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September 29, 2006


This is the third in a series of farewell posts to the SIS blog. I still don’t know how long this will take; I don’t have a schedule but I don’t think too much longer. There are still things I want to say before I leave this forum. “The Long Goodbye?” I hope not, but a bit longer. I also want to note that as part of weaning myself from SIS, I’ve decided not to “do comments.” Some of that decision is a selfish desire to pursue my own agenda and some of it is a recognition that “doing comments,” pulls me in exactly the direction I’ve been complaining about. I only mention this because I want to applaud Ed Blume’s recent effort to be constructive, education4U’s and Larry Winkler's comments on my previous post in this series and thank Barb S. for her kind words. Some of the things I want to say are very general about how I think about education and activism; some are specific to my experiences in Madison and with SIS. Most are a combination. This one is a combination that turns out to be timely (I intended to write this before the event that gives it timeliness – an event I had no direct part in).

This post is about the referendum campaign, CAST (Communities and Schools Together) and what others have called “the CAST leaders,” (I have never heard anyone associated with CAST call himself or herself or anyone else a leader. I prefer to think them as those who are working the hardest). There has been an attempt to make the referendum campaign at least partially about the people working with CAST. If that is gong to be the case I think it is important to relate what I know about those people and that organization.

It is serendipitous that the word CAST fits so well with what I want to write about, which is the how CAST came together and how it functions. I don’t know the entire story and the fact that I don’t know is part of the story. It is significant that there is very little formal organization or structure and much improvisation; that things get done because varied and talented and committed people find the time and means to get them done. We’ve been doing this without being given orders or deadlines or anything but encouragement. So I don’t know all about how CAST came together (and in fact to know all that, I think I’d have to query every person who proudly calls himself or herself a member of CAST because every person has their individual story and reasons for wanting to help get the referendum passed). Enough with the protestations of ignorance, there are some things that I do know and these are part of the story too.

Carol Carstensen was designated (officially? unofficially?) by the Board of Education to coordinate the campaign. In some manner and in some way and to some (from what I can tell, limited) fashion Carol recruited people to fit certain slots, like a casting director casts a play or movie. I don’t know what these slots were, but I would guess that geographic diversity and earned respect from varied portions of the MMSD community were part of the criteria and skills and strengths may also have been considered. That is one meaning of cast.

Cast also describes casting a line or a net to see what you catch. That’s how most of the people working for the referendum came together. It was more of a wide net than a line. Calls for help on list serves, word of mouth, letters to supporters of past referendums, more word of mouth…were all parts of it that I know of. When you cast a wide net, you can end up with many different types of fish.

CAST has many different types of fish, many different types of educational activists. Really, we share only three things: (1) A desire to see the referendum pass; (2) a willingness to work to make that desire a reality and (3) respect for one another. There are people who I am working closely with who I have in the past had public disagreements with. There are people who I am working closely with who have made public statements that show they have a greater concern than I do about “Bright Flight.” There are people making great contributions and I don’t know anything about them but their names and their contributions. There are probably people who have views that are very, very different from mine. There is no party line but to get the referendum passed. That’s one reason why it is so laughable that anyone would try to make a big deal about the fact that no CAST member “called” me on what I wrote about the Wright PSO meeting (and note that the person making that accusation was on the CAST list, read the message and only attempted to “call” me on it in a different and more public forum where he was confident that his distortions would get a more friendly reception). What was really going on was I was sharing something that was important to me with a diverse group who I knew would (with one exception) treat my thoughts with respect. I didn’t post those thoughts on SIS because I knew they wouldn’t be treated with respect. I don’t give a damn now, so before I leave I’m going to say a lot more about that meeting. The other people on the list (with one exception) understood that: TJ on the soapbox again, sometimes worth heeding, sometimes wrong, sometimes tiresome, but not to be twisted or ridiculed. Respect. It wasn’t a policy statement or an attempt to convince anyone of anything. Maybe at some level I wanted to prompt people to think about contrasting attitudes on support for public education, but mostly I wanted to share my moving experience of hearing from other supporters with those who are working to build support (again, with one exception). So a wide net was cast and the catch is good and varied. That’s what coalitions are. We work together to achieve those goals we share in common.

