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March 25, 2006

The fate of the schools

Will the Madison district sink or swim?
April 4th elections could prove pivotal

At the end of an especially divisive Madison school board meeting, Annette Montegomery took to the microphone and laid bare her frustrations with the seven elected citizens who govern Madison schools.

“I don’t understand why it takes so long to get anything accomplished with this board!” yelled Montgomery, a Fitchburg parent with two children in Madison’s Leopold Elementary School. She pegged board members as clueless about how they’ve compromised the trust of the district’s residents.

“You don’t think we’re already angry? What do we have to do to show you, to convince you, how angry we are? If I could, I’d impeach every single one of you and start over!”

Impeachment isn’t being seriously considered as solution to the Madison Metropolitan School District’s problems. But infighting and seemingly insurmountable budget problems have increasingly undercut the board’s ability to chart a positive course for Madison schools.

And that’s not good, given the challenges on the horizon for a district of 24,490 kids with a $319 million budget. These include declining enrollment of upper- and middle-class families; continuing increases in low-income families and racial minorities; an overall stagnant enrollment which limits state funding increases; and prolonged battles with parent groups over everything from boundary changes to curriculum choices.

By Jason Shepard, Isthmus, March 23, 2006

Student achievement in Madison, while following statewide trends showing improvements over the past decade, still lags behind suburban districts in Dane County. Gaps between whites and minorities remain large.

Looming over everything is a school-financing system that may soon cripple the district’s ability to produce further achievement gains. State revenue caps hold districts to smaller annual budget hikes than are less than increases in costs; so, each year, districts must shave spending or get voters to hike their own taxes by passing referendums to exceed the caps. Even in Madison, that’s getting much harder to do.

The Madison district has cut nearly $46 million in services since 1993. For 2006-07, the district projects a spending increase limit of about 2.6%, which will force it to cut $7.96 million from its budget. If past years are an indication, debates over what to cut will further polarize parents and staff and burn precious political capital.

Meanwhile, the chorus of critics grows louder, on local talk radio and the popular blog, Last spring, voters ousted an incumbent school board member endorsed by scores of local leaders, then rejected two of three school-spending referendums.

District leaders have never succeeded in drumming up widespread public outrage over revenue caps. Indeed, some think the board’s obsession with the funding crisis is paralyzing it from taking bold action or embracing creative approaches. And sometimes, the board acts as if questions and criticism are personal attacks, further alienating important constituencies.

“The differences of opinion are taken personally, and because of that, people don’t listen to what other people are saying,” says board member Lawrie Kobza, who unseated Bill Clingan last April. “You can’t move forward when no one is listening anymore.”

Election stakes
The two school board contests on the April 4 ballot are a referendum of sorts on Madison’s schools. Voters can send a message of support for the board’s current leadership and direction, or convey their desire for change.

In Seat 1, Maya Cole and Arlene Silveira are vying to replace longtime board member Bill Keys. In Seat 2, Lucy Mathiak is challenging incumbent Juan Jose Lopez.

A win by both Cole and Mathiak would dramatically alter the board. They would join Kobza and Ruth Robarts to create a majority in favor of significant change. And, for the first time in years, it would be a majority opposed by the Madison Teachers Inc., the powerful teachers union.

This could open the door for Kobza to be elected board president. (Robarts says she won’t seek re-election next year and is not interested in the presidency.)

Meanwhile, victories by Lopez and Silveira would retain the power of the current majority, who seem poised to elect Johnny Winston Jr. as board president. This could create something of a coalition, as Winston has vowed to make Kobza chair of the board’s budget committee.

Board members on both sides are making their cases. School board President Carol Carstensen warns “it will be very difficult for the administration to function” if Robarts, for example, were calling the shots. And Robarts says a Kobza presidency would bring about new transparency and hold officials accountable for presenting all sides of issues and a full picture of data.

The election is even more important given the expectation that Superintendent Art Rainwater will retire in the next few years. Thus whoever wins may select the next superintendent.

