Madison School Board Candidates are “Shoo-ins”

Susan Troller:

Ed Hughes, a Madison attorney, and Marj Passman, a retired local teacher, will fill two Madison School Board seats in the spring election on April 1. They are running unopposed for seats now held by Lawrie Kobza, a single-term board member, and Carol Carstensen, who has served since 1990 and is by far the most senior member of the board.
In fact, when Hughes and Passman join the board, only Johnny Winston Jr. will have served more than one three-year term.
James Ely, an East High School custodian who had filed papers Dec. 27 with the City Clerk’s Office to register as a candidate for Carstensen’s Seat 7, decided to withdraw from the race because he was unable to complete the necessary filing information to change his candidacy to a run for Kobza’s Seat 6.
Hughes is running for Seat 7, and Passman is the candidate for Seat 6. Neither Hughes nor Passman has previously served on the board, although Passman lost a race last year against Maya Cole.

10 thoughts on “Madison School Board Candidates are “Shoo-ins””

  1. It’s interesting that there will not be contested races this year. When was the last time that happened? I wonder whether folks are simply disinterested in serving, or if the nastiness of the last few BoE election cycles had anything to do with this. At either rate, congrats to Ed and Marj! Both will do a fine job-and thanks for serving.

  2. I think the problem is structural. MMSD elections are districtwide. This discourages a lot of people from even considering the school board. People think they either have to invest too much time and money to run districtwide, or they have to kiss up to the special interest groups.
    Most people interested in education issues become active at the local school level. MMSD should district the seats. If people knew they could run to represent a smaller geographical area, more people would run.

  3. No, the problem is that people have lost hope. They don’t believe that the system will change — want to bet that elementary strings and TAG staff will be on the list of proposed program cuts for the next budget cycle? As a result, they stop trying, give up, and walk away.

  4. I agree with both Don and Jeff. The issue is structural at the political level, and running district wide is too expensive and time consuming — if you really want win. It requires a lot of money and significant organization. Such a system strongly encourages the school board elections to be controlled by partisan instead of non-partisan groups. (WSJ, CT, Reps, Dems, PD, Unions)
    Lost hope is also true. The Superintendent can pretty much do what he wants, and as Rainwater and the administration has said repeatedly, he only needs 4 votes. Change in school policy is next to impossible, especially when the majority of members are more comfortable coddling up to the powers that be, than ruffling some well-oiled feathers.
    The probability of making positive changes is far outweighed by the detriment of running for office, and if one wins, needing to put your private and professional business on hold for 3 years.
    Of course, if you’re just a rubber stamp, then there little detriment. Smile for the camera, pontificate and philosophize, and act as though you’re concerned with the student’s welfare. That’s easy.

  5. See, I think that people are, in general, very satisfied with the MMSD. Sure, there are road bumps like the school naming process last spring, or the annual budget crises and their attendant unpleasantness…but nothing has been intense enough to motivate more than 2 candidates this year. Maybe folks are burnt out from all the hassles of the BoE/Administration/Parents/Taxpayers tensions. And the MMSD can’t change the representative structure of the BoE right? That’s a purely legislative decision…bottom line is that being on the BoE is a thankless task, and public education in this town will always galvanize folks, both the irrational and the rational.

  6. This is not an unusual occurrence in MMSD. In 2003 Bill Keyes and Juan Lopez ran unopposed. In 2001 Ray Allen and Ruth Robarts ran unopposed. In 1999 Calvin Williams and Carol Carstensen ran unopposed. In 1996 Carstensen ran unopposed again. In 1989 Jerry Smith Jr. and James Fullin ran unopposed. In 1987 James Fullin ran unopposed. This was the first time a candidate ran unopposed. Prior to 1985 candidates did not run for specific seats. Instead the candidates with the most votes won. If two seats were open the top two candidates were declared the winners. If three seats were open, the top three candidates were declared the winners.
    I would like to suggest that all of the comments posted here may be contributing to the situation. Certainly, board members are often treated with disrespect. I don’t have a problem with people disagreeing, but the name calling is something that I believe contributes to people’s unwillingness to serve. The public is quick to criticize but almost never says thank you. Finally, it is a huge time commitment.
    It is expensive to run in a large district like Madison. District seats , called wards, were the order of the day prior to the Progressive era. The at-large seats were developed to help “get the politics out of the schools.” I am not sure how MMSD would go about changing it. Just because it might be a legislative thing doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be changed. It means that there would be a lot of work to do at the state level to make a change (kind of like the funding problem!). District seats might bring more people into the process, but even smaller districts are having this problem. Waunakee has a seat for which no one wants to run. Also, district seats might lead to more factions.
    Some of the lack of interest may be related to two points not mentioned: there is no one on the board to “throw out.” No incumbents up for re-election; everyone else is fairly new. Winston will be the most tenured with four years under his belt. Finally, Rainwater is retiring. Much of the controversy seemed to center on the power of this administration. Perhaps people are willing to give this relatively new board a chance to hire someone who will be perceived as more responsive to the community.

