Ruth Robarts’ roller coaster
DOUG ERICKSON 608-252-6149
Ruth Robarts steps down April 23 after 10 years on the Madison School Board, and, no, she’s not expecting a cake from her colleagues.
Although Robarts first ran as a facilitator – “That didn’t work out so well,” she says now with a guffaw – she became known more as a budget hawk and contrarian.
Along the way, she’s been praised as a straight-shooting maverick and criticized as an obstructionist who just likes to carp.
She chose not to seek re- election. Her replacement – Maya Cole or Marjorie Passman – will be elected Tuesday.
Robarts’ legacy differs markedly, depending on who’s talking, but most agree she traveled an interesting route from a team player to an outsider to a can’t-be-ignored-because-the- voters-like-her force.
She finishes her board service less lonely due to the elections in recent years of like- minded colleagues Lawrie Kobza and Lucy Mathiak. But Robarts cautions that in the last decade, it has become more difficult for candidates not endorsed by the teachers union or tied to the board majority to get elected.
“People with good qualifications and interest in the success of the schools laugh when you ask them to consider running for the board,” said Robarts, 60, an assistant dean at the UW Law School. “They know that being ‘independent’ means being publicly and privately disparaged.”
Robarts was famously labeled “public enemy No. 1” in 2003 by John Matthews, the executive director of the teachers union, after she voted against a two-year teacher contract and criticized a referendum for more district operating money.
“There were times when the way things played out were really ugly for her,” said Mathiak, who praises Robarts for “sticking to ethical and responsible practices in the face of some pretty abusive moments.”
Others say Robarts embraced her outsider reputation a little too enthusiastically, leading to a period when she seemed to reflexively criticize almost every administration move.
“She became the darling of the taxpayer, anti-public education crowd,” said former board member Juan Jose Lopez. “She decided to pick a niche, and I think she lost focus on what was best for kids.”
Robarts, a former district teacher and principal, was elected to the board in 1997 to complete conservative Nancy Mistele’s term. During that campaign, Robarts, a Democrat, spoke of wanting to help foster harmony among board members.
She was re-elected to a full three-year term the following year with the teachers union’s backing – the only time she would get its endorsement. Within weeks, Robarts filed a complaint with the Dane County district attorney alleging that four of her board colleagues had engaged in illegal discussions of a buyout with then-Superintendent Cheryl Wilhoyte.
“I did a few things early on that didn’t exactly make me Facilitator of the Year,” Robarts says today. (She withdrew the complaint after Wilhoyte resigned.)
Her independent streak ballooned in the years to come. In 2001, she sought a state Ethics Board opinion on situations involving Superintendent Art Rainwater and two board members. That led Lopez to chastise her at a board meeting for going to the media before discussing her concerns with her colleagues.
Robarts says she took her concerns public only after being rebuffed in closed-door sessions. Often, she found herself on the losing side of 6-1 votes.
But there were many good memories, Robarts said. She was an early backer of both the Nuestro Mundo Community School and the Wexford Ridge Neighborhood Center, two proposals Rainwater initially opposed. The projects played to her strengths, allowing her to champion grassroots movements in the face of a supposedly shortsighted bureaucracy.
In 2002, she received a distinguished service award from the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for her advocacy on behalf of minority students. She also became known for trying to make the district’s budget process more transparent, a goal that proved elusive, she said. “It’s still impenetrable.”
If Robarts felt marginalized, vindication came in 2004 when she was reelected to a third full term with 64 percent of the vote against a strong candidate. She got an unexpected boost from conservatives but was badly outspent and deserted by some former liberal supporters.
Longtime board member Carol Carstensen is among former allies who parted ways. She praises Robarts for many things – helping the board focus on math and reading goals, supporting alternative education programs – but says that for several years, Robarts seemed more intent on ripping her colleagues publicly than accomplishing anything.
“She has some good ideas, so it would have been very helpful if she had been part of the discussions when we were working on things,” Carstensen said. “Instead, she tended to write op-ed pieces.”
A less-diplomatic Lopez puts it this way: “Did she ever create or initiate anything new? No. She was always knocking down the school system. If you’re going to be destructive instead of constructive, then I don’t think you should serve on a school board.”
Others praise Robarts for asking the difficult questions if not always the popular ones.
Said Kobza: “I think her legacy will be the person who represented an alternative voice at a time when there weren’t that many people out there doing that.”