Before he leaves his post as head of the Madison Metropolitan School District, Art Rainwater reflects on the past, present and future of public education for all in a city and a school system that look and feel very different than the ones he was introduced to a decade-and-a-half ago
For an Arkansas native who grew up professionally in Kansas City–and who still looks like he’d be right at home on a Southern high-school football field–it’s hard to imagine Madison schools without Art Rainwater at the helm. The guy’s right up there with Soglin and Alvarez: They hail from somewhere else but if you didn’t know it you’d think they’ve been Madisonians all along.
But just as our collective recollection of his predecessor Cheryl Wilhoyte’s tumultuous term as schools superintendent has faded, so too will our familiarity with the large and at times imposing personality of Rainwater, sixty-five, after he retires in June. What will fade more slowly is the impact he has had on the Madison school district.
While it remains one of the best school districts in America, MMSD faces profound challenges that the next superintendent will inherit from Rainwater, who arrived in Madison almost fourteen years ago to design and implement the district’s first magnet school. He came from the Kansas City, Missouri School District, where he started as a principal in 1987 and finished as special assistant to the superintendent, the number-two position in the district. If Rainwater has seemed comfortable in the eye of the storm, it’s because his career matured amid the extremely difficult and sometimes ugly stress of one of America’s most bitter desegregation battles–a battle that in 1994 looked like it might flare anew.