Mayors and Schools

John Nichols noted that Madison’s Mayoral challengers have not raised substantive questions of the incumbent Mayor’s (Dave Cieslewicz) record, including schools:

No. 2, he has failed to offer much in the way of a vision for how this rapidly changing city should approach the future. How green should it be? Where does mass transit fit in? How do we diversify the economy? How do we make sure that the schools remain strong and popular with all the city’s residents? The mayor thinks about all these issues. He works on them in incremental ways and, frankly, he’s done so ably. Unfortunately, he has not communicated in a particularly bold or effective manner with regard to them. Once again, the vulnerability remains.
In politics, an incumbent’s vulnerabilities are meaningless if they are not exploited by his or her challengers. Ray Allen and Peter Munoz have failed, so far, to put a dent in Cieslewicz. One of them will survive the primary, and that candidate will have a chance to mount a more serious challenge. With the first critical test just days away, however, Allen and Munoz give every sign of having boarded the wrong trolley.

I’ve been surprised at the lack of Mayoral involvement in our K-12 climate. The Madison school district’s enrollment has been flat for years, while surrounding schools have grown significantly. Continued growth of our edge cities, business migration (Epic systems move to Verona), a growing budget, safety concerns and curriculum questions provide plenty of issues relevant to the health of our community. Around the country, as Jill Tucker notes in San Francisco, many mayors are active for obvious reasons on K-12 issues.
Why have the Mayor (and challengers) been quiet on substantive school issues?
Perhaps in Madison, where a local elected official recently remarked to me that “we don’t have a democracy” (think about that), the endorsement merry go round (maybe the deal with schools is that a candidate gets ground and monetary support, or help with a holiday party, if they stay out of K-12), the “remain silent” requirements of some and the fact that political upside in K-12 is difficult leads to the present situation. Or just indifference?
What do we, as a community, give up when candidates who have cut deals and agree to remain silent on certain issues are elected? What sort of example does this leave for future generations?

6 thoughts on “Mayors and Schools”

  1. I’m sure I don’t want the politicians to be involved in school issues.
    Do I think the involvement of the Feds in schools issues, setting policy, funding, is a good thing. Absolutely not. Do I think the involvement/control by NYC Mayor Bloomberg and his handpick cronies is a good thing. No.
    Politician’s skills are solely in getting elected and staying in power, and they do what is necessary to be successful in these two areas. If they do good in the process, that might be icing on the cake, but that is not their focus.
    Peter Sandman, in his essay “What Motivates Companies?” makes the point that the sole purpose of companies is to make a profit, that the public must ensure that the payoff matrix is such that by doing good, they can make their profit, and by not doing good, they lose.
    For politicians, the same is true. The problem is the public has many opinions but no real clue of the solutions to the education problems. The public cannot rig the payoff matrix to ensure a good outcome.
    The best we can hope for is for the politicians to take the oath to “first do no harm”. I don’t see that in our future.

  2. Larry, you raise some excellent points. I agree that one has to look at the motivations all around and that this is unlikely to improve…..

  3. Larry, if you’d won the election to be on the school board, you would have become a politician. Would have been interested “solely in getting elected and staying in power?”

  4. “No” to both answers. A “bright line” test for being a politician doesn’t exist, if that is what you’re getting at.
    But, would any of us suggest that good public policy, principled decision making is what drives a vast majority of those currently in office.
    Part of the problem is the accumulation of power, and the willingness of the public to relinquish their own responsibility to institutions. So, instead of directly solving problems, we place layers of people and institutions between the problem and ourselves. We are, then, relegated to addressing the problems of the layers of people and institutions, before we can address the original problem.
    All very abstract.
    Limited government / institutions / power is critical.
    In a more postive vein, when our circle of influence, control and effect far exceeds our circle of knowledge and concern, we get the vastly increasing and “unsolvable” problems that we see. There is no feedback mechanism, and no ability and no demand to self-regulate.

  5. Former Governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus:
    Local elected offices need guidance of educated citizens:
    I point that out not to boast, but because I see a disturbing trend going in the reverse direction. It appears down here in our area that those among us most qualified to give back to our community the time and energy to fill needed positions, particularly on elected boards, simply aren’t putting forth their names to go on a ballot.
    Let me single out a neighboring community here which has had several years of school board members and candidates almost in heated battle. It has been so contentious and nasty that no one has filed to contest the seats in the upcoming spring elections. There are three seats and just three have filed for the race, an incumbent and two newcomers. The reason for the newcomers is that the current incumbents were not willing to go through another one of those bitter campaigns of name-calling and personal attacks.
    A current alderman and former school board member has said publicly that “people are frightened about speaking out.” As he points out, all dissent and debate has disappeared at board meetings. The only issue for voters appears to be no increase in taxes. The primary issues of quality of education and the future of the schoolchildren seem to be completely off the screen.

  6. There is a lot here to consider. I don’t think it is a Mayor’s (or County Executive’s) place to be too heavily involved with the schools’ governance. For one, the Districts’ boundaries are not the city’s boundaries. However, there should be regular communication, some cooperative long-range planning, collaboration on safety and policing and, where possible, co-location of facilities (eg., community centers) and services. If there can be some infusion of city money into the schools, that would be great.
    I think a lot better communication between the school board and city alders would be facilitated by electing schools board members in geographic districts, rather than at-large. This would also allow people to run on smaller budgets, and favor candidates who were leaders in neighborhood schools versus those who are endorsed by special interests or political machines.
    I think the endorsement process of Progressive Dane and the Democratic Party is a poisonous development for local governance, and violates the spirit, if not the letter of the Progressive reforms of the non-partisan ballot enacted in the early part of the 20th century.

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