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Citing Board Politics, Milwaukee's Fuller Resigns

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Superintendent Howard L. Fuller of Milwaukee resigned last week, citing differences with new school board members backed by the local teachers' union.

Mr. Fuller, the first person with little education experience chosen to head a big-city school system, is expected to step down this summer after four years in the job.

In local elections this month, four out of five candidates supported by the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association won seats on the nine-member board. They had campaigned on an "anti-privatization" platform, criticizing the district for considering such options as hiring a private, for-profit company to help run some of its schools.

Mr. Fuller and the union--which spent about $40,000 during the elections--have clashed recently over his desire to close and restaff failing schools, and his support of expanding the state's charter-schools legislation.

Observers said Mr. Fuller was left with only three strong supporters on the board--and was backed into a corner.

"The day-to-day management of the district will be crippled in an atmosphere where the superintendent and staff are uncertain about the depth of board support," Mr. Fuller said at a news conference last week.

A former social-services administrator with little background in education, Mr. Fuller was tapped in 1991 to run the 100,000-student district in his hometown. (See Education Week, 5/25/94.)

As a civil-rights and community activist, he had earned a reputation as one of the school system's most vocal critics. And when he took over, he made no secret of his willingness to embrace radical--even unpopular--reforms.

Moving Outside the System

Critics claimed Mr. Fuller was trying to sell off the system.

Last year, he consulted with two companies, Education Alternatives Inc. and the Edison Project, about designing school-to-work programs in two schools.

The district, however, decided not to hire either company because union contracts and state law created too many barriers, said Denise Callaway, a spokeswoman for the superintendent.

But, she said, the union continued to use "scare tactics" to convince teachers that their jobs were in danger.

Moreover, some board members did not see eye to eye with Mr. Fuller on, among other things, the city's pioneering school-voucher program.

Mr. Fuller was an early supporter of the program, which uses state money to send about 880 children from low-income families to private, nonsectarian schools.

Sam Carmen, the executive director of the teachers' union, said last week that its members were "deeply disappointed" by news of the superintendent's resignation.

He said the union's only complaints with Mr. Fuller were over private management of public schools. "We were concerned that, for him, it was a threshold issue," Mr. Carmen added.

His supporters on the board said many parents backed Mr. Fuller's agenda, and his willingness to consider any option to improve the schools.

The "resignation was a major loss for the community," said David Lucey, a board member who did not seek re-election this year. His term expires this month.

"But I think he made the right decision," Mr. Lucey added. "If he had stayed on, it would leave a misconception that his reform efforts would continue."

Ms. Callaway said the schools chief already had received calls from recruiters for other districts.

But Mr. Fuller told reporters last week that he intends to continue working for Milwaukee's children--only from outside the system.

"I decided I wanted to walk out when I could walk out with my head held up," he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I am not going to end up with a death by a thousand cuts."

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