A long-dormant initiative aimed at uniting educators, business groups and university leaders to improve student achievement in Milwaukee Public Schools has quietly come back to life — but with a structure that’s outside the norm.
The revived Milwaukee Partnership Academy has received $280,000 over the last two years in no-bid contracts with the district; the Milwaukee School Board on Thursday will consider renewing another $180,000 contract for it.
But records show the MPA is not an incorporated nonprofit — which is common for organizations contracting with the district. Instead, the contract is essentially a check to one person: Gerard Randall, a well-known face in Milwaukee’s nonprofit, African-American and education communities, and a prolific networker. Randall assumed the role of executive director three years ago.
MPS officials describe the work of the MPA as a valuable asset to the district.
“There is no question that the millions of dollars in support we have received thanks to the work of the (partnership) have benefited and will continue to benefit the children of Milwaukee,” said MPS spokesman Tony Tagliavia.
In addition, Randall’s work bringing people to the table is credited with helping the district receive a $15 million federal grant for college-readiness initiatives, which was then matched with local dollars for a total of close to $30 million. The grant has helped launch college-access centers for Milwaukee students on the north and south sides.
Milwaukee School Board President Michael Bonds said Randall’s work on the grant more than covered the money spent on the partnership contract. “I feel like we’re getting our money’s worth,” Bonds said.
Randall’s name doesn’t actually appear on the contract. And he declined the Journal Sentinel’s request for a budget showing how he spends the MPS money he receives through the MPA contract.
Although MPS said the fiscal conduit for the partnership is the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board, that isn’t written anywhere in the contract either.
The contract does state that the contractor should not use any employee of MPS to perform services. But the assistant for the partnership, housed at 735 W. Wisconsin Ave., is MPS employee Janice Hagen. Tagliavia said the district compensates Hagen and provides her services as part of an in-kind contribution to the partnership.
Randall, who described himself as an independent contractor, listed a variety of efforts — though not a lot of specifics — he’s accomplished or is working on as leader of the MPA. They include:
■Writing a birth-to-third grade literacy plan for the district, and then partnering with Cardinal Stritch University to try to write a grant request to implement it. The project coordinator for Cardinal Stritch is Theresa Thornton, the wife of MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton.
■Starting the Milwaukee Urban Teacher Residency program, an alternative-certification program that recruits professionals with undergraduate degrees to train to become fully certified teachers and fill high-needs placements in the district. Randall initially estimated 25 people would be in the first cohort; only nine started this summer. The district said $80,000 of the $180,000 MPA contract flows to partner organizations working on the residency program — although that’s not specified in the contract.
■Trying to obtain more funding to improve science education.
■Thinking about how to work on training and job opportunities for students.
■Trying to get funding restored for professional development in MPS.
Randall also said the partnership had been involved in organizing an event to honor teachers in October, led by deans of education at Milwaukee-area colleges. But insiders say Randall is no longer a part of that effort because he didn’t follow through on organizing anything.
Randall made news years ago as head of the old Private Industry Council, which was taken from him and the county and transferred to city control. The council was charged with administering funds for job training and employment. The agency had a budget of $14 million, and paid Randall $154,000 in 1998 — more than the mayor made. At the time, the takeover was seen as either a political maneuver or a long-overdue change because of ineffective leadership.
After the demise of PIC, Randall won several no-bid contracts from Milwaukee County to work on task forces aimed at reducing unemployment for minority men. Some criticized him for not fully documenting how he spent the money.
Randall is also chair of the Social Development Commission, an unpaid role he assumed this summer after the organization lost its Head Start grant funding.
Some of the volunteer partners of the MPA include heavy hitters such as University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Chancellor Michael Lovell, Milwaukee Area Technical College President Michael Burke, Cardinal Stritch University President James Loftus, Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board CEO Donald Sykes and Milwaukee Public Television General Manager Ellis Bromberg, as well as Milwaukee teachers union President Bob Peterson, Bonds, and Superintendent Thornton.
Those are some of the same people being tapped by Milwaukee Succeeds, an effort launched two years ago under the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. The goal of both efforts is similar, but Milwaukee Succeeds aims to improve conditions for all Milwaukee students in public and private schools, and the MPA is more focused on MPS.
Randall’s first contract under the MPA was for $100,000, running from July 2011 through June 2012, but it was signed in early March 2012 — meaning the money was allocated with less than four months left. The second contract was for $180,000, which the district says included $80,000 to begin the Urban Teacher Residency program.
Georgia Pabst of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
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