I could rattle off a half-dozen reasons why it’s a good thing that Art Rainwater is resigning as Madison’s school superintendent in 18 months. But I won’t. I wish instead that he was staying on the job.
Rainwater’s lame duck status and the uncertainty over his replacement come at a particularly bad moment for the schools.
In education-loving Madison, the schools are the city’s pride and joy. But they face huge issues: the influx of educationally disadvantaged poor kids; the loss of middle-class families, who provide the ballast to keep schools on even keel; the deeply troubling “achievement gap” between white and minority students; and the onerous financial squeeze delivered by the state’s perverse system of financing K-12 education.
Rainwater knows these issues. He understands how crucial their solution is to Madison’s future. I’m sharply critical of some of his personnel and strategic decisions, but I don’t doubt his sincerity and commitment to Madison’s 24,000-student district.
Rainwater has brought stability and vision to the district. Where his predecessor had seemed weak and unfocused, Rainwater was a solid administrator who spoke directly and effectively about the system’s strengths and its promise. He established a good working relationship with the teachers union, he won the confidence of the community and he has presided over a period of needed growth and, for the most part, smart change.
This is not to say that Rainwater has been a perfect administrator. He has, at times, had testy relations with some members of the School Board, and the voters have sided with the board members who have pressed the administrator — sending clear signals in the last several elections that they want the board to assert itself and play a more definitional role with regard to the direction of the district. Even Rainwater’s critics have recognized, however, that the problem has less to do with him than with the relative weakness of the board in recent years.
Replacing Superintendent Art Rainwater will dominate the Madison school board’s agenda in the next 18 months, a task board members rightly view with trepidation.
“For me, there is an appeal to finding a new person,” says board member Carol Carstensen. “But a lot of me just says this is going to be really, really difficult.”
Rainwater’s retirement announcement this week gives the board until June 30, 2008, to find a replacement. But he’s leaving mighty big shoes to fill.
Rainwater took over Madison schools nearly nine years ago after predecessor Cheryl Wilhoyte was run out of town. Avoiding her missteps, he won at least grudging respect from most quarters, managing tight budgets while maintaining student achievement gains. His candor, plain talk and work ethic have helped build good will with unions, politicians and the media.