Madison school politics make for some strange bedfellows.
Take the case of the Feb. 21 primary race for the School Board, in which three candidates are vying for the seat left open by incumbent Bill Keys’ decision not to seek re-election.
The marketing manager of a Madison-based biotechnology giant has been endorsed by the powerful Madison teachers union and Progressive Dane. Meanwhile, an activist stay-at-home mom who helped put pink paper locks on legislators’ doors to protest concealed carry legislation is aligned with voices in the community that challenge the district’s status quo. As a critic of the board’s budget, she has struck a chord with some conservatives.
And then there’s the unanticipated late entrant into the race who forced the primary to be held, a UW doctoral candidate in medieval history who arrived in Madison last August.
By Susan Troller, The Capital Times, February 16, 2006
What’s going on here?
The three newcomers seeking Keys’ seat could be characterized as a pair of thoroughbreds — Maya Cole and Arlene Silveira — and a dark horse — Michael J. Kelly.
Factions: In the buzz behind the candidates for School Board, there is a sense that this race is not just about issues affecting students, but also about the overall direction of the district, as driven by individual School Board members and those who support them.
Cole, 43, the activist stay-home mother, has the backing of an increasingly potent group that has criticized the district’s fiscal and educational leadership.
With the School Information System blog (www.schoolinfosystem.org) as its informational home base, the group successfully backed board member Lawrie Kobza last year in an upset win over incumbent Bill Clingan. Kobza now backs Cole, as does board member Ruth Robarts, who has clashed frequently with the majority of the current School Board, the administration and Madison Teachers Inc.
If Cole wins and Lucy Mathiak unseats Juan Jose Lopez in another race on the April ballot, then the critics of the status quo would have a majority of board members.
Jim Zellmer, a parent and business owner who developed the School Information System blog, said in an e-mail interview that Cole is the right choice because she “has the right priorities for the district’s long-term health: curriculum (high standards, particularly math and science), budget transparency and accountability, and expanding our islands of excellence.”
Kelly, a 27-year-old doctoral candidate, has done no campaigning and has not received any public endorsements, but Silveira has a lengthy list of powerful backers. Aside from MTI and Progressive Dane, current board members Carol Carstensen, Bill Keys, Juan Jose Lopez and Johnny Winston Jr. have lined up behind Silveira, as has Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz.
Former School Board President Nan Brien, a local children’s advocate, said Silveira, 47, is the best choice in part because of her background as the marketing director of Promega Corp.
“We’re in danger of losing the district, primarily due to the fiscal challenges facing public schools,” Brien said bluntly. “In these challenging times, I think both the business perspective and the depth of understanding of the district that Arlene would bring to the board is critical. Her background allows her to deal constructively with a broad range of issues and diverse opinions. That’s going to be extremely important as the district moves forward.”
Build new schools? A key issue that separates Cole and Silveira is their approach to building new schools in the district.
Silveira is a member of a boundary task force that unanimously recommended building a far west side elementary school and an addition at Leopold Elementary to address overcrowding. She advocates a fall referendum, and says she hopes the district will take the time necessary to develop a complete communications plan to explain the research and reasoning behind the recommendations to build.
Silveira’s concerns about the impact of overcrowding on students, staff and education were forged during her years as an active Leopold Elementary parent, where capacity has been over 100 percent for years. She was part of the Madison CARES group that supported last year’s failed referendum to build a new school on the Leopold site.
Silveira noted that the task force worked long and hard in evaluating option after option to address the overcrowding issues. “For a long-term solution, building was the only answer,” she said.
Kelly was still in Boston during last year’s referendum and he did not answer questions about his stance on further construction.
Cole supported the Leopold referendum last year, as well as the other referendums on overriding revenue caps for both operational and maintenance budgets, but now she advocates a cautious approach toward new construction.
“I think we need to slow down this whole process,” she wrote in an e-mail interview. “Of particular concern is the rush to discuss, with no meeting of the Long Range Planning Committee on the specifics/questions pertaining to budget priorities and questions brought up by the public in those meetings.
“This is a situation where we may be asking the public to make another multi-million-dollar decision without first dealing with our budgeting process. It’s putting the cart before the horse. It’s a painful process but it has to be done,” she said.
Budget concerns: Cole has made budget matters a major focus of her campaign, calling for “a more transparent budget process.” What this means, she says, is a more concise budget that clearly outlines where money is coming from and where it is going, and how those decisions reflect the priorities of the district.
“Every time (budget cycle) there is a flurry of painful cuts that seem to pit the interests of one group of parents against another, and that, bottom line, removes money from the classroom where it belongs,” she said. “I just don’t buy that we’re down to the bare bones, but I don’t really know because the budget is basically incomprehensible.”
Silveira says she prefers to keep any cuts that are necessary to the district’s budget as far away from the classroom as possible. But it is an absolute priority, she maintains, to change the funding structure for public schools, noting that the financial cuts required each year to balance the budget are a genuine threat to the district’s reputation for excellence.
Kelly, meanwhile, said the district needs to focus on both the future and on fundamentals. He encourages creative thinking, citing a Saturday school that he worked with in the Boston area. Staffed by volunteers, it provided additional instruction for students interested in doing more advanced work.
“It provided a valuable service to the community at no cost to the school system,” he said. “We had more volunteers than we needed.”