As Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham announced Wednesday that she will be leaving her job, community members thanked her for her service, again and again pointing to her work to lift up students of color.
That work, Cheatham and others speaking at a press conference said, will not stop when Cheatham leaves her post at the end of August, ending six years as the head of the second largest district in the state.
“My leaving should not signal for a second a lack of continued commitment by this community of leaders to continue the work that we set out to do,” Cheatham said. “What it must signal is that for this work to be sustained, it can’t depend on the leadership of a single person, me or any future superintendent.”
To illustrate this point, Cheatham pointed to the dozens of people standing behind her, which included MMSD staff, School Board members and community and nonprofit leaders.
“This is just some of the people who will continue to work hard and together to keep Madison moving forward,” Cheatham said.
Isthmus broke the news Tuesday night that Cheatham would be leaving her role, and the district announced Wednesday morning that she will join the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in a program that helps train superintendents.
Cheatham leaves behind a School Board in which, aside from Board President Mary Burke, six members have a collective five years of board experience.
But Cheatham said Wednesday leaving now is the right choice.
“I am confident that this is a natural time for transition in leadership,” Cheatham said, pointing to a board committed to the district’s vision, strong leadership team, an engaged community and committed staff.
Burke said Cheatham has laid a new strategic framework of how to accomplish the district’s goals. Several speakers said that foundation advocates for students of color, and black students especially through the district’s Black Excellence Plan.
“We’ve lifted up black excellence and we are poised to do so much more,” said Carlettra Stanford, principal of Mendota Elementary School. “We will continue our work to change outcomes for students, particularly our students of color, but more specifically our African-American students. We are not slowing down."
Karen Menendez Coller, executive director of Centro Hispano, said she had “no idea” of the depth of challenges faced by students of color when she first moved to Madison, and called Cheatham an “incredible partner in the work.”
“She welcomed community to the table from day one … She’s come to bat for us when it was essential,” Mendenzer Coller said. “I want to make sure the seeds she planted are in fact going to lead to hope for our community.”
Newly elected School Board member Ananda Mirilli said she thinks Cheatham’s legacy will be “moving us from a color-blindness and inability to talk about race to being very explicit talking about race and racial equity.”
Andrew Waity, president of Madison Teachers Inc., released a statement thanking Cheatham for her accomplishments, including helping develop a collaborative Employee Handbook process, problem-solving teams of administrators and elected MTI staff representatives at every school, and a “much needed focus on racial equity,” the statement said.
“Over the past six years we have accomplished significant things together. These have included some difficult transitions as the impacts of a state and national climate hostile to public education were felt here in Madison,” the statement said. “... As we prepare for the transition to new leadership in our district it is critical that the voice of staff is heard in meaningful ways.”
Cheatham was asked several questions about the timing of her decision to step down. She denied that it was in response to what she previously called a “trying year,” with incidents of sexual assault and racial slurs.
Every year has challenges, Cheatham said, but that’s not her reason for leaving; she’s ready to “make a larger impact on the education field.” She also said she wanted to spend more time with her son.
She did not directly answer a question asking whether she actively sought the position at Harvard or was approached with a job offer.
“There are never good times, never perfect times, for a superintendent to leave … I’m trying to leave with a lot of intention and great care,” Cheatham said.
She said the district's “clear direction” and goals, along with a significant change in school board members, gave her confidence that it was time to leave.
“It would be wrong for me to leave a year from now, after working with a brand new board, developing that team, working with them closely,” she said.
Two weeks ago, Cheatham gave an interview with WISC-TV in which she expressed her excitement for future work in the district. Asked after the press conference whether anything changed between giving that interview and now, Cheatham said “nothing’s changed.”
“Everything I said in that interview, I would say again today. I am incredibly excited about this board. I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished, thrilled about the agenda we’ve laid out for the future,” Cheatham said. “I’m as enthusiastic about MMSD as ever, I think the only change is that I'll be supporting and cheerleading maybe from a distance and trying to influence the field.”
As the Cap Times reported Wednesday morning, a source said the Madison School Board, in a closed session Monday, authorized MMSD’s attorney to enter into negotiations with chief of elementary schools Nancy Hanks to take over as interim superintendent.
Burke said the board had not yet decided on an interim replacement but would announce the replacement by the end of May. She indicated a preference to hire internally for the role. Asked specifically to comment on whether Hanks would take over the role, Burke said, “the decision has not been made on that.”
At the very end of the conference, Cheatham again looked to those standing around her.
“This is the team that’s going to move things forward," she said. "I love you guys."
Negassi Tesfamichael contributed to this report.