Candidates Split on District’s Direction

Susan Troller:

It’s an old truism that our strengths are our weaknesses. When a citizen runs for local office, he or she is likely to learn that in the glare and scrutiny of the campaign, the very qualities that make them an appealing candidate may cause some anguish in the tussle and turmoil of the race.
Madison School Board candidates Maya Cole and Arlene Silveira have both taken some flak: Cole for a hurtful comment that infuriated supporters of the Leopold Elementary School addition and Silveira for her business background and thoughtful style that has been occasionally characterized as too corporate.
For both, issues of personality have become a part of a race that offers significant differences in perspective on the school district as well as distinct choices of style and personality.

It’s interesting that the Cap Times raised this issue, given that Maya’s drawn quite a bit of partisan attention at recent (mostly thinly attended) candidate forums (Ideally, these things should be cordial, but that has not always been the case). A reader emailed this link to the first post failed May, 2005 Referenda Long Range Planning Committee meeting. This is the meeting where a number of people spoke, including Seat 1 candidate and very active referenda supporter (Madison Cares, a group Arlene spearheaded, spent over $40K promoting passage of the questions – fwiw, I told Carol I thought that all 3 questions would pass while she was leafletting the Farmer’s Market, up until the ballot error/reprinting problem) Arlene Silveira.
The Cap Times’ article discussed Board members behaving poorly toward one another:

She said she was surprised by the number of people who follow the School Board meetings on television, and said that some of the occasionally fractious behavior on the part of board members diminishes the group’s credibility. “That must stop,” she [Arlene] said firmly.

Certainly, this video fuels the discussion, with Arlene first up.
From my perspective, the Fitchburg school saga must include the mid-1990’s MMSD turn-down of Bill Linton’s offer of free land near Promega (Current President Carol Carstensen and incumbent Juan Jose Lopez were on the board at the time). That land became the private Eagle School. A Promega partnership may well have spawned more by today. Interestingly, I learned about this years ago, while waiting for luggage at the Dane County Airport next to then Superintendent Cheryl Wilhoyte. She seemed excited about the possibilities.

15 thoughts on “Candidates Split on District’s Direction”

  1. I just don’t get the spin on Arlene.
    She’s supposedly a great communicator and coaliton builder, despite her inability to convince a majority of voters to support the Leopold referendum and the divisive attacks of her supporters on east siders who voted no.

  2. I wouldn’t lay the responsibility on Arlene Silviera for all the bloodshed of last spring. Although I voted FOR the Leopold expansion last spring, many of my cohorts voted against it, and for very valid reasons. Bottom line: Leopold families relied on the promise of former (and some current) Board members that they’d get a new building, and said Board members had no business making that promise. Leopold families had every right to be irked, and I think some of their frustration was with themselves for relying on Board members in the first place. It was Board members who first publicly stated that they might have to close East area schools; the administration always viewed East and West/Memorial as separate entities in terms of boundaries etc.
    Personally, I’d like for us to put our behinds in the past and get down to work. We have a very fractured school board that, as a group, often behaves like children. We also have a great school district that is at a turning point due to financial instability and burgeoning demographic changes. I look to the Board to provide leadership. If they can’t provide it, they don’t get re-elected, no matter how nice they might be as “people”.
    Teachers and principals and administrators have made the MMSD great, not Board members. I’d even gander to say that the MMSD is great IN SPITE OF Board members, and the challenge for anyone running for these offices is to live up to the level of excellence that defines MMSD staff.
    Arlene would make an excellent Board member. So would Maya Cole. One of them will get the nod from all of us, and I expect that person to embrace the whole district and not continue the putative East v. West debate and the bad vibes that it encompasses.

