All posts by Ruth Robarts

Vang Pao Elementary School: Remarks to the Madison School Board on May 7, 2007

The decision to name the new school after General Vang Pao was necessary and proper, although difficult.
The board did its job well. Remember that when you evaluate the reactions of some parts of the community.
The reactions are not about the process. Three months of notice and opportunities to comment was sufficient process.
They are not about “localness”. Many of our schools are named after non-local figures.
They are not about new information. Professor McCoy’s allegations about Vang Pao are old news, 2002 news.
They are not about the persuasiveness of Professor McCoy’s allegations. He spent a short time in Laos. His evidence is thin.
In contrast, Dr. Jane Hamilton Merritt spent many years in Laos and interviewed more than a thousand people. She has concluded that McCoy’s allegations are baseless. She has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and the Pulitizer Prize for her human rights reporting from Laos. The weight of the evidence is on Dr. Jane’s side.
And you have the testimony of Hmong people from our community and state who contradict Professor McCoy.
Instead, I believe that the reaction is an expression of the deep discomfort that many of us feel when forced to remember the Vietnam War and it is about our denial.
We want to remember the anti-war movement.
We do not want to remember the government lies, assassinations, covert wars, use of napalm and Agent Orange or the loss of so many, many lives. It was a shameful war, one that we’d like to forget.
However, we owe it to our children to learn the lessons of that war and we must tell them how and why Hmong people became part of our community.
Forgetting is not an option for the Hmong. They are here now, living productive lives. They owe much to General Vang Pao for their survival and better fortunes. He gave them the unit and the strength that they needed during the covert war and after our government abandoned them to the repressive Laotian regime after the fall of Saigon.
And we owe the Hmong—just as surely as we owe our own Vietnam War veterans—recognition and inclusion at long last.
Please stay the course on this decision.

Vang Pao Elementary School is as local as most MMSD school names

Making school names local, as suggested by Capital Times editor John Nichols, is a sensible goal. Make school names local The Madison School Board had an open nomination process and it held televised public hearings on the naming of the new west side elementary school. We did so to hear the preferences of local people and their reasons for their choices.
Over several months, we sought and received nominations. While we heard from some people living outside the district, we heard primarily from people from the district.
During these months I came to the conclusion that naming a school after Hmong General Vang Pao would meet important local needs, the need to recognize the sacrifices of the Hmong generation who were US allies during the Vietnam War and to explain the Hmong presence in our community which is a direct result of that alliance.
Having heard from many Hmong speakers during the hearings and from my colleague, Shwaw Vang, about the role that Vang Pao played in their lives, I did not feel that substituting a different Hmong name was an option. I could not imagine telling Shwaw Vang that I had decided that he is a more appropriate hero for the Hmong people in the Madison district. I believe that such an action would have shown great disrespect for the very people that we hope to acknowledge are part of our community and play very positive roles in our community.
The tradition in MMSD—rightly or wrongly—has been to name some schools after national heroes, some after locations, some after people who made significant contributions to the state or the district and some after people who have earned respect locally, even though the honorees were not without controversy. To me, naming the school after General Vang Pao fits in that range.

Are Wisconsin taxes too high, or just property and personal income taxes?

As residents scramble to complete their taxes by this year’s deadline, April 17, there are two contrasting messages coming from Wisconsin’s corporate community on the subject of taxes and economic prosperity.
One of those messages dominates political discussion. It’s easy to state, easy to understand, and easy to put on bumper stickers: Cut My Taxes.
Its chief proponent is Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), the Madison-based big-business lobby that for years has focused its legislative agenda on plaintive appeals for a reduced tax burden.
Business boosters disagree, but it’s possible to get to the truth
Jack Norman, in Isthmus, April 4, 2007
Are Wisconsin taxes too high?

Madison BOE elections 2007: Voters 2, MTI 1

The Isthmus article Blame for the media illustrates a long-obvious truth: John Matthews is Madison’s Mayor Daley, a ward boss of our very own, and he gets very angry when his political control slips.
Matthews wanted to control the selection of Board members for three seats in 2007. Odd-year elections are especially important to Madison Teachers Inc. because odd years are the years in which the 2-year MTI-MMSD contracts are negotiated.
This time Mr. Matthews failed. He couldn’t find a suitable candidate to run against Johnny Winston, Jr., so he labeled and publicly berated him for not being Bill Keys. In Mr. Matthews’ mind that failure left only two seats in play. He won with Beth Moss and lost with Marj Passman.

