Moving On From Jenkins

Anybody who serves as Madison Schools Superintendent deserves our thanks. I’ve always thought that it’s the toughest job in Madison, even tougher than being mayor.

Yesterday Carlton Jenkins announced his retirement effective at the end of July, after only three years on the job. Let’s thank him for his service and wish him well on his retirement, but let’s also be clear on what we need in the next superintendent.

I hope the school board looks for five qualities.

First, someone who will care about all the kids and parents in the schools. Jenkins and his predecessor, Jennifer Cheatham, never expressed any interest or concern for the majority of average kids who just want to learn or for the taxpayers who want value for their investment. The district is shedding enrollment in a growing community and we need a superintendent who sees that as the first problem to tackle.

Second, someone who will make school safety and good order a priority. The last two superintendents have been obsessed, not with the racial achievement gap which is real, but with graduate-level race theory. I’ll stop short of calling it Critical Race Theory, but it’s in that ballpark. Jenkins did nothing to improve on the awful Behavioral Education Plan dreamed up by Cheatham. As a result our schools have too much disorder when they don’t have actual violence and teachers are demoralized because they feel helpless to do anything about it.

Third, someone who will be the Luke Fickell of school superintendents. The new Badger football coach is a dynamic guy who is attracting talented players and coaches. Madison is in competition for great teachers. This needs to become a place where those teachers want to be and nobody has more to say about that than the superintendent.

Carlton Jenkins’ low profile didn’t serve the Madison schools well.

Fourth, someone who will draw clear boundaries between the superintendent and the board. The board’s job is to make broad policy, not to micromanage. The board needs to hire someone who will have the confidence and strength to enforce that boundary.

And fifth, someone who will communicate. Jenkins seldom talked to the press. He was AWOL on big issue after big issue. A big part of leadership in any high-profile position is to embrace and use that profile. Brilliant administrators who can’t communicate to the public should become top managers but not the face of the organization.

Nothing’s more important to our community than the health of our public schools and they are not in great shape right now. The decision the board makes about the next superintendent will be among the most crucial of the decade.

And on another matter… the Madison City Council continues to impress me with its willingness to make good on their commitment to building more housing. On Tuesday night the Council swatted down an attempt to landmark a nondescript office building on Sherman Ave. That will make it easier to move forward with a proposal to tear down the building and to construct over 300 units of much needed housing there.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “Moving On From Jenkins

  1. To me, the most damning evidence against Jenkins’ tenure is the point you made about the contrast between the growing city of Madison and the shrinking enrollment at our schools. Many people are simply choosing to send their kids to neighboring school districts. Verona just built a newer, bigger and better high school, Sun Prairie added a second high school, Edgewood, Middleton, Waunakee and DeForest continue to grow and thrive. Meanwhile, Madison’s schools get ink when there are melees or other mayhem.
    Madison is a great city and its residents pay a lot in taxes to have a great school district. Right now, we’re not getting our money’s worth, which is why it’s good that Dr. Jenkins has decided to retire. Our next superintendent needs to make our schools great again (Sorry. I couldn’t stop myself.) and attract excellent teachers to our attractive city. It really shouldn’t be that difficult if the board can get out of its own way.


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