  7. Here’s my two cents on why there are not a lot of School Board candidates (though from my perspective, two is just the right number). I agree with David. There are not a lot of divisive or controversial school issues right now, and the Board has done a good job of remaining focused on issues of substance. Also, one of the consequences of the school financing formula is that that there are not a lot of disputes about teacher pay – the formulas essentially dictate how the overall teacher pay will change from year to year, with only a limited room for disagreements at the margin. Others disagree, but I think the state funding formula even makes the cost of teachers’ health insurance essentially a non-issue for the Board. There do not seem to be current issues that are so controversial that they prompt candidates to run simply to advance their approach to those issues. Nor are there such sharp divisions on overall approaches to school issues that announced candidates are automatically likely to prompt opposition from some who view the candidates as representatives of an opposing camp.
    Instead, based on those I’ve talked to, I think there is broad consensus about the key role that schools play in the community. Among their many other dimensions, the quality of our schools is an economic development issue. As the mayor says, families considering a move to Madison don’t think about the relative quality of the trash pickup or the fire department, they look at the quality of the schools. Virtually everyone agrees with the goal of providing the best educational opportunities we can for all the students in our schools. The challenge, of course, is how to do that most effectively and efficiently, particularly in this time of financial constraints.
    I’m hopeful that the Board will be able to win the confidence of the community such that if we have to go to referendum – and that seems quite likely for next year – we’ll be able to garner support across the ideological spectrum and manage to persuade a majority of voters to choose higher taxes for the benefit of our schools. That will be no easy sell. For those anxious for a lively community discussion of school issues, the next referendum will certainly be an occasion for it.
    For now, I’m certainly pleased that it looks like I’ll be able to join Marj in moving on to the Board in the spring. I look forward to working with and learning from Arlene, Johnny, Lucy, Maya and Beth. I think the community owes Lawrie and Carol thanks for their service. The more involved I get, the more in awe of Carol’s 18 years of service I become. If anyone has suggestions for me, or questions that they were hoping to ask at those candidate forums that may not take place, I can be reached at

  8. The change in law making MMSD the only school district that is forbidden to district its seats geographically did not occur in the “Progressive era.” That change happened relatively recently, and it was lobbied by special interests for a reason. That reason is that special interests have a better chance at controlling who is on the school board if it can reduce the number of people willing to run. Also, by increasing the cost and complexity of running for election, candidates are more likely to be beholden to special interests groups for donations and city-wide volunteers.
    Of course the school board could make an effort to change this law by seeking its repeal.

  9. Donald:
    I think exactly the opposite would happen with geographic or district seats. I’d argue it’s much easier for a special-interest group (which, slap me if I’m wrong, but I assume is code for MTI) to control one or two distinct, geographical seats than it is to control an entire board, or a majority of it. Look at Progressive Dane and the city council. Yes, it’s made inroads — largely in city council seats where Progressive Dane’s views are embraced fairly passionately (recall that there are wards — plural — in Madison where Ralph Nader collected more votes in 2000 than George Bush; there aren’t too many places in the country where that happened). But PD hasn’t gotten control of the city council, and I’d argue for a reason — it either can’t find enough candidates, or its candidates aren’t endorsed by the voters in elections.
    Have explicitly backed MTI candidates won election to the board? Sure — Keys and Clingan notably. And Passman certainly would’ve gotten its endorsement if she’d been challenged. But voters in MMSD have also been willing to elect folks who have bucked MTI’s endorsement process, or gone against MTI’s wishes.
    I also think geographic seats for school board elections can make for poor public policy. Geographic seats breeds parochial decision-making. School closings (to take one perennial issue facing districts with declining enrollments) become much harder with district seats. School board members begin making decisions based on their neighborhood, or their district constituents, and not what’s in the best interest of the entire district and its schoolchildren.

  10. Phil:
    I think your first argument lends support to districting, rather than the opposite.
    Look at the margins of victory for those candidates not endorsed by MTI. Then consider that in nearly all of those very slim wins by those candidates not endorsed by MTI, that candidate had the endorsement of the Capital Times.
    I’d like to see someone study the election results over the last 10 years. I think if you analyse election results of our at-large school board races, the isthmus decides who is going to be on the school board. If the isthmus votes as a block, it’s over: they elect the school board. If the isthmus vote is divided (as a result of different endorsements by the left leaning institutions), the election will be close, and an insurgent candidate may win. District the seats and that electoral calculus becomes scrambled.
    As to the question of school closings, I was on the Rapid City school board, which had been districted by a referendum vote. It is much easier to make school closing decisions with districted seats. I voted to close two school in my area because I could point to popular arts and sports programs I could save with the money we saved.
    Yes, MTI is a special interest. But so are several other groups out there who push referenda before budget transparency.
    Mostly, I think Madison is a city of neighborhoods, and we think that’s great, except when it comes to electing our representatives on the school board.
    So, what are you afraid of if we get rid of the present law preventing Madison voters from even considering whether we want to vote a change in the system. That law applies only to Madison, and other school districts all over this state and nation vote in geographic areas? Are Madison voters uniquely unable to consider this matter? Are Madison voters too dumb to weigh your arguments and mine, and make a rational decision?

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