Those will get worked out, but then there's a whole level of really big problems that are somewhat less tangible but nonetheless hugely urgent. Just, how are you folks going to get your act together? How are we going to convince people that this is a well-run and competent organization unless we bring in competent people who can run it well? And that's a not the way it is at the moment.

What are we going to do about the kids in the city? You know, how are we going to get kids engaged? How we're going to create what you would call a school culture? A lot of that involves building leadership, like principals. We need more A-level principals and not so many B- and C-level principals. So how are we going to change the direction of this whole operation?

Do you think a dramatic change like breaking up the MPS system or have it taken over by the City of Milwaukee needs to happen?

My main reaction is I don't think it's going to happen. Nobody's really talking about it and to break up the district or to have a mayoral takeover, or to do just something dramatic requires an enormous amount of energy and competence and unity. I mean if the Republicans and the Democrats in the Capitol came together over a plan for MPS that might carry some weight, but I don't think it's going to happen because they're all too busy hating each other. And most of the solutions that we're talking about so far — let's run the finances better, let's get the audits done, let's get a handle on some of these just bad business practices that are going on — those can be addressed, but they still leave that big wealth of issues unaddressed and I don't think anyone is jumping in on that.

Many of these problems obviously don't end with Posley leaving. Would you say the main priority is more competent leadership and in your column you say, "In general getting the entire MPS act together?"

I just had a conversation in which the question was, is MPS in need of the kind of help you'd get in a bankruptcy proceeding? That's a really good question to me. I don't know the answer to that and I think some of that will depend on how strongly the school board responds, some of it will depend on how strongly the city and state political structure respond. That's actually a pretty interesting idea.

They need strong and good leadership right now, and if the people who are now in charge can't come up with it things are going to get worse and something will have to be done about it. You got 60,000 kids in the basic MPS system who we, and I mean the big "We" — you, me, everybody — owe it to them to give them a good education.

Even before all this blew up maybe six months ago, I had a conversation with someone who's pretty knowledgeable about this stuff and he said, "What's going to happen when MPS gets to the point that it can't function daily?" Or at least that some schools can't function. They don't have enough staff, they don't have teachers. Sorry folks, we can't give you an education today — that's not a frivolous thought. It could happen. We're closer to seeing that out there today than we've ever been.

Is there anything we can be optimistic about?

Howard Fuller was a superintendent from 1991 to 1995 and became a big champion of school choice and so on, and has as many critics as well. But there's one thing Howard Fuller has said that everyone should listen to, and that is: Where's the urgency? Are we doing enough? Are we really serious about changing this? Because if we were really serious, we'd be doing more things than we're doing now. Now's the time when we say, "OK, what are we going to do?"

If I'm going to end this on an optimistic note the tone here would be, "Aha. I really see the urgency. I really see the need. And it's time to do better and it can be done."


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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