Milwaukee Board Finds New Chief Outside K-12 Pool

By Ann Bradley — June 05, 1991 5 min read

The Milwaukee school board last week selected Howard L. Fuller, a social-services administrator with no previous experience in precollegiate education, to be the next superintendent of the city’s 98,000-student school district.

The decision is believed to mark the first time in recent memory that a major urban school district has hired a superintendent from outside the traditional teaching and administrative ranks.

In order for Mr. Fuller to be considered as a candidate for the job, the Wisconsin legislature passed a special law in April exempting the Milwaukee superintendent from the required three years’ teaching experience at the elementary- or secondary-school level.

Mr. Fuller, 50, is a well-known and respected advocate for schoolchildren who in 1987 led an effort to carve out a new, mostly black school district in Milwaukee. He also has supported the school-choice program that allows low-income Milwaukee children to attend nonsectarian private schools at public expense.

Last week, he resigned his post as director of the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services in order to begin his new job immediately. He succeeds Robert S. Peterkin, who resigned to take a position at Harvard University.

While Mr. Fuller’s views have sometimes been regarded as unorthodox, his supporters said the new superintendent’s willingness to challenge the status quo, coupled with his evident dedication to children, made him an attractive choice for the job.

“For a very long time, he has been very, very consistent about his passion to educate, especially minority children whose needs have not been met in the past,” said Mary Bills, a school-board member. “He is a man of great integrity.”

Milwaukeeans who supported Mr. Fuller’s candidacy--including Mayor John O. Norquist, business leaders, a substantial portion of the city’s black residents, and education advocates--also expressed eagerness to see a local person step into the job.

“We have a crisis situation,” said State Senator Joseph Czarnezki, who sponsored the legislation that made Mr. Fuller’s selection possible. “It’s important to have a superintendent who is one of our own, who is from Milwaukee, and who has a good understanding of the school system.”

The school board had considered hiring Deborah McGriff, who was Mr. Peterkin’s deputy, but could not reach a consensus. Board members also interviewed Laval S. Wilson, the former Boston superintendent, and George F. Garcia, the former Kansas City schools chief, for the job.

But Mr. Czarnezki and board members said they felt it was imperative to expand their search beyond the traditional applicant pool.

“Why should we expect someone who failed in Boston or failed in Kansas City to come to Milwaukee and succeed?” Mr. Czarnezki said.

In an interview last week, Mr. Fuller said his reasons for wanting the job were “simple.”

“I love the kids and I love the city,” he said. “I think they are tied together.”

“The goal,” he continued, “is to make sure that they will read and write and compute and analyze and think at high levels, so that they can be both competitive and productive. My view is that, in order for this city to survive, that has to happen.”

Mr. Fuller said he expected to continue initiatives launched under Mr. Peterkin, including overhauling curricula and meshing them with an effort to infuse multicultural perspectives into the system, and directing more resources to the schools.

But he said he did not approach the job with a fixed agenda, noting that he plans to spend hours talking with people inside and outside the system to determine what needs to be done.

“It’s real important to talk to the kids about what they see,” he added, “and also talk to them about the help we’re going to need from them in order to get this done.”

Mr. Fuller said his past support for creating a smaller school district out of a predominantly black area stemmed from his interest in improving schools in the area, not from the fact that the district would have served black students.

“What I have learned since that time, though, is that just making a school district smaller in and of itself won’t lead to major education reform that will improve achievement,” Mr. Fuller said, “although I still think what we had was a good idea.”

Similarly, the new superintendent said his support for the school-choice program championed by State Representative Polly Williams was more a “tactical” than an ideological issue.

“I believe in choice as a way of empowering parents,” he said. “For4true school reform, even if you have progressive leadership at the top, you have to have empowerment at the base. Otherwise, you get killed by the middle.”

Like many other Milwaukeeans, Mr. Fuller said he was also disenchanted with the current busing system, which he said places an unfair burden on black students. He said he would come up with a new plan to cut back on the amount of busing while maintaining desegregation.

While acknowledging that his background made his selection somewhat risky, Mr. Fuller said he did not believe there was any particular “mystique” about organizations.

“You can figure it out,” he said. “I care about kids, I understand education, and I understand systems, and I believe in working together with people.”

Before becoming the county’s human-services director in 1988, Mr. Fuller was dean of general education at Milwaukee Area Technical College, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Employment Relations, and associate director of Marquette University’s educational-opportunity program.

He graduated from North Division High School in Milwaukee--where Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin held a ceremony to sign the bill clearing the way for Mr. Fuller’s hiring--and received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Carroll College.

Mr. Fuller holds a master’s degree in social administration from Case Western Reserve University and a doctorate in the sociological foundations of education from Marquette. He also has taught at several colleges.

Samuel B. Husk, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, noted that Mr. Fuller’s exper8ience at the technical college and in social services could help him develop links between higher education, human services, and the schools.

“There is nothing in his background that would prohibit him from becoming an extremely successful urban superintendent,” Mr. Husk said, ''and some things in his experience might lead to some important breakthroughs.”

Susan Phillips, executive director of the Greater Milwaukee Education Trust, said Mr. Fuller had made it clear that he would take a team approach to the job and that people in the school system were “very comfortable with this appointment.”

“The most exciting thing in Milwaukee is that we now have an activist inside the school system,” she said. “I don’t think most people realize how important that is.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 1991 edition of Education Week as Milwaukee Board Finds New Chief Outside K-12 Pool