Jennifer Cheatham has been offered the job of Madison Metropolitan School District superintendent, according to school district officials.
Cheatham, who's currently chief of instruction for Chicago Public Schools, had a final interview with the school board and met with district staff on Thursday. Her hiring is dependent on contract negotiations.
During a community question-and-answer session at the Monona Terrace Thursday night, Cheatham said she took the board's decision to have her meet the public as a statement of confidence in her.
“I consider it an honor and privilege to serve the Madison community,” Cheatham said. “I look forward to working together to ensure that every child attends a thriving school that prepares them for college and career. I enjoyed the opportunity to answer important and thoughtful questions from the public, and I look forward to working for a community that cares so deeply about public education.”
“Jennifer Cheatham is a visionary leader with an excellent track record on narrowing the achievement gap,” Board President James Howard said. “She is passionate and determined while being collaborative and inclusive. She is an excellent choice for our district and will take MMSD where it needs to go.”
“She's visionary. She has, I think, an infectious leadership style,” board member Arlene Silviera told News 3 Friday. “She's very easy to get along with. She has a proven track record in urban districts at closing the gaps. She's very collaborative, and she's not afraid to make a decision, which I think is really a thing that we need in our district.”
Madison Teachers, Inc. President John Matthews was at Thursday night’s public forum. He said there should have been at least five finalists speaking to the public instead of just one.
A second candidate for the position, Walter Milton Jr., superintendent of Springfield Public Schools in Springfield, Ill., withdrew his application Tuesday.
“Frequently, people look at it and say, I don't know, I don't think I have a real good chance here, and they pull out. So coming forward with only two people was a big, big mistake,” Matthews said.
Kaleen Caire with the Urban League shared Matthews’ concerns for the process. He said the Iowa-based firm paid to head up the search, Ray and Associates, put the district in a bad position by not thoroughly checking Milton’s background before advancing him.
Caire said the board did offer up information to him that eased his worries about the semi-finalist pool being large and diverse enough.
Despite his concerns with the selection process, Caire is confident in the board’s pick. He said the district could really benefit from the tough leadership he thinks Cheatham will bring to Madison.
“We need someone that comes with a tremendous amount of confidence and says, look this is what needs to get done,” Caire explained.
Mayor Paul Soglin said Cheatham now needs to build a base of support in Madison. He added the district needs to be careful in hiring outside consultants without keeping a close eye on what that company is doing.
“I do think we, as a community and as a district, have to examine what happened,” Soglin said. “It's very possible that we had a challenged process and got very lucky in getting her. “
Silviera said the board will revisit the way the process played out, but in the end, she said members were not pressured to make a rash decision.
“We had a long conversation about what it means to bring one person back that we believe in and that we were not to feel pressured that we had to hire this person,” Silviera said. “We wanted the best, and I think we got the best.”
The board started the search process this fall by asking the community for input. Using that input, the board's search consultants, Ray and Associates, developed a profile of what the district and community is looking for in a superintendent. Ray and Associates used that profile over three months of national recruitment. Through that search, 65 candidates were screened, according to a Madison Metropolitan School District news release.