  3. I like what you said, david, especially about the Leopold community.
    I really like Maya Cole, for many reasons, not least her refreshing candor and lack of political connections. Indeed, the rush of endorsements for Arlene is actually off-putting. Some of us in Madison are tired of marching in lock step with the few who rarely listen to anyone but each other.
    It’s time for new ideas and new personalities on the school board. As important, it’s time to stop bashing one another for asking questions. There are plenty of new and big challenges facing our schools. Let’s assume that those who take the time to get involved do so out of a shared commitment to doing what’s best to educate our children. We may not agree on what that means, but at least let us trust that fundamentally we proceed from the same place.

  4. I find it fascinating that so many progressives as well as mainstream Democrats are supporting Arlene Silviera for school board. Many of the same people are trying to portray Maya Cole as “conservative.” Apparently, groupthink has taken over some of the independent thinking Madison has been famous for.
    I agree with Arlene’s position that fractious behavior on the part of the board must stop, but I have seen nothing on the part of the board majority–which she will join if she wins–indicating any interest in reducing that contentiousness. As a former school board member in a small, divided community, I already know that her attitude will continue or even increase current divisiveness.
    We have problems in this district that include a growing public backlash. Hunkering down and representing one’s own point of view as best or most representative or most informed when it is not, will only prolong the problems this district faces.
    We need a board willing to listen to all of its members. Listening and re-stating what you hear before responding is especially important when you are in the majority. It is imperative for the board president to conduct meetings in a neutral fashion. I have not seen that happen with the last two presidents.
    People can work together, even when they disagree. Mutual respect means both ways. Maya Cole can contribute toward that end. I have yet to see any indication that Silviera can.

  5. I can’t repress the sense of Orwellian doublespeak and revisonist history in the comments about board members behaving badly.
    Some of the worst behavior comes from incumbent board members, who support Arlene, and others actively campaigning for her, while one of the most constructive gestures since the referendum came from Lawrie Kobza, who supports Maya Cole instead of Arlene.
    Here is what I posted when I got home from a meeting of the Long Range Planning Committee on June 6, 2005:
    “Leopold school supporters packed room 103 of the Doyle Building to speak at a meeting of the Long Range Planning Committee on Monday evening, June 6.
    “Arlene Silveira led off with a bitter attack on Ruth Robarts and Lawrie Kobza, accusing them of causing the defeat of the referendum to build a second school on the Leopold school site.
    Beth Zurbuchen followed with an equally nasty attack.
    “Nearly two dozen more Leopold supporters continued the assault for almost two hours.
    Ironically, Lawrie Kobza, at Carol Carstensen’s suggestion, kept their hopes alive. Carol offered the idea of forming a task force. Since she isn’t a formal member of the committee, she could not make a motion. Instead Lawrie made, Juan Lopez seconded, and the committee approved a motion to form a task force to explore attendance issues on the West side.
    “If Carol hadn’t made the suggestion and Lawrie had not made the motion, the committee would have adjourned with absolutely no movement on solving the overcrowding problem at Leopold, and probably no possibility of considering the issue until late in the summer.
    “Carol deserves praise for recognizing the need to restart an examination of the overcrowding on the West side.
    “Lawrie also deserves praise for not behaving vindictively against the Leopold supporters who blasted her. Instead she was more than willing to move toward an inclusive process that might just give the Leopold supporters and all West side children an option to overcrowding.”
    According to a Capital Times article, Bill Keys, Arlene’s constant companion during the campaign, had this to say about people who opposed the referendum:
    “the people who have doubts about the referendum seem to belong to two camps.”
    One, he said, is composed of those who oppose additional school funding whenever the opportunity comes along. . . .
    “These people are always against education,” he contended. “That’s their history, that’s their life. They’ve made a career of being against education.”
    In the other camp are those, he said, who just don’t want to engage in the complexities of the problem and study the real constraints that exist in school finance.”
    Keys’ unsubtle remarks meant that people who opposed the referendum were either anti-education or just plain lazy.
    I don’t mean to re-live the failed referendum, but the rhetoric of Arlene’s current ”good behavior” campaign does not match the reality of her behavior or that of her supporters. If she were elected, would we she live up to her campaign rhetoric or her past behavior?

