— Newly named to head Baltimore's public schools, Gregory E. Thornton has unfinished business in the district he is leaving behind after 31/2 tumultuous years.
Wearing a red T-shirt, he arrived Friday at a school where, to peals of laughter, the 59-year-old would join kids in a "jump rope-a-thon." But, as so frequently happened during his tenure, there were political hoops to jump through first.
"How are we doing?" Thornton asked a state senator he spied in the welcoming crowd.
It was not so much a pleasantry as a pulse check: How are we doing, he meant, in thwarting two bills that would close public schools and sell empty facilities to private schools that accept vouchers?
In a brief exchange, the senator mentioned a potentially worrisome legislator, and Thornton said he'd already talked to her the previous night. And then, it was time to "make some noise" as he exhorted the school crowd who had gathered to jump rope in honor of a phys ed teacher who started the tradition 35 years ago.
It was just another day navigating the complicated terrain of Milwaukee Public Schools.
Critics and admirers alike say Thornton is energetic, deliberate in his decision-making and ultimately caring toward the children in the 165-school system. They also say that he has headed the district during a particularly challenging time — when, as one parent put it, "hating MPS has been a regional pastime."
Where they differ is in assessing how he has negotiated the many political and budgetary land mines in his path.
"I think he was trying to think creatively in the context of a complicated situation," said Keisha Krumm, lead organizer with the community group Common Ground, which worked with Thornton on improving a tutoring program in the schools. "He's not an ideologue. There was an energy and passion to his work, but also a pragmatism."
He was hired in 2010, just as the Milwaukee mayor was trying to wrest control of the district from the school board. Soon, the state's governor would cut hundreds of millions of dollars in education funding and dismantle the collective bargaining rights of teachers and other public employees.
Meanwhile, conservative groups were increasingly successful in pushing their privatization agenda — expanding a voucher program that allows students to use public funds for private school tuition, and turning failing schools over to outside operators and companies to run as charters.
By many accounts, Thornton proved adept at negotiating this fractured environment, a pragmatist who would find a middle path through conflicts — while both sides would sometimes emerge not knowing where he personally stood.
But detractors would argue that even if he was hamstrung by a political situation not of his own making, he could have done more since taking over the Milwaukee schools.
"I think most everyone would agree that his tenure was short and without a significant accomplishment," says Charles Szafir, education policy director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a nonprofit advocating for limited government, free speech and education reform. "He was toeing the line of the education status quo."
Szafir's assessment, though, is hardly unchallenged. In fact, he represents what many believe is part of the problem: a shift of more students toward private and charter schools robbing conventional public schools of much-needed funds, enrollment and attention.
"There is an all-out war on the public schools, an effort to undermine public schools, to drain resources," says James H. Hall Jr., president of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP. "And it is not letting up."
Indeed, the percentage of children going to conventional Milwaukee schools is dropping 1 or 2 percentage points every year, said Alan Borsuk, a senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School who has been tracking the trend.
Only about 60 percent of Milwaukee students attend regular public schools. About 25,000 students use publicly funded vouchers to attend religious and private schools. Additionally, students can transfer out of the city schools into suburban schools if there are slots available, and there's a broad range of charter schools.
In Baltimore, by contrast, 75 percent of the district's students attend regular public schools.
Thornton took fire from both sides of the public-private debate. Privatization advocates complain that he blocked charter schools and in one widely publicized issue, refused to sell an empty public school to a charter that wanted to expand into it. On the other hand, public school supporters complain that he was all too quick to turn a failing school over to a company or outside operator to convert into a charter.
"Sometimes he was perceived as a villain by both sides," said Rev. Willie E. Brisco, who heads the Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope. "I just don't know if there is anybody that can really turn this around in this political climate. The legislature is really not supportive of public education, and they are fostering two education systems at the same time."
Where Thornton's own leanings fall can be a mystery — even to a member of the school board that hired him.
