Published Online: May 7, 1997

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Milwaukee Mulls 'Radical' Revamping of Central Office

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The Milwaukee school board has taken aim at the school system's central office, calling for its "radical restructuring" into a service center for schools.

The board unanimously approved a proposal late last month for a study of the central administration leading to possible changes in the 1998-99 school year. But the panel balked at creating a task force from outside and voted instead to ask district administrators and principals to do the study.

Under the plan, the work will go to a standing budget committee made up of administrators and principals, although teachers and parents will be included.

The change in the task force's composition left the proposal's sponsor, retiring board member Mary Bills, doubtful that the restructuring would be significant.

During the board's April 24 budget meeting, Ms. Bills' last, she put her impatience on display with the help of a classic children's toy. Each time the board took up an amendment Ms. Bills regarded as mere tinkering, she added an element to a ramshackle Tinkertoy structure in front of her.

"We tinker, we say the words," but the changes fall short of what is needed, Ms. Bills said in an interview last week.

"I've had 12 years of trying to work within the system," she added, "and I was coming to the realization that the only way you're going to change education is to break the habits, the culture developed over the years where adults feel entitled to the benefits of their jobs and that is more important than children being entitled to an education."

Nudging Administrators

Ms. Bills' original proposal called not only for the radical restructuring of the central office but also specifically for the elimination of all central-office positions not required by state or federal law or auditing functions.

Spending authority would rest with the schools, a shift that is already under way in the 106,000-student district. More than 70 percent of the district's operating budget is controlled by the schools.

But Ms. Bills argues that isn't enough. Administrators "have to be nudged to really put these resources at the school level so [educators in the schools] can do their jobs," she said.

In a farewell interview with The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, she suggested that all schools in the metropolitan Milwaukee area should become charter schools, independent public schools that remain largely free to control their budgets, staffing, and programs.

Ms. Bills, 53, said last week she will begin working for the Wisconsin Council for Children and Families, an advocacy group.

Warren D. Braun, the school board's vice president, voted against Ms. Bills' proposal for an outside task force. With some principals already protesting bigger workloads and the unions representing Milwaukee's teachers and principals opposed to central-office cutbacks, a group steeped in current realities would be an advantage, he argued.

"If you're supposed to work together," Mr. Braun said, "then [a task force of outsiders] doesn't help." He added that he is worried that the committee the board created will not have enough time for thoughtful work. Its recommendations are due in October.

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