Acknowledging success
Carstsensen, a board member since 1990, says dire assessments of the district come mostly from those who are misinformed or who refuse to recognize how revenue caps are undermining the quality of public schools.

“When I look back at how far we’ve come in a number of areas, despite the budget constraints and significant demographic changes,” she says, “I think that we’re doing a far better job than I would have believed we could do.”

The school board has billed Madison as having one of the nation’s “premiere” school districts. And the city has long touted its public schools as a key draw.

On many measures, the Madison district continues to excel. For example, a high number of its students take and pass Advanced Placement exams. Madison ACT scores, a measure of college readiness, outpace the state average. And there’s been a consistent increase in the number of National Merit Semifinalists.

The district has made sustained progress since 1998 in three priority areas: third-grade reading scores, high school algebra completion, and school attendance. Says Rainwater, “We’ve stayed the course, and that’s allowed us time to train and implement and evaluate and change.”

Finally, the district’s graduation rates have risen dramatically, from 79% ten years ago to 94% today.

“The fact is, there are many markers that we’re headed in the right direction,” says Carstensen. “I don’t want people to say, ‘She’s just painting a rosy picture.’ But it’s important as a district to recognize that we’ve had some success. We need to acknowledge the success, celebrate it, then go back and keep working.”

Not all good news
But on many academic achievement measures, Madison is simply mediocre. Pointing this out, though, is sometimes seen as heresy by board members and district officials. That in itself is part of the problem.

Consider the scores from third-grade reading tests.

The Madison board and school district have regularly touted these scores as proof of significant progress. The numbers of students scoring advanced or proficient has risen from 58.9% in 1998 to 82.7% in 2005, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. In September 2004, a front-page Wisconsin State Journal headline declared, “One racial gap has closed,” based on data showing little or no racial disparity among those who failed the test.

But whether Madison can claim victory for rising test scores is debatable, given that the state as a whole has seen significant increases in scores. Madison’s rate of improvement is not much greater than the state and nearby districts. Indeed, Madison still ranks 16th among Dane County’s 16 school districts.

On other exams in 4th, 8th and 10th grades, Madison generally only matches statewide averages. Richard Askey, a UW-Madison emeritus mathematics professor, recently posted an analysis of district math scores on While the number of Madison students passing the 8th-grade test rose from 40% in 1997 to 71% in 2004, the gains were smaller than statewide averages.

“We went from a district which was above the state average to one with scores at best at the state average,” Askey concluded.

And the racial achievement gap continues on virtually all measures. Two weeks ago, board member Shwaw Vang expressed his disappointment over racial disparities among those who attend the district’s summer school, targeted at struggling students: “If this number continues to be 80% minority and 87% low-income, it tells me that either we as a society or we as a school district are not educating our minority kids and low-income kids.”

Rainwater says the district should be especially proud of its successes given the significant changes in Madison’s student body. Scores have gone up at a time when they might have very well gone down.

“Not only have our demographics changed and we’ve continued to get better, but we’ve continued to get better with fewer resources,” says Rainwater, who segues into a less sanguine point. “There’s a limit, obviously, to how many creative workarounds we can develop. I don’t know where that limit is, but my sense is it’s approaching pretty quickly.”

Demographic changes
Many of the critical issues facing Madison schools are linked to how the district adapts to the changing demographics of its student body.

Madison has seen dramatic hikes in the number of students who require more intensive – and expensive – services. In 1991, 11% of Madison students received special education instruction; in 2005, it was 17%. During the same period, the share of English language learners went from 3% to 13%.

Racially, the district is becoming much more diverse. The number of African Americans and Hispanics has increased significantly, while the number of whites has declined in each of the past 15 years.

There have also been significant changes in income levels. In 1990, 20% of students attending Madison schools came from low-income families, as defined by those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. By 2005, this had nearly doubled, to 38%.

Worse, the district’s low-income students are concentrated in particular areas and schools. Five of the district’s 31 elementary schools have more than two-thirds of their students come from low-income families, while seven have fewer than one-fourth from low-income families.