Continue reading Madison BOE elections 2007: Voters 2, MTI 1

Yes to strategic planning, no to last minute referendums and school closings

On March 26, I voted no on Carol Carstensen’s proposed three-year referendum for several reasons.
First, a referendum requires careful planning. Two weeks notice did not allow the Madison School Board to do the necessary analysis or planning. Ms. Carstensen—not the administration—provided the only budget analysis for her proposal. The board has not set priorities because the board it is just beginning the budget process.
Second, the referendum is not part of a strategic long-range plan. The district needs a ten-year strategic plan, and such a plan must address the structural deficit created by state revenue limits. It must also bring businesses, community organizations and the City of Madison into the solution. While referendums for operating dollars will be necessary, without planning they are of limited use.
Third, relief from the state revenue limits is not on the horizon. Governor Doyle has no proposal for eliminating the revenue limits. Madison’s state representatives recommend that we focus our lobbying efforts on small scale, stop-gap funding issues. Only Ms. Carstensen and the teachers union seem to think that change is coming soon.
There are some steps that the school board can take to increase public confidence and pass operating budget referendums in the future.
1. Direct the administration to find the best ways to use the Doyle Building to generate revenue for the district. In 2006, the board defeated this proposal (Kobza and Robarts voting yes, Carstensen, Keys, Lopez, Vang and Winston voting no). Using the building as a revenue-generating asset could also move administrators to school buildings and help keep the schools open.
2. Negotiate changes in health insurance coverage for teachers to minimize future costs. Administrators and other unions have recently made such changes without losing quality of health care. Dane County has a competitive health insurance market that can help use save dollars and protect quality of care.
3. Take the closing/consolidation options presented by the Long Range Planning Committee off the table. Look for more focused approaches to saving money, such as moving the Park Street Work and Learn Center into an under-enrolled elementary school as we did in the past when we housed WLC at Allis School.
4. Invite the community to join in a strategic planning process as soon as possible. As long as the state and federal governments shirk their responsibilities and the state over-relies on residential property taxes to pay for essential local services, there will be a gap between the tax funds available and the cost of the high quality, comprehensive k-12 school system that we want. We need a plan as badly as we need the elimination of the revenue limits and a progressive tax to adequately fund our schools.
I am ready to support operating budget referendums based on a strategic plan and best use of the revenues that we have.

Pam Cross-Leone Seat 3 Madison Board of Education

Since 1992, Pam Cross-Leone has quietly, effectively and tirelessly worked as a parent volunteer in the Madison schools. Pam welcomed the homeless children at Emerson Elementary, working to make them part of the school in every way. When Sherman Middle School and East High School experienced the problems that come with rapid changes in students and too frequent changes in principals, Pam did her part to help steady the schools and keep expectations high for all children. She should have a life-time service award from East High for unending service to its Booster Club for athletics.
Problem-solving and concern for workable, inclusive decisions are the hallmarks of Pam’s years of service to her union at MGE. The same is true of her work with United Way of Dane County as a “loaned executive.” Always on task, always open to better ideas, always focused on ways to increase support for the group’s decision.
The representatives elected to the Madison School Board in 2007 will make decisions that will affect the future of our schools in critical ways. The next board will choose a new superintendent. It will determine whether parents and public should have a greater role in evaluating the curriculum for our children. It must develop new financial partnerships between the schools and local businesses. It must address the legitimate desire of employees for high quality health insurance by making competition among insurance providers work to reduce future costs.
I support Pam Cross-Leone because I know that I can trust her judgment. I can expect openness to all ideas. I can expect concern for every child. I can expect her to work toward solutions that merit wide community support. Pam has done the work that makes her the best choice in her race since 1992.

What’s the MTI political endorsement about?

In 2006-07 the Madison School district will spend $43.5M on health insurance for its employees, the majority of the money paying for insurance for teachers represented by Madison Teachers, Inc. (MTI) That is 17% of the operating budget under the revenue limits.
In June of 2007, the two-year contract between the district and MTI ends. The parties are now beginning negotiations for the 2007-09 contract.
The Sun Prairie School district and its teachers union recently saved substantial dollars on health insurance. They used the savings to improve teacher wages. The parties joined together openly and publicly to produce a statement of the employees health needs. Then they negotiated a health insurance package with a local HMO that met their needs.
The Madison School district has no choice but to look for ways to reduce future health insurance costs, while keeping a high quality of care. What we pay our teachers in the future depends on it–both in wages and in post-retirement benefits. What we can offer to our children in programs depends on it.
We have made some progress in reducing future health insurance costs for some of the union-represented employees and for our administrators. I hope that board members elected in April will continue down this path. It’s not an easy path.
MTI plays hard ball in its election endorsements. It is looking for candidates that will continue coverage by Wisconsin Physicians Services (WPS)—no matter what else is available. It is also telling the incumbents what kind of treatment to expect from executive director John Matthews if the incumbent takes his or her board role seriously enough to represent the kids’ interest at the negotiating table. For an example, see MTI’s newsletter for late January:
http://www.madisonteachers.org/Solidarity/Solidarity%2006-07/solid012207.pdf [65K PDF]

Madison’s Mendota Elementary School beats the odds

What does it take to truly create a school where no child is left behind?
That question defines what is probably the most pressing issue facing American public education, and a high-poverty school on Madison’s north side west of Warner Park seems to have figured out some of the answers.
Mendota Elementary is among a small handful of schools in Madison where the percentage of children from low-income families hovers above 70 percent. But contrary to what most research would predict, Mendota’s standardized test scores meet or beat Madison’s generally high district averages, as well as test scores from throughout the state, on the annual Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam.
In fact, Mendota’s test scores even exceed those of many other local schools where the majority of students come from more affluent homes with a wealth of resources to devote to child raising, including both time and money.
From “Successful schools, successful students” by reporter Susan Troller, The Capital Times, January 26, 2007.

