Real Community Leadership

I’ve noticed in several postings that people have criticized the Madison School Board for lack of leadership. I believe that true leadership happens in the community and then comes to the board level for action. This has been the case in many actions that have been taken place in the past, present and will undoubtedly be the case in the future. All of these actions have had or will have a profound impact on the Madison Metropolitan School District.
Fifty-one years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated formal school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Twenty-five years later, this ruling forced the Madison School District to dramatically change how it educated elementary students. In 1979, South Madison residents lead by Dr. Richard Harris filed a lawsuit with the federal Office of Civil Rights concluding that the Madison School Board had knowingly created and perpetrated racial isolation by closing schools and changing boundaries on the city’s heavily populated minority South Madison. This lead to the creation of a task force that created the current school pairings we know today.
This community leadership has also lead to new initiatives such as Nuestro Mundo Community School, the district’s dual-language charter school. This school is responding to Latino community leaders’ concerns regarding the changing demographics in the city and school district. English speaking families wanting to expose their children to Spanish and Latino culture are also enrolling their children in the school.
In addition to Nuestro Mundo, the Madison School Board is supporting the building of Wexford Ridge Community Center on the grounds of Jefferson Middle and Memorial High Schools. Wexford Ridge Neighborhood Center currently runs adult and youth programming out of a two-bedroom apartment. Again, community leaders and residents supported the proposal that initially didn’t have the support of the Superintendent or a majority of the board. I am proud to state that voting for this proposal was one of my first acts as a member of the school board.
In the near future, on April 11th the School Board’s Partnership Committee will convene a meeting to discuss a proposal from a group of parents to form a girls hockey program. This program will be a cooperative effort with girls from Memorial, West, East and LaFollette as well as schools outside of Madison being able to participate on one team. I am in favor of this program because it allows girls to participate positively in athletics and uses parent’s creativity and community resources to fund the proposal.
In conclusion, the school board is elected to lead the school district, however, it is the community that truly leads schools. It is the above stated community initiatives that lead me to believe that the real leadership comes from the community, not solely from school board members. I look forward to seeing what future initiatives come from the community, so we can work together to make them happen for the betterment of the Madison Metropolitan School District.

4 thoughts on “Real Community Leadership”

  1. MMSD Board members like to point to Nuestro Mundo and Wexford Community Center, which were implemented before Mr. Winston’s membership on the School Board, as successes. They are, but the majority of board members did not embrace these ideas and community members faced an uphill struggle almost the entire way. I would have liked to see more positive collaboration from the beginning – some early vetting process for ideas.
    These initiatives and ideas came from the community, but were not welcomed by a majority of School Board members and the Administration for a very long time – approach was glass half empty rather than half full. In the case of Nuestro Mundo, it was not until the final day of the final vote in January 2004 that all Board members came on board (the administration had prepared a thick document saying why no on Nuestro Mundo). I know. I worked with Nuestro Mundo to condense and summarize financial information, which was a final hurdle this private group was facing.
    Ray Allen and Ruth Robarts were two board members on board with these ideas from the beginning and working very hard with the groups to move the projects forward. Ray Allen is gone from the board, but I am pleased that Mr. Winston is open to publicly speaking his support for community ideas and the hockey proposal, in particular.
    The fine arts community and parents have been asking for a community committee to work on the coordination of the fine arts curriculum in cooperation with the community for years. So far, board members and the administration have kept the door closed with plans being developed internally for presentation to outsiders as is currently underway. I hope you open the door so a real dialogue can begin, Mr. Winston.
    I personally believe that we need to be working together to develop more innovative ideas in our current fiscal environment. Madison is a dynamic, creative city that values its public education system. The ideas are there – people need to feel there is a welcome mat and the door is truly open.