  6. I don’t agree with the idea that “fractious behavior”, whatever that is, must stop. I support Maya (and Lucy) because they are not afraid of asking questions and expecting all decisions to be supported with substantial facts, even if that means being labeled as fractious or not team players.
    How refreshing it would be have substantive discussions about priority issues, with well-reasoned arguments and supporting facts. Both Maya and Lucy seem to have the habit of critical thinking that we need on the School Board.
    I was shocked, however, by Arlene. Listening to her arguments in support of last year’s referenda, and her arguments in support of her positions on curriculum and role of the Board, etc, it never occurred to me that she could possibly have a Masters in Biology, because her arguments seemed devoid of the mental habits that would be inherent in the thinking of a scientist.
    Maya and Lucy, however, do think critically, from my discussions with them.
    The late physicist Richard Feynman was asked what attitudes of a scientist would be useful in dealing with non-science issues. His first step was to find out whether someone knows what she/he is talking about, and whether what he/she says has some basis or not. His “trick” was to ask intelligent questions (penetrating, interested, honest, relevant, frank, direct) with no trick questions. Those who don’t know can give quick, glib “answers” to all questions; those who know can be stumped.
    It would be refreshing to have on the Board two more members (with Ruth and Lawrie) that can ask intelligent questions and not be fooled by glib, and unjustified answers..

  7. See, for me, I actually LIKE all of the Board members personally…but when they get together as a Board, I think they are in desperate need of a facilitator (or a group therapist…Laurie, got any pro-bono time?)! I don’t really care if any one of them agrees with a position I might have; I only care that they are thoughtful enough to listen to me and consider my point of view. I’ve agreed and disagreed with every single one of them, and I’ve voted for each of them at least once in their tenure. We can hype on Arlene and the Leopold crew all we want Ed…but all of us have been, at some point in time, just as cantankerous with the Board on other issues, either in private or in public. Hell, I was cussed out in front of my PTO parents by a Board President once. Their job IS to take crap from the taxpayers.
    As I wrote earlier, I don’t hold a grudge over the bloodshed from last year. What’s done is done. IMHO, Beth Zurbuchen sunk the referendum more than anyone. I’m pretty involved in the East Attendance Area PTO Coalition, and it’s safe to say that we’d rather see a good working relationship between the West/Memorial parents and ourselves. There are a lot of wounds that could be healed, and a lot of misconceptions embedded in both sides of the Isthmus. Without everyone coming together (regardless of who wins either election), I don’t see how we’ll ever pass another operating referendum to offset the Republican gutting of public education- and then there will be nothing left in the MMSD worth fighting for:(
    Yeah, I know, this is just politics….I’ve been trying to concentrate on the great things that are happening in my kids’ schools….and there ARE a lot of great things, which is why this blog exists, right? If MMSD really sucked so bad, we’d ALL be out of here already 🙂

  8. David,
    I have to agree with the Beth assessment. She did not help the cause when she admitted at our school forum how she previously campaigned that she didn’t want to bus her children away from Leopold because they could walk and then confessed that she drove them every morning. She turned me off. More importantly……
    I want MMSD board members to think. I want strong proactive members that think and I don’t mind if they change their mind, think differently, or disagree with the administration, but I can’t accept the rangor that exist now. Last year at a referendum session Mr. Keyes would listen to a parent express their concern and then respond by speaking at that parent to Ruth in a very unproductive, insulting fashion. When I called him on this he said it was the only way to publicly air his disapproval of Ruth’s decision to not back the referendum. It was insulting to the parents that took the time to attend that meeting and insulting to Ruth. I believe there are productive ways to work as a group and ways to move forward and I doubt we all have to see things the same way.
    David. I as a Memorial attendance parent wonder instead if the East/Lafollette and the West/Memorial parents should create a forum of mutual interest to address the community concerns. Support and help each other and the whole district. I do think I focus on my schools, fund raisers, needs and not the whole communtiy. This website is a wonderful verbal forum, but I wonder if it really questions the daily needs of each school.

