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Wis. Governor Ponders Plan To Decrease Power Of State Schools Chief

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Wisconsin's schools chief and education department face losing much of their power under governance changes being eyed by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson and a commission he appointed.

The commission, set up to find ways to make the state government more efficient, is expected this week to issue recommendations that include transforming the office of state superintendent from an elected position to an appointed one and eventually divesting the education department of many of its duties and powers.

Governor Thompson has said he will incorporate many of the commission's proposals in his 1995-97 biennial budget proposal, which he plans to submit to the legislature late this month.

The Governor "basically believes our department of public instruction is, essentially, mandate police," Kevin W. Keane, Mr. Thompson's spokesman, said in an interview last week.

"They are not very efficient, and they do not inspire efficiency in our education system," Mr. Keane asserted, adding that Governor Thompson believes that the department's enforcement of regulations is too stringent, and that it stifles districts' efforts to meet their students' needs.

State Superintendent John T. Benson has responded by accusing Governor Thompson, a Republican, of mounting a partisan attempt to seize power. In a statement issued last month, Mr. Benson, who was elected on a nonpartisan basis, maintained that the proposals "show an alarming lack of understanding about education" and would "scuttle" the state's school system.

The education department, Mr. Benson said, "enforces laws designed to insure that all children have equal educational opportunities and that our schools are held accountable. They keep pedophiles out of our classrooms, fire hazards out of our school buildings, and special-needs children out of the educational closet."

"I don't believe these safeguards are negotiable," Mr. Benson said.

Power Struggles

Because his office has little direct control over education policy, Mr. Thompson often has found himself clashing with Mr. Benson and his predecessor, Herbert J. Grover, over their refusal to support some of his more controversial education initiatives. The Governor has accused both chiefs of having too cozy a relationship with the state teachers' unions.

Many of the state's Democrats agree with Mr. Benson that the Governor is engaged in a partisan attempt to rein in the 700-employee education department and to transform the superintendent into the Governor's political ally.

Some have speculated that Mr. Thompson, who has drawn warm praise from national Republican leaders for his record on issues such as welfare and school vouchers, may be trying to enhance his reputation as an education reformer as he eyes a potential place on the 1996 G.O.P. national ticket.

"Wisconsin citizens ought to be up in arms about this attempted educational takeover," Mr. Benson said.

Mr. Keane, however, last week accused Mr. Benson himself of putting a partisan and overly personal spin on a sincere effort by Governor Thompson and his commission to rethink, and streamline, the entire state government.

"We are going to radically change government here," Mr. Keane said. "We are looking at every single state agency."

Call for State Board

Commission members said the panel will propose that the state have a school board appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, as well as an education chief jointly selected by the governor and the board. Wisconsin now has no state board. The education department would be pushed to turn over many of its powers to other agencies and local officials.

The state constitution would have to be amended for the governance system to be changed.

"With this shift of responsibility, I believe we will save overhead costs," said State Sen. Margaret A. Farrow, a Republican who served as the commission's vice chairwoman.

The legislature's fiscal bureau, however, has issued a report concluding that the recommendations would do little to generate some $1 billion in savings needed to meet the state's additional school-funding obligations under a new law designed to provide property-tax relief.

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