  2. Johnny,
    Thank you so much for your posts. I continue to hope that they lead to meaningful discussions.
    Unfortunately, the discussion on confidence in the Board has yet to even begin. The community says that it lacks confidence in the Board. The Board says that the community doesn�t understand; Juan says he talks to people at the Y and everyplace else in town. You say the board was responsive on Nuestro Mundo and the Wexford Ridge Community Center.
    I�m not trying to be difficult, but it�s irrelevant to all the other concerns, like the budget process, to say that the Board acted over the opposition of the Superintendent and in support of Nuestro Mundo and Wexford Ridge.
    People want responsiveness to a long list of nagging issues, but I personally don�t know how to get past the Board�s defensiveness and engage it in a serious self-examination along with the community of its itself, the Superintendent, the district, and the issues.
    Continue reading for more examples of the issues where the Board and community continue to talk past each other.
    The following is a list of just a few recent examples of the serious disconnect between the Board and the public:
    The community wanted Barb Thompson as principal at East; the Superintendent and Board chose someone who couldn�t handle the job. (Barb is now a successful superintendent in New Glarus.)
    The community wants assurance that the same thing won�t happen again in selecting the East principal; the Superintendent defends his decision-making process; the Board does nothing.
    The community complains about math and reading curriculum; the Board holds show-and-tell sessions for the administration.
    The community previously rejects cuts in the strings program; the Superintendent and Board propose the same cuts this year.
    The community asks for a fine arts coordinator; the Superintendent and Board drag their feet.
    The community asks for partnerships on fine arts; the Superintendent and Board do nothing.
    The community asks for review of administrators� contracts; the Board approves them all and proposes cuts in teaching staff.
    The community asks for a budget prior to the release of a list of cuts; the Superintendent does the same old thing; the Board defends the process.
    What can we possibly do to enage in a meaninful dialog?
    Ed Blume

  3. Now there you go, Mr. Winston. Last year I asked the board and administrators to do a thorough study of the long-term budgetary implications of cutting elementary strings. I wanted to know whether MMSD would experience “reverse economics” as a result of cutting strings. In other words, would the district end up eventually adding more teachers at higher cost in middle and high schools because you no longer had students coming through the pipeline into music classes that had higher than the normal class loads. Rather than respond to my email in a positive way, and asking the administration to complete that study, you requested that I suggest to you what I would consider a proper fee for elementary strings.
    Now one year has passed, you still haven’t bothered to demand a thorough study of the long-term budgetary implications of cutting elementary strings, and you want to shift your responsibility onto “the community.” That is the epitome of irresponsible leadership.

  4. Dear Johnny,
    Please understand that I offer the following observations with respect. Having attended more meetings than I would like to over the past 18 months, I, too, have come to have serious concerns about board leadership. For example:
    1) I am concerned that all too often committees do not meet at all or function as show and tell sessions for MMSD administration if they do meet. Where is the leadership in this practtice at a time when we are facing three referenda, a structural deficit in the operating budget, and serious issues of educational equity and academic standards within our schools.
    2) I am concerned that some committee chairs pass off their responsibilities by claiming that the board as a whole addresses their committees’ missions. This undermines established governance structures and, by the way, is completely unsupported by the minutes and content of meetings of the board as a whole.
    3) Like many citizens, I am amazed that the board accepts administration data and PR without question. It is our elected officials’ responsibility – not micromanagement – to ask for clarification, detail, or basic explanation that is sorely missing in presentations to the board. For example, I am amazed that the board is willing to support a maintenance referendum based on poorly constructed spreadsheets rather than a proposal with narrative and detail on how the resources will be used. I also found it fascinating to hear the Greek chorus that “we have no other choice on cuts if the operating budget referendum fails” when there has been no information on the dollar figures for items that will be funded, no meetings of the finance and operations committee from October 24 to March, and no discussion in board meetings about what IS in the budget.
    4) I am appalled at the childish and unprofessional conduct of board meetings and board behavior at committee meetings and public hearings. We have discussed this – you know that I don’t find it to be a sign of leadership to suck up meeting and the public’s time making self-aggrandizing speeches to each other. Nor do I find it a sign that the board is listening when its members make more speeches – many of which are simply echoing each others’ speeches – during public hearings.
    5) I do not see the leadership in addressing key issues ranging from air quality at Lowell school to minority student achievement. I sat through more than one meeting this year where the board spent more time discussing (e.g. board members talking; not the portion devoted to public presentations which are part of active democracy) animals in the class room than it did issues relating to ways that the district might find positive/appropriate responses to questions of air quality, the use of tasers on students, and equitable funding for schools and school activities.
    It may hurt to have the public question leadership. But, as the saying goes, “the truth shall set you free.”
    With best regards,
    Lucy Mathiak

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