  9. I have to share with this group my experiences with Juan Lopez. First, he has never responded to any emails I have sent him over the years. Recently, I visited his website over a month ago, I think I know how I am voting, but I am still investigating. I noticed some info on his site which stated “61 The percent of high school students who took advanced coursework in the 2003-04 school year.”
    Having problems with his viewing of hetrogeneous classes are good for everyone, I was very confused by this data. I asked how this info was gathered and I would like a list (not just one or two classes) of what is considered “advanced”. Well no suprise, I didn’t receive a response from Juan, but a volunteer was “asked by Mr. Lopez to respond”. I was told that this was information from staff of MMSD. And he had a quote from DPI stating that classes consisted of AP classes, Honors and Foreign Langages. Well this triggered my interest because because the way it was written it looked like Spanish 1 would be considered an Advanced Course. After spending time on the DPI website, I have found a number of inconsistancies that Juan’s volunteer has shared with me that as he states, info gathered from staff of the MMSD. I have found out that the 61% is actually “combination rate percentage. This is the number of seniors in the district divided by the number of seats actually occupied in an advance class (By the way, as of 2003, Foreign Language doesn’t count until Level 3). Now the funny thing is that when I showed my 9th grader this info, she laughed and said, seniors will take more than one advance level course. A friend of hers is currently taking 6, so according to Juan’s data, this student would be counted as 6 kids.
    Juan’s volunteer also shared with me that data that included the district percentage of National Merit Semi-Finalist and the number of years they have been involved in the district. Well, being on the inside track on this one, I know that a couple of parents gathered about the West students, not the district.
    I was also quoted that MMSD staff “MMSD routinely rank high among all Wisconsin schools on the 10th grade WCKE”. Again I checked the data, and I had the website pull up similar % of economically disadvantage youth and guess what, we ranked last among these 5 other schools. All 5 were above 92% in reading for example, where MMSD ranked 71% in the proficient/advance level. I then decided to check 4 other arbitrary districts around Madison area and MMSD routinely ranked 4th or 5th in all subjects in the advanced area. I was also told that “the longer the the longer students attend MMSD schools the greater the chance they will score higher on the WKCE tests.” Not sure where this info is gathered.
    Again, I was told that “On the ACT, MMSD high schools score higher than any area high schools or any comparably sized high schools across Wisconsin. In fact, West and Memorial High Schools had the highest ACT math scores last year (2004-05) than any of the other 433 Wisconsin high schools in which student took the ACT.” Again, I pulled up Middleton and Elmbrook which the districts ranked higher than MMSD. I couldn’t find an easy way to see if West and Memorial where really #1 and #2 so I didn’t try this one. But needless to say, if he is representing the district, that includes East and LaFollette. Anyway, I feel that students may have done well despite the district as a number of local 8th graders have scored in the 30s over the years.
    I was told “according to MMSD staff, in terms of the percentage of student taking and successfully passing the Advanced Placement exams, MMSD students have a higher ‘pass rate’ than any of the area districts except Middleton-Cross Plains over the past three years.” Yet, I tried Oregon and it also had a higher pass rate. I didn’t try other districts.
    My concern is Juan Lopez is having volunteers answer emails with incorrect information and never answering his own info. The volunteer states that the data is from staff of MMSD. Do we question the staff of MMSD at not knowing how to interpret data (which my 9th grader was very capable of doing). Or do we question the board members who are supporting Juan because they are either getting snowballed themselves with incorrect data from “staff at MMSD” or Juan or both. I can’t believe no one ever questioned this data which has been on the website for a while.
    Someone mentioned that the board doesn’t rubber stamp things, well I think this shows they do. Also Juan states on his website “he asks the hard questions”. He doesn’t seem to ask the hard questions in concern with his website.
    I am very disappointed with those who can’t see that he “blows wind”.