The final usages of cast I want to bring in are biblical. “Cast your bread on the waters; for you shall find it after many days” (Ecclesiastes 11). Most interpretations of this injunction concern faith and charity and doing good works. Having faith to follow a practice that appears to make no sense (historically seed was cast from river boats at high tide as a way of planting, so there was method to the madness). And charity and good works, in that if give of yourself based on faith, your faith will be returned, your good works will yield returns, you will find the bread. I have the sense that the people working with CAST are working based on a faith that building that school, renovating the other, refinancing those debts will all be returned to the community with a multitude of small and large benefits. Given the current atmosphere, I need to point out that this isn’t a blind and irrational faith, there is good evidence to back it up (look at the CAST web site). But in another sense it is irrational for many of us. My children will not attend the new school or Leopold; the odds of the money saved directly benefiting my children are very small. Still I have faith that doing what is right -- right for the children who will attend the new school, right for those whose schools will avoid some overcrowding because of the new school, right for those at Leopold who will finally get some relief from overcrowding, right for those who may gain a teacher or a smaller class and will not lose some services because of the refinancing, right for the MMSD community of five or ten or fifteen years from now who without these measures will be forced to build a new school or new schools in crisis situations (because that land is there and homes will be built and children will need schools) -- will yield indirect returns for me and those I care about. It will make Madison a better place. I can’t see any way that failing to pass this referendum will make Madison a better place.

My faith has been shaken lately. Not my faith that passing the referendum is the right thing to do. It is my faith in myself, in my understanding of how the world works and in my belief that the vast, vast majority of people on this planet are people of good will. These faiths have been shaken by doubts that whatever benefits may come from my advocacy; the road that I have taken my advocacy on in response to recent events may be causing harm to an individual in ways that I did not anticipate and do not desire. These faiths have also been shaken by momentary doubts about how much and how far I can trust someone who I like very much but don’t know very well. The first set of doubts I am struggling with. I quickly decided to dismiss the second set, but I am ashamed that they even rose in my mind. I am sorry to be so cryptic, and only am sharing this because it has brought home to me how important trust and honesty are. Living life with the assumption of distrust is not a good way to be. Working to improve our children’s schools and futures based on distrust is not a good way to get things done.

The last use of cast I’m going to say anything about is “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone” (John 8:7). (If you got this far aren’t you glad I decided not to drag in anything about casting from a mold, or a cast for a broken bone. I am.) I’ve cast some stones in my day that I am not proud of and I’m not without sin, so I’m not claiming personal purity. I’ve certainly had some stones cast my way lately. I’ll pick a fight and almost never back down, but I would never initiate the kind of dirty tactics I’ve seen directed my way and at CAST. As I am sure anyone who was on the CAST list can attest, there has never been any discussion or contemplation of using dirty tactics. (Really, the best opposition research that came from this failed Nixonian misadventure was a statement from me completely divorced from the referendum that had to be misinterpreted in order to even try to do anything with.) I’m not saying CAST is without sin, but we aren’t casting stones either. There may be referendum supporters casting stones, but they are not part of any campaign I am involved with.

CAST is a coalition of dedicated people who believe that passing the referendum is the right thing to do. No more, no less. In regard to how the electorate votes on the referendum, most of this shouldn’t matter at all. I’ve asked repeatedly that those of us who devote time to educational activism help others decide how to vote based on the merits of the proposals on the ballot. This plea has been met with resistance from those who oppose the referendum and those who have not taken public stances. Who supports or opposes the referendum and how they express their support or opposition isn’t on the ballot. This shouldn’t be about me or anyone else. Unfortunately Jim Zellmer and others are correct that at least some voters will be thinking of things other than the merits of the ballot measures as they cast their votes. If one of those things is the revealed character of activists on each side, then I can’t help but feel good about the prospects for passage.

Vote Yes for Schools!

To be continued.


Posted by Thomas J. Mertz at September 29, 2006 10:36 AM
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