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Community Leaders Raise Concerns About MPS Turnaround Plan

Marti Mikkelson
County Executive Abele (right) and Dr. Demond Means spoke with reporters at the courthouse on Thursday

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and his new commissioner of failing MPS schools say they don’t intend to step on any toes. 

On Thursday, Abele introduced the person he’s selected for the job – Dr. Demond Means, superintendent of the Mequon-Thiensville district.

State law now tasks him with taking control of the lowest performing MPS schools and boosting their student achievement. Means can restructure up to three schools in each of the next two years, and up to five, afterward.

Means says he’ll manage the struggling MPS schools, the same way he manages the Mequon-Thiensville district.

“I’m committed to the good work we’re doing there which is very similar to the work the county executive wants the commissioner to engage in with the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, closing the achievement gap, being more accountable to our citizens and ensuring a high quality educational program for all students,” Means says.

Wisconsin’s new Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program will identify the lowest-performing Milwaukee public schools each year, and require the commissioner to solicit proposals from groups interested in improving those schools.

They could be turned over to a charter or private school operator, or remain under the management of MPS. The commissioner can hire and fire staff, and after several years, will determine whether the school has improved and should return to MPS status. County Executive Chris Abele says his and Means’ goal is to work with MPS.

“I’m not interested nor willing to do something that even indirectly is going to hurt MPS. The law allows for the commissioner to look from a list of schools and essentially restructure or reconstitute that. However, that’s not an approach we’re going to take. The outcome that’s being sought is to improve quality and access to a great education for as many kids as possible,” Abele says.

While quite a few people praised the selection of Means for the job, some remain opposed to the state’s move to take control of MPS schools away from the elected school board.

One critic is County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb. He fears the new district would ultimately siphon money from MPS.

“It was clearly set up to create a separate public school system and to take away resources from MPS. To cast it otherwise is a not an honest characterization,” Lipscomb says.

Another person concerned about the move, but one promising to cooperate, is Milwaukee School Board President Michael Bonds. He says he didn’t support the bill when Republicans in the state legislature pushed it.

“We have a superintendent who I think is pretty capable of doing the job and if it were that simple to appoint a part-time commissioner to turn around a district, every urban school district in America would do it,” Bonds says.

Milwaukee’s new commissioner, Dr. Demond Means says he’s confident he can adequately perform his new duties – while still overseeing the Mequon-Thiensville district.

As for his new boss, County Exec Abele is in the process of negotiating a salary for Means. Abele says he won’t use county dollars but will raise the money privately. He says he also plans to hold a public hearing in the near future to seek input from county residents.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.