Milwaukee To Decentralize Management of Schools

By William Snider — February 08, 1989 4 min read

The board of directors of the Milwaukee Public Schools has approved a detailed restructuring plan for the system’s administration that will divide the district into smaller units.

The move adds Milwaukee to the growing list of urban school districts that have taken steps to flatten out their management hierarchy.

The plan calls for the creation of six “service areas” in the district whose main function will be to bring instructional support closer to the schools, district officials said last week.

A major feature of the plan is the creation of “instructional support teams” for each of the six regions. The teams will be charged with the task of assisting improvement efforts in their area’s schools. Each region will have an area superintendent, who will be in charge of from 20 to 22 schools.

A substantial but as-yet undetermined number of central administrators will be reassigned to the area offices or to schools under the plan developed by Robert S. Peterkin, who is in his first year as superintendent of the district.

The restructuring is designed to meet the district’s goals of “enhancing educational opportunities for a larger number of young people, being more responsive to the community, and closing the achievement gaps between whites and blacks and between students from low socio-economic backgrounds and other students in the district,” said Deputy Superintendent Deborah M. McGriff.

Ms. McGriff, who also worked with Mr. Peterkin in the Cambridge, Mass., public schools, added that she and the superintendent are “trying to find the appropriate balance of decisionmaking power between the central offices, the area offices, and the schools.”

Before Mr. Peterkin’s arrival, the district’s leadership had faced mounting criticism from parents and community members, who charged that it had become unresponsive to their needs and the needs of a student population increasingly composed of minorities. Some 66 percent of the district’s 97,000 students are members of minority groups, and the majority are black.

Those protests reached a peak last year in an unsuccessful movement to have the state legislature carve out a mostly black, autonomous school district consisting of many of Milwaukee’s most troubled schools and some model programs.

Mr. Peterkin’s plan “is a very positive step in the right direction’’ that “will accomplish some of the things that we were after,” said Howard Fuller, a key player in the movement for a separate district and the director of Milwaukee County’s department of health and human services.

The restructuring effort should accomplish the separatist movement’s aims of “trying to slim down the control that the central administration has over the system and creating a better potential to have a school-by-school method of reform,” he explained.

The plan also “maintains a sense of accountability in the superintendent’s office, which I think is key,” Mr. Fuller added.

While Milwaukee school officials drew pointers from the decentralization efforts of other urban school districts, “we tried to take the best of what other systems have done,” Ms. McGriff said. “Our plan is not a copy” of other systems’.

Milwaukee’s decision to decentralize reflects the decade-long trend among urban districts toward dividing districts into geographic regions for administrative purposes, said Floretta Dukes McKenzie, a former superintendent of the District of Columbia public schools whose consulting group was hired to help shape Milwaukee’s plan.

The chief distinction between newer plans like Milwaukee’s and earlier ones, she said, is that instead of adding field offices as another layer of management, the more recent efforts aim to eliminate intermediate layers between the regional offices and the district’s general superintendent.

In Milwaukee, for instance, the area superintendents will report directly to Mr. Peterkin.

Ms. McKenzie, whose consulting work has enabled her to follow administrative changes in a number of districts, said that three factors seem to underlie the new wave of management decentralization: the lessons learned from the parallel but longer-running efforts in corporate America, the pressures from communities for more responsive school leadership, and the drive to allow school improvements to be directed at the school site.

Milwaukee currently has 19 schools operating under a voluntary school-based management program, and plans to add more schools in coming years, officials said.

Mr. Peterkin’s plans for the district also include a separate proposal to allow all schools in the district to assume some control over their budgets if they wish, said Ms. McGriff.

The plan adopted by the board calls for the creation of six regional councils made up of parents, community members, business leaders, and school personnel. But their roles will be strictly advisory, school officials said.

While many of the final details of the restructuring plan have yet to be worked out, they said, it will not increase management costs. Some savings may be realized through attrition among central-office administrators.

District officials are also working on a plan to address the issue of student assignments in the district, which have also been the target of criticism in recent years.

While Milwaukee offers parents more school choices than most urban districts, some allege that admissions to the most highly prized schools are too restrictive, particularly for minority students.

The implementation schedule for the restructuring plan calls for the district to begin advertising for applicants for the new area-superintendent positions within a few weeks, and for the entire system to be in place by the start of the school year next fall.

A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 1989 edition of Education Week as Milwaukee To Decentralize Management of Schools