The district has been hesitant to redraw school attendance areas and increase busing to bring about balance, something educational research has shown is important. Robarts and Kobza have suggested giving extra funding to schools with higher levels of low-income students. A task force is now studying these equity issues.

Overall, the district’s enrollment – one basis for the level of state funding -- has been in decline since peaking in 1997. Projections show enrollment steadying in the next few years. But Dane County as a whole is growing, and surrounding school districts have seen significant increases in student population.

An analysis by Barb Schrank on estimated that Madison’s loss of 174 students from 2000 to 2003 translated into a loss of funding for 26-30 teachers, while student enrollment increases at the seven closest Dane County districts meant a net gain of 219 teachers.

“People decide where to live in large part on the quality of schools,” says Schrank. “The district doesn’t really have a strategic plan to market [itself] to everyone, including those who may be leaving and those who may be moving to Dane County.”

Some have speculated that families with means have enrolled their kids in private schools or moved into higher-performing suburban districts, although school officials say there’s no firm evidence of this. Parental threats to leave the district have surfaced in debates over whether the district’s curriculum is rigorous enough for high-achieving students.

As it gets harder each year to find ways to find budget cuts that don’t directly affect classroom instruction, Carstensen has noticed an increase in “crabbiness” among local players. She agrees personality clashes often overtake the board’s ability to make important decisions.

“What has been frustrating to me,” she says, “is that philosophically we’ve got a board that, at least according to their own statements, cares about kids and cares about the achievement gap, and yet there’s been an unwillingness to work together.”

Carstensen, Kobza and Vang rarely stoop to personal attacks. But the board’s other members -- Lopez, Keys, Robarts and Winston -- often engage in throw downs that have stifled discussion and left some relationships frayed beyond repair. One example:

A few weeks ago, Winston was miffed by Robarts’ opposition to using a contingency reserve fund for projects Winston was backing. In an unrelated debate about possibly selling or leasing the Doyle administration building, Winston deemed it inappropriate for Robarts to participate because she works for UW-Madison, which could be interested in the land or the building. Robarts joked that she was pretty low in the university hierarchy, but later admitted the conflict-of-interest allegation caught her off guard.

“Ms. Robarts, I’m not going to play games,” Winston said angrily. “I’m not going play games with you, alright? Your passive-aggressive behavior is beyond reproach, and I’m tired of it.”

Or consider the board’s behavior at its Jan. 30 meeting, the one that led up to Annette Montegomery call for impeachment. At issue was overcrowding at Leopold Elementary School. Instead of having a serious, relevant and detailed discussion, board members degenerated into cheap shots and political grandstanding.

The debate began in earnest when Carstensen asked Kobza to explain comments she had made in a radio interview. In response, Kobza said she wouldn’t support building a new west side school or expanding Leopold without a five-year plan regarding boundary and facility needs. Keys immediately labeled Kobza’s idea a “red herring” and said she was a “little late in game.”

Lopez hammered home the importance for the board to be united in a 7-0 vote for any future referenda. Winston then turned on Kobza and Robarts, saying rejecting a task force proposal about Leopold “disrespects” the process. Winston said he hoped voters “see at the ballot box board members who don’t look at the recommendations,” drawing an audible “whoa” from spectators.

Kobza retorted that she “won’t be bullied” and reminded Winston of her own ballot box victory in April. Robarts said the majority was being hypocritical: they’ve long ignored ideas from her and Kobza, only to demand their allegiance at referendum time.

“We can play politics, Ms. Robarts,” retorted Lopez. “We’ve done it before. I’ve won some and you’ve won some.” Lopez then claimed Robarts’ “political” actions had come at the expense of “the children of this school district.” Of course, playing the “children” card – much like the “race” card – shattered any hope for meaningful discussion.

And so it seemed appropriate when Montegomery let board members have it.

“You bicker so much! You accomplish absolutely nothing!” she shouted. “How many times have we been here talking about the same things? You know where the parents stand. We know where you stand. You talk about trying to come together. Let’s face it. You people are never going to come together!”