  10. Mary: There have been, in recent months, some informal “back & forth” between the East Attendance Area PTO Coalition folks and some of the West/Memorial leaders. While I’m not at liberty to go into the details (not because it’s any big secret, but because I’m haven’t been directly involved, only kept in the loop), I think it’s safe to say that both sides of the Isthmus are getting onto the same page. While we’re all hampered by the struggles our own buildings are going through, our struggles emanate from the same set of problems: budget woes, demographic changes, etc. I’m very hopeful!

  11. David Cohen suggested a facilitator or group therapy for the school board.
    For personal and professional reasons I follow the doings of Evanston/Skokie (IL) District 65. It is a similar district and like Madison the board has been hampered by conflicts. Within the last year they invited a facilitator (from the Illinois School Board Association) and devoted much of a meeting to examining and working on these problems. At the time I thought it was bit self indulgent, now I’m not so sure. I do know that since that meeting they have moved forward on some long festering issues.

  12. Hey, David, I’m good; but I don’t know if I’m THAT good!
    Seriously, friends, one of the chief reasons why I stopped attending BOE meetings was the bullying and verbal abusiveness that has become such a constant in the BOE and administration’s interactions. I have also experienced, witnessed, and heard about far too much bullying in the Doyle Building and elsewhere in the District (for example, principals who “manage” their staff that way). IMHO, we have a culture of bullying in the MMSD — from the top down — and we all suffer greatly because of it. And what hypocrisy in a school community that claims to be teaching its children to respect diversity and resolve conflict peacefully. “Do as I say, not as I do,” doesn’t work in a school building or school district any better than it does in a family.
    Most middle school anti-bullying curricula recognize that it takes a thoroughgoing cultural change within a school to effectively reduce bullying and harassment. That means meaningful consequences for the perpetrators, increased assertiveness in the targets, and — very importantly — increased responsibility on the part of the bystanders and witnesses. When it comes to the Administration and BOE, friends, we are the bystanders.
    This is Madison, so how about some creative group action? How about everyone in attendance at a BOE meeting takes shared responsibility and REACTS when an act of bullying, harassment or verbal abuse occurs? We could hiss (that was the long standing tradition at my alma mater, so it comes naturally for me); we could throw penalty flags (red bandanas); we could hold up signs (they could be those “Bully-Free Zone” ones you see in so many of our elementary schools, or just hand-made ones that say “Stop It!”) This might sound silly to some of you, but I truly believe we have the power to make it stop.
    I have no doubt that many of you have some good ideas, too. Let’s hear them!

  13. In a past professional life, I did quite a bit of facilitating as part of my job. I think facilitators can play useful roles if a group is supportive of this and if the facilitator is not used to push any one person’s or group of people’s agenda. Given tight budgets, cost might be an issue; however, money may in fact be saved if a facilitator is used appropriately.
    However, if the current board leadership continues to be unable to set the agenda, prioritize issues and get the administration to do the prioritized work of the board or to get board members at the full board or at the committee level to get the work of the board done – no public meetings on the budget in March stands out as one example, it may be time for new leadership, which is what I think the April 4th School Board vote is about.. At least, it’s one of the reasons why I’ve been working as a campaign treasurer these past two election cycles.

  14. The bullying on the Board, by MTI, and by administrators, etc does reflect on the lack of character of the participants, but it also says something else to me.
    Bullying is used when one has nothing of substance to say, and no substantive reasons for one’s positions. One bullies, obstructs, and prevaricates to avoid open and public discussions.
    The majority of the Board merely groupspeaks and echoes unthinkingly whatever might work to persuade those who are not looking carefully at the issues.
    However Ruth, Lawrie, Maya, and Lucy view themselves on the “liberal” to “conservative” spectrum, they do and will rise above the tarpits into which our public schools are sinking (thanks to the left, the right, and the greedy).

  15. Larry, your assessment of what occurs when board members are confronted with complex issues is superb. What is so sad is that this dynamic of boards is so widespread. It is why there now is at least a tiny industry of facilitator-consultants that serve districts like Evanston’s #65.

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