Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hurlyburly Over Murley

April 22, 2010, 8:00 a.m.

[This is essentially the fifth in what is, as of this morning, a five-part series on the Iowa City schools search for a new superintendent: "School Boundaries: There Are Better Ways," April 16, 2010 (with links to 23 prior, related blog entries and other writing); "How to Pick a School Superintendent; And My Questions for Candidates," April 17, 2010; "Bringing Home the Bacon and Bezek," April 20, 2010, and "ICCSD's Triple Play: From Bezek to Murley to Meeks; Bezek Can Talk the Talk -- On Four Hours' Sleep," April 21, 2010.]

Stevie, We Hardly Knew Ye
(brought to you by*)

Last evening Steve Murley, the second of the three finalists for ICCSD Superintendent, had his night with the public "meet and greet" and question time with the District's School Board. The consensus of those in attendance seems to have been, while balanced, more favorable than not. (The third and last of the finalists, Brad Meeks, will go through the same routine tonight: 6:15 meet and greet, 7:00 p.m. questions by Board members in open, public session; Central Administrative Offices, Clinton and Harrison Streets.) (Photo credit: Wausau School District.)

Because my Cyberspace Law Seminar met during precisely the same two-hour block last evening, I was unable to attend. (The first law dean to hire me, Bill Prosser, UC Berkeley, used to write the songs for the faculty's winter break musical. The lyrics for one contained the line, "But every now and then, alas, we have to go and teach a class." I've never considered teaching to be an "alas," but I did have a class to attend.) So I must rely on the reports in the papers, and from my wife, for their evaluations of what happened. (Top items: discussion of his conflict with the Wausau teachers; his progressive approach to science education and response to an increasing minority population.)

Thus, because I didn't feel like I had a very rounded view of who this guy is, I thought I'd begin by filling in some of those details. (But, no, the "Stevie, We Hardly Knew Ye" sub-heading, above, while an allusion to Kenneth P. O'Donnell and David F. Powers, Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye (Little-Brown, 1972), and the Irish ballad, "Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye", is not meant to suggest a comparison of Murley to President Kennedy, me to Kenny O'Donnell (a former neighbor), or Murley's life to that of the subject of the Irish ballad. It's just the line that popped to mind this morning as I realized how little I knew about Stephen Murley.)

So here goes.

Basic bio stuff -- plus local comments sample. For the basics, I turn to Rob Daniel's opening introduction from April 17, drawing upon the insights from the Press-Citizen's sister Gannett paper in Wausau, the Wausau Daily Herald, and its education reporter Keith Uhlig.

Rob Daniel, "Murley Feels Prepared for Iowa City Job," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 17, 2010, p. A1.

Murley, 43, is one of three finalists . . ..

In Wausau, Murley, who earns $206,500 annually, oversees 8,500 students, 1,200 employees and a $112 million budget.

After graduating from the University of Michigan, Murley was hired as a programmer and personnel supervisor with the Parks and Recreation Commission in Washtenaw County, Mich., before becoming an athletic department supervisor with the Neenah (Wis.) Joint School District in 1993.

After three years, he became a history and economics teacher and coach at a high school in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., before becoming a middle school principal in Wausau in 1999. He moved up the ranks in the Wausau School District, becoming its human resources and employee relations director in 2001, a job he held for four years before being named the district's superintendent in January 2005.

Dale Lawson, Wausau School Board president, said the board has been pleased with Murley's performance, especially in adding charter schools to the district in recent years as well as helping start an engineering charter school to open next year.

"He's been a large part of the community in representing the district to different foundations," Lawson said. "The board knows Mr. Murley is a good administrator and would not be surprised he would make (a good administrator in Iowa City)."

However, his role as superintendent has been somewhat controversial since the start, said Keith Uhlig, Wausau Daily Herald education reporter. Just before becoming superintendent, Murley dealt with a case where a coach was arrested and eventually convicted for having sex with a student, Uhlig said. Also shortly after taking over as superintendent, Murley and the school board had to defend a $430,000 retirement package for his predecessor, Charles Shuka, a deal that eventually was cut to $135,000, Uhlig said.

In December, Murley received a vote of no confidence from the Wausau Education Association, the district's teachers' union, after a "rough negotiation" on a new contract, Uhlig said. The school board later deemed Murley "proficient" in working through budget issues, but it stressed in the review that he needed to communicate better with teachers and the public, according to his performance evaluation, Uhlig said.

"He's been tempered by controversy since the beginning," Uhlig said. "(The teachers' anger) went away because they settled the contract."

Murley said he is able to make budget cuts when necessary. Under budget caps established for Wisconsin schools in 1993, he said he has managed to cut $18 million from the Wausau district's budget during his tenure.
Here are some excerpts from Uhlig's take on Murley in the Herald's report of his interviews in Iowa City, Keith Uhlig, "Superintendent Up For Iowa Job," Wausau Daily Herald, April 17, 2010, along with a sampling of the anonymous online comments of Herald readers (who seem equal to those of the Press-Citizen in their capacity for mean-spirited ad hominim, rejoinders in fairness, and sense of humor):

Before taking the reins as superintendent in May 2005, [Superintendent Steve] Murley was the district's director of human resources. He started as superintendent while there was a cloud of controversy swirling around the district regarding a $200,000 retirement bonus awarded to outgoing Superintendent Charles Skurka.

The last year has been just as tumultuous for Murley. In a contentious round of negotiations with the district's teachers union, the Wausau Education Association, teachers issued a letter of no confidence in Murley and asked the School Board to remove him.

The School Board stood by Murley, giving him a ranking of "proficient" in his latest performance evaluation, with average scores of three or higher on a four-point scale in eight categories ranging from leadership and organizational management to curriculum planning and development.

Murley is in the first year of a two-year contract that expires June 30, 2011. His salary for the 2009-10 school year is $152,700, plus $1,770 in longevity pay for 10 years of district service.


Iowa, go for it! If you want a Superintendent who values top down managment style, promotes his own self-interests and pits teachers against the community through divisive rhetoric, then Steve is your man. Hope you don't let him bamboozle you the way he has our district as HR person and Superintendent. Our loss would be your LOSS!
4/17/2010 10:04:52 AM

So the teachers did not get all they wanted in tough times when everybody else is taking pay cuts or losing their jobs. . . . Thats why the teachers and the union were not happy with Murley. Maybe to balance the budget we need to cut some jobs with the teachers and then the union will not make as much money on dues. Let them find out what it is like being unemployed.
4/17/2010 11:21:29 AM

It is never popular to make difficult decisions. Teachers will never be happy unless they get everything and more "in the name of the children" and taxpayers will never be happy...well, because we pay a ridiculous amount of taxes and it still is not enough.

Congrats to Mr. Murley...I wish other superintendants would stand up to the union.
4/17/2010 12:18:54 PM

Replying to farquardt [above]: . . .

So, you saying that it should be a bottom to top management style? Were employees tell management what and how to do it? LOL!!

Hope you are not teaching that stuff you said to our kids. I bet Murley told Iowa that he would protect the education budget and help keep property taxes low at the same time.

Heck, we think he should be our next governor
4/17/2010 12:28:22 PM

Better deal - send Wausau teachers to Iowa, keep Mr. Murley, and hire new "I want to teach" graduates. Instant budget balancing, fewer malcontents, problem solved.
4/18/2010 12:40:39 AM
Not incidentally, while I'm sure it's easily explained, if our Board ends up choosing Murley they might want to, before agreeing on a salary, inquire as to the apparent disparity between the $206,500 Daniel reports and the $152,700 reported in Wausau's Herald (as reproduced, above).

Murley on Murley -- and the Wausau District

Here is some of Murley's presence on the Wausau District's Web site. (Admittedly, one's own Web site is seldom the best source of candid evaluations of one's pluses and minuses. But neither is it totally irrelevant in forming an impression.)

The greeting on his page:

Welcome to the Wausau School District!

Our schools are inviting and energetic places to learn and work, and WSD students have opportunities that few districts can match. From preschool through graduation, our students have access to some of the best educators, programs, and facilities in Wisconsin. Everything we do focuses on the academic and personal success of each individual child. By taking care of what matters most, we can help students attain the skills they need to succeed in an ever-changing world. The Wausau community provides outstanding support to our schools and, together, we create a wonderful place for all of us to call home. Take a look through our website; better yet, come and visit our schools and see Wausau School District education in action. You’ll be glad you did.
Stephen F. Murley
Superintendent of Schools
Murley also has something similar to what our former provost, now UConn President, Mike Hogan, calls his "Pres Release" -- his personal/institutional blog. Steve Murley's is called "Superintendent E-News."

Here is how it opens, plus the most recent entry (from last Monday):

Greetings and welcome to the Wausau School District Superintendent's blog. Ours is a large District ... large in terms of number of students, number of staff, and number of facilities. It is easy to miss the good things that happen day in and day out throughout our District. This blog is a forum to celebrate these successes. Please join me in sharing the achievements of our District!

Hewitt-Texas Elementary School
Posted on April 19th, 2010 by Steve Murley

Congratulations to Mrs. Davis and her 5th graders at Hewitt-Texas Elementary School. They were chosen as one of the Fall 2009 Poetic Achievement Honor Schools and they received a Poetic Achievement Award. The students had their poems published in the Wisconsin/Minnesota Fall 2009 Celebration of Poets. This award is given to schools that have a large number of entries of which over 50% are accepted for publication. With hundreds of schools entering the contest, only a small percent of schools are honored with this ward. Congratulations to all the students for this outstanding recognition!
Accounts of Murley's Evening

The newspapers' stories include: Rob Daniel, "Discussion key for candidate; Murley talks challenges for today's schools," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 22, 2010, p. A1 ("Asked to cite some of his proudest moments, Murley talked about . . . a science specialist system where eight elementary teachers move among the district's 13 elementaries to teach science in specially designated classrooms. He said it has been well received by the middle school teachers. . . . Murley currently is working on his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, planning to earn the degree in December. He said he is focusing on superintendent evaluation, an area he said often receives little attention because school boards, rather than other people in education, review superintendents. . . . Murley also talked about working with . . . a higher number of minorities, particularly Hmong and Hispanic residents and students.").

Gregg Hennigan, "Superintendent Candidate Stresses Communication," The Gazette, April 22, 2010, p. A2 ("Murley said it was only the union’s leadership that cast the no confidence vote. He said the relationship is better now, and one of the outcomes was the creation of a leadership group made up of members of the union, school board and administrative team that meets regularly . . .. Also, the teachers got a 3 percent salary increase for next year.").

Holly Hines, "School Board interviews second finalist for superintendent," The Daily Iowan, April 22, 2010 ("At a time when redistricting has fueled an ongoing and heated debate in Iowa City, Murley said he prefers to bring resources to students in need rather than moving those students to different schools. Tracking the number of students receiving free or reduced lunches is only one of many ways to tackle demographics concerns, he said. It’s also important to look into issues regarding literacy and ways to help students who speak English as a second language. At his interview Wednesday night, board members asked him questions regarding topics such as how he’d respond to parent complaints. Murley said he’d be sure to pinpoint to whom each complaint should be addressed and facilitate a conversation between both parties if necessary. Meanwhile, Dale Lawson, president of the Wausau School Board, said Murley has been instrumental in several district initiatives, such as creating a charter school for at-risk kids.").

And here are Mary Vasey's personal observations and opinions regarding the evening, published online in the Press-Citizen's "On the Record." Mary, my wife, was able to attend Murley's session (as well as Mark Bezek's on Tuesday, which I also attended and wrote up as "ICCSD's Triple Play: From Bezek to Murley to Meeks; Bezek Can Talk the Talk -- On Four Hours' Sleep," April 21, 2010). (Mary is a lifelong teacher with a special expertise and experience with alternative education, was one of the first hired for the national faculty of the Coalition of Essential Schools, spent much of her career with the Presidential Award-winning Metro High School in Cedar Rapids, and was on the committee that helped design Iowa City's Tate High School, where she volunteers.)

Steve Murley jumped right in with an explanation of his side of the no confidence vote by the teachers’ association. He implied that the difficulty was with the leadership not the teachers as a whole. Although he didn’t concede that the leadership of the teachers’ association had a point, he did say he learned something from the situation. I gather he decided that the best approach would be to keep in contact outside of negotiations with the three associations represented in the district. He talked about addressing the small issues as they came up. The example he gave was when some of the support staff complained that finding out about transfers in August gave them no time to properly say goodbye in the schools they had served the previous year. The district changed that policy to one where they transferred support staff in the spring of the year.

Communication may be one of Murley’s strong points. He is active in his community and appears to be someone who would use his contacts to listen and to inform. There seems to be a lot of polarization around issues concerning our district and it also appears that there is resistance to change. We really need somebody who can lead, explain and convince.

I do like to see creative solutions like the science program in their elementary schools. I was also impressed with the kindergarten program for four year old children.

He discussed the importance of reviewing policies and either implementing or discarding them. This would directly apply to defining the roles of the board and of the superintendent. It sometimes appears that our Iowa City board sometimes feels paralyzed by a lack of understanding of just what their role is. I don’t think the citizens of Iowa City are sure about that either. Maybe that is something the new superintendent can tackle right away or maybe it is something the board needs to address even sooner.

A highlight of the meeting was at the end when Murley asked the board members to talk about where they would like to see as a goal in five, ten, or fifteen years. Their responses were real and heartfelt. They included a goal of more and better technology in every school and classroom, more effective advocacy in the legislature and on the federal level, and more attention to the demographics in the district. The pressure they have been under was especially clear when Toni Cilek said she would really like to be able to have the time to pursue some more creative ideas and Gayle Klouda said she would really like to get back to working on the ends policies. Sarah Swisher emphasized the importance of urgency now. I realize that, although I may have been critical of them at times, I also know what a difficult job they have and I am thankful they are willing serve.
My conclusions.

Obviously, since I would normally side with faculty and staff over administration in most disputes, I'm troubled by the Wausau teachers' vote of "no confidence." I suspect that simply must have something to do with the fact his contract only runs for two years, and that he's already looking elsewhere. On the other hand, without knowing more, it can't be a deal breaker. (As the comments, above, indicate, some locals want to run him for governor, others are saying, "Don't let the door hit you on your way out.") Cutting $18 million from any school's budget -- the highest percentage of which necessarily goes to salaries -- can't be done without creating at least some pain and strife; just ask President Mason and Provost Loh at the University. He says (a) cuts had to be, and were, made all around, (b) the teachers refused to consider either a wage freeze or a possible increase in teaching load (sound familiar?), (c) relations are much better now, and (d) he takes a new and different approach to staff relations that includes ongoing contacts.

Based on what little I know it seems to me Murley is someone who might fit well for Iowa City. He seems bright, articulate, willing to try new things and innovate with best practices in addressing challenges, is not insensitive to the concerns of taxpayers, and is young and energized.
* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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1 comment:

Tired of the ICCSD said...

We should have listened to the teacher's union in Wausau. They knew what they were talking about.