Continue reading Madison’s Mendota Elementary School beats the odds

A judge says Preston Hollow Elementary segregated white kids to please parents. The reality is deeper and maybe more troubling.

On a sunny September morning in 2005 Preston Hollow Elementary School hosted Bike to School Day. Dozens of grinning children with fair skin played and talked outside in the courtyard, relaxing happily after rides through their North Dallas neighborhood of garish mansions and stately brick homes. Parents shared tea and fruit, capturing the smiles of their kids with digital cameras. A police officer gave the group a friendly lecture on bicycle safety. Inside the classrooms surrounding the courtyard, other children watched glumly. Many of them lived in the modest apartment complexes off Central Expressway, separated from their school by busy roads and shopping centers. Those kids, nearly all them Hispanic and black, took the bus to school.
As their classmates parked their bikes and snacked on fruit and juice the other children waited in English as a second language (ESL) classes. A federal judge would later rule that many of them shouldn’t have been there. Their language skills were good enough to be in the same classes as the kids who rode their bikes to Preston Hollow.

From Dallas Observer, January 11, 2007.

Continue reading A judge says Preston Hollow Elementary segregated white kids to please parents. The reality is deeper and maybe more troubling.

It’s the right time for Madison School Board to review student discipline code

In The Capital Times, reporter Susan Troller tells the stories of students and teachers who recently experienced violence at Madison schools or school-related activities. The story underscores how important it is for the Madison School Board to take a hard look at violent misconduct at all levels. The board must consider whether the current discipline system needs change–both to improve safety for students and staff and to ensure that interventions are prompt, consistent, unbiased and effective.
The MMSD administration has made some presentations on its ideas during the fall of 2006. Before the board considers changes, I hope that the board will hear more about the facts, particularly the facts about violent incidents. No changes will help unless they are carefully calibrated to the facts.
Facing Violence at School:Social events canceled as girls caught in hostilityFacing Violence at School

Madison Superintendent Rainwater Tells MTI about Resignation Plans Before He Tells the School Board?

In a guest editorial in The Capital Times on January 10, 2007, MTI leader John Matthews explains that Madison school superintendent Art Rainwater unveiled his plan to resign at the end of 2007-08 to the teachers union leader long before he told the Madison Board of Education in an executive session on Monday, January 8, 2007.

“When Madison Superintendent of Schools Art Rainwater announced on Monday that he will retire in June of 2008, the news did not catch me by surprise for two reasons.
First, he proclaimed when he was appointed superintendent in 1999 that he would serve for 10 years, the duration of his contract. He said then that he and his wife, a teacher in Verona, planned to retire in 2008.
Secondly, he told me at our regular weekly meeting during the week of Dec. 18 that he would advise the School Board of his resignation when school resumed in January.

Continue reading Madison Superintendent Rainwater Tells MTI about Resignation Plans Before He Tells the School Board?

Structural budget deficit will increase MMSD revenue shortfall for 2007-08

A few weeks ago when the Madison School Board was finalizing the budget for the current academic year, Vice-President Lawrie Kobza pointed out two very serious problems. First, the district has been overstating expected revenues in recent years during the months when the board was reviewing and approving the budgets. Second, the district has been balancing the budget at the end of the year by dipping significantly into its reserves (equity fund).
In Susan Troller’s article in The Capital Times, Roger Price, the assistant superintendent for Business Services, promises a “more conservative approach” to budgeting. In part, the “more conservative approach” seems to mean that revenue estimates will not be overstated, making deeper cuts more necessary, but perhaps giving the board a way to reduce the drain on its reserves.
School Board anticipates big budget shortfall.

Spring elections for Madison School Board: reformers versus old guard

Writing in this week’s Isthmus newspaper, reporter Jason Shepard frames the issue in the spring school board elections for MMSD: Will Madison voters support the new direction of “tackling fiscal, managerial and achievement-related problems” or bring back an approach that blames all problems on the state legislature and is very light on oversight and accountability regarding finances and student achievement?
Spring elections could bring new directions

MMSD to study high schools before “redesigning” them

Madison school Superintendent Art Rainwater has put the brakes on recently proposed changes to the city’s high schools as part of an effort to make long-term progress.
That means putting a hold on the proposed elimination of accelerated classes at East. In addition, there will be no changes in the four-block schedule at La Follette at least until a comprehensive look at the entire high school experience in Madison is completed, Rainwater confirmed in an interview this morning. Rainwater says ‘whoa’ to school changes
By Susan Troller, The Capital Times, November 28, 2006

Board’s goals for Superintendent Rainwater in 2006-07

On Monday, November 20, 2006, the Madison Board of Education voted unanimously to approve four goals for Superintendent Art Rainwater for 2