This was not the Madison school board’s finest hour. But, searching over the past few years, it’s hard to point to many fine hours.

Seat 1: Silveira v. Cole
Better PR, or fresh approaches?

Maya Cole and Arlene Silveira are articulate, involved moms who have adjusted well to the steep learning curve of their first campaign for public office.

Silveira, 47, is a single mom who’s served as president of two parent groups and actively campaigned for last year’s three school referendums. She works as a marketing director for Promega and holds a master’s degree in molecular biology.

Cole, 43, is a stay-at-home mom of three young boys who regularly volunteers in the schools. She’s active in progressive politics, attending peace rallies and lobbying against the Legislature’s concealed-carry bill. She has a degree in biological sciences and is a former zookeeper.

Each is supported by different factions on the board, with Silveira garnering endorsements from members of the current majority, along with many local political leaders. She’s also endorsed by Madison Teachers Inc., which is expected to pour significant money into the race.

Cole, meanwhile, is seen as more of an outsider and would-be reformer, and is supported by Ruth Robarts and Lawrie Kobza.

Perhaps the biggest distinction between the two is whether they see the problems facing the district as being more about perception or reality.

Silveira has made much of the need to improve the district’s public-relations efforts. “The board and the district have not done a good job in providing information to the public and promoting themselves,” she says. “It comes down to providing information, letting people know what is happening with their property tax dollars, and what it really takes to provide a quality education.”

Cole, meanwhile, is more likely to talk about educational research and think-tank studies that suggest ways to improve education. “I’m willing to say, we as a board screw up things sometimes. We’re not always the experts. And that’s sorely missing. The majority of the board doesn’t convey the feeling that they’re listening to people. They’re about window-dressing.”

Silveira says her business experience makes her better able than Cole to deal with complex issues. She also boasts a “much more positive viewpoint” about the city’s schools.

Cole, meanwhile, cites her passion and fresh perspective, saying says lacks the “baggage” that Silveira carries from her connections with referendum supporters and pointed criticisms of Robarts and Kobza.

Seat 2: Lopez v. Mathiak
Attacking the achievement gap

Juan Jose Lopez and Lucy Mathiak are both veteran school advocates, Lopez as the consummate insider and school-district cheerleader, Mathiak as the parent advocate and scrappy outsider.

Lopez, 46, first elected to the board in 1994, is well known for his advocacy on Hispanic issues and his nonprofit jobs working with kids. He is currently a planning and policy analyst for Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager.

Mathiak, 50, is making her first bid for public office but has been involved for years in school committees, parent groups, and booster organizations. She holds a Ph.D. in history and works as a communications director for the UW’s College of Letters and Science.

Lopez says closing the achievement gap is among his top priorities: “It’s clear we’re moving in the right direction, from our reading results and our math completion rates, but we’re still not where we need to be.” His other priorities are increased funding and school safety.

Mathiak suggests Lopez has an achievement gap of his own, saying he’s failed to use his role as chair of the board’s performance and achievement committee to bring about real improvement. Instead, she claims, Lopez simply held “show and tell” sessions for district staff.

“There’s a palpable anger when I talk to parents and educators of color, when I talk about what’s happening with our students,” says Mathiak, whose family is biracial. She has aggressively campaigned on the disparate treatment of nonwhite students, saying the district has to move beyond token gestures like bringing in outside consultants.

The school board gets high marks from Lopez for its leadership through turbulent budget cuts. He calls disagreement on the board “healthy,” even though he’s often railed against dissent in board debates, saying it undermines public confidence.

Lopez says he and Mathiak are politically similar, but that he has three advantages: his experience, his compassion, and his life’s commitment to working with kids.

Mathiak, meanwhile, says she brings a stronger work ethic and a deeper commitment to dig into issues: “It’s not enough for me to say I’m here for the kids. I’m here for the kids, but I intend to do something about it.”

Posted by Ruth Robarts at March 25, 2006 4:45 PM
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