"He wanted to do more privatization and more charters than the school board wanted to," said board member Terrence Falk. "Was he doing this out of conviction or trying to walk this minefield? This is a question that is still somewhat unanswered in Milwaukee."
Falk acknowledges that Thornton was in a tricky situation: If he swung too far toward privatization, he would anger the board; if he was perceived as hostile to vouchers and charters, he would alienate political, business and civic leaders.
For his part, Thornton said he is less concerned about who runs a school than whether it works.
"I like great schools. They come in all shapes and sizes. Quality trumps what kind of structure they are," Thornton said Friday in an interview.
But he clearly stated his opposition to vouchers and the privatization of public schools.
If Thornton has had to wrestle with Milwaukee's unique politics, you might never have known it by watching him in action, observers say.
"He's a very dynamic person," said Julia Taylor, president of the business group, Greater Milwaukee Committee. "He is a very positive person."
Taylor and others say that for all the turmoil surrounding education in Milwaukee, they never doubted Thornton's commitment to the most important player in that mix: the student. During a recent conversation she had with him, Thornton mentioned a 6-year-old child who had been killed when he was struck by a car.
"'I lost one of my kids again,'" she remembered him saying. "This is all very personal for him."
The child's family will likely see Thornton among the mourners.
"He attends the funeral of every MPS child who dies, whatever the reason or, in the alternative, goes to the home of the family," said Borsuk, the Marquette fellow who also writes an education column for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
If children hold a soft place in his heart, Thornton otherwise is known as a master politician — perhaps even more so than as an educator. It is rare for him to engage in public confrontation, observers say, and school board meetings tend not to descend into shouting matches.
"He does not beat his head against the wall. He knows he needs five votes and he can count to five," said board member Falk.
When he doesn't have the support, he will try to find another way to do things, Falk said.
A proposal to privatize the school food service met with much resistance, for example, and Thornton opted to create a more centralized system that would bring about more efficiency.
A hallmark of Thornton's tenure in Milwaukee has been to centralize operations when he can — interestingly enough, the opposite of what Baltimore CEO Andrés Alonso, who resigned last year, did, transferring much decision-making from the North Avenue headquarters to individual schools.
Thornton said that certain things, like ordering materials and some budgeting, "are best centralized."
He believes in "earned autonomy," bestowed upon schools that are thriving, but cautioned that too much decentralization can create inequities. "You can't have schools that are winners and losers in this business," he said.
He added that centralization allows him to monitor schools and that he gets a 20-page "superintendent summary" every week showing how schools are performing.
Thornton also has established a so-called "standard of care" system-wide, creating uniform literacy, math and science plans for all schools.
A key component of his "standard of care" was giving schools what he called "a balanced diet." He used savings from legislation that eliminated the district's liability for benefits like second pensions and controlled health care costs to restore arts, physical education and music programs to many schools.
Some of the changes Thornton introduced raised concerns among parents, who already feared the impact of the statewide budget cuts. Jason Pilmaier, who has two kids in a French immersion school, said Thornton proved responsive to such concerns.
"One of our issues was that class sizes went up one year to the next," Pilmaier said. "When we went with our concerns to him, he held open meetings for parents. They were called coffee with the superintendent.
"He listens and doesn't commit to anything," Pilmaier said. But lower-level administrators would follow up, Pilmaier said, and in his own case, produce results — class sizes have been going down.
But another parent said Thornton had a top-down management style that didn't always welcome input from the grassroots level.
"I would advise Baltimore parents, don't wait to be invited to the table," said parent Angela McManaman. "I think what I've learned from working with Dr. Thornton is not to wait to be asked."
Similarly, Julia D'Amato, a former principal, said principals did not feel supported by the central office.
"It was difficult to reach out to him. He always had an entourage of people in front of him so you couldn't get to him," she said.
But first-year school principal Michael Harris said he has felt supported through regular mentoring from veteran and retired principals, and frequent principal meetings with the district.
Harris also said Thornton is unwavering in his message to school leaders.
"He has a clear vision: We have to make parents understand that we, Milwaukee's public schools, should be their No. 1 choice," Harris said. "And that we don't pick and choose, we educate them all."
McManaman is among a group of parents who were so alarmed by the more than $800 million Gov. Scott Walker cut in education funds in his 2011-2013 budget that they organized a chapter of Parents for Public Schools. McManaman has three children in Milwaukee's public schools, and a fourth at home whom she expects to also send to the system that she herself grew up in.
She said Thornton is rightfully proud of landing a $20.4 million, five-year grant from the GE Foundation — important at a time of public funding cutbacks. The GE money went to 10 Milwaukee elementary schools to help develop innovative ways of putting the new Common Core standards in place.
She and other public school supporters were unhappy that Thornton was among those who signed an op-ed in the Milwaukee newspaper calling for equal funding for all schools, whether traditional, charter or voucher. There was no acknowledgment, she said, that money flowing to other schools "comes at the expense of kids in public schools."
Teacher Jay Bullock agreed that Thornton could have been more protective of public schools against the growing tendency in Milwaukee to try to fix problems in the district with more vouchers and more charters.
"He's not afraid to use charter schools when that's the best option," Bullock said of Thornton's willingness to convert a failing school into a charter. "But I think we have the capacity ourselves to fix those schools."
Still, Bullock, who teaches high school English and also blogs about education issues, said that he thinks Thornton brought a necessary outsider's perspective to a moribund system.
"There wasn't urgency: 'We need to get in there to fix our schools,'" Bullock said. "He added some positive energy."
With a friendlier educational and political climate in Maryland, Thornton may have a freer hand to enact changes here. Larry Miller, a Milwaukee school board member, described him as a middle-of-the-road education reformer, nowhere as radical as, for example, a Michelle Rhee, the former Washington schools chancellor.
"He is a systems thinker," Miller said, describing how he immediately began analyzing the pension issues when he arrived in Milwaukee.
Given the political turbulence of the past several years in Wisconsin — Walker's budget cuts led to large-scale protests and an unsuccessful recall effort — it is perhaps telling that neither Walker nor Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett responded to requests for comments about Thornton for this article.
Walker abandoned the usual expression of gratitude for the service rendered by the departing official. Instead, his spokesman told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Walker hoped that Thornton's successor would more "fully" embrace the governor's reforms.
Thornton has also had to deal with the fallout from another Walker initiative — the dismantling of collective bargaining rights previously enjoyed by union members. Some would say that he took advantage of this stripping of union power and restructured teacher pensions.
Bullock, the high school teacher, said his union was "de-fanged" by politicians in recent years. Teachers have felt "so abused" that a change in Milwaukee school leadership hardly "makes a dent" at this point, he said.
The union, the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, declined an interview request.
Borsuk of Marquette said this sense of demoralization is part of the price of Thornton's centralizing decision-making.
"A lot of problems in the system, in terms of morale, was from it being a fear-driven system," Borsuk said. "The top dumped on the principals, the principals dumped on the teachers."
But, he pointed out, the district is in better financial shape. "He leaves [the school system] better than when he started," Borsuk said.
Now, Thornton will take on Baltimore's schools, another urban district with familiar problems that he similarly hopes to attack.
"Baltimore's challenges are no different than Milwaukee, no different than any urban center in America," Thornton said. "The key that will distinguish us from the others is the rate in which we move and the rate in which we sustain the movement."
An earlier version misidentified Julia Taylor. The Sun regrets the error.
Personal: Married, two children, one grandchild
Education: Temple University, bachelor's degree in elementary education; M.A. in administration/supervision at Salisbury University. He earned a doctorate in educational leadership at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.
•2002, Montgomery County Public Schools, community •superintendent and deputy superintendent
•2004, School District of Philadelphia, chief academic officer
•2007, Superintendent of Chester Upland School District
•2010, Milwaukee Public Schools, superintendentCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun