MADISON (WKOW) -- We're learning more about two candidates for Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) superintendent.
School Board President James Howard says a search firm narrowed 65 applications down to just 12. The board interviewed seven of those candidates, choosing two on Saturday. Howard says he hopes the candidate the board selects as the final replacement for former Superintendent Dan Nerad will help fix MMSD's biggest problem: how to close the achievement gap.
The board chose Walter Milton, Jr. and Jennifer Cheatham as the two finalists. Milton has been superintendent of Springfield Public Schools in Illinois since 2007. Milton previously worked as superintendent in Flint, Michigan and at Fallsburg Central District in New York. He began his education career as a teacher.
Jennifer Cheatham is currently Chief Instruction Officer for Chicago Public Schools, working on school system reform. She's filled several roles in the district since 2009. Before that, Cheatham worked as curriculum director for San Diego City Schools. She also began her career as a teacher.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Cheatham is known for her recent work to create a uniform academic calendar and extend the school day for Chicago students.
The State Journal Register in Springfield reports that Milton is currently working on a budget cut proposal that would eliminate teaching positions and close schools in his district.
Both candidates declined a phone interview with 27 News on Monday night.
Howard says both Milton and Cheatham have a lot of experience working in large districts, which Howard believes would be good experience to tackle the achievement gap at MMSD.
"I think it's very similar because they have the gap issues, in fact their gaps are more pronounced then ours because their districts are a lot larger," Howard says. "That's our primary issue, so we want to make sure we have candidates who have diverse backgrounds in terms of working in districts that have a lot of diversity and may have encountered these types of issues before."
Howard says the school board will ultimately decide between the two finalists. The candidates are visiting Madison on Thursday where they'll tour the district and meet with the school board again. They'll also face the public at a forum on Thursday night at 5:45 p.m. at Monona Terrace, to respond to questions.
"It's going to be nice to see them under fire, answer these questions," says Howard. "It'll be good to see because I believe the community will come out and really challenge them because the community of Madison is really passionate about their schools."
Howard says the board has already gotten dozens of emails from residents about the candidates.
Howard says the board is not in a big rush to make a decision. Interim Superintendent Jane Belmore is expected to stay in her position through June. Howard says the board doesn't have to pick one of the two finalists, they could always go back to the search firm to find new candidates. The goal is to get a new superintendent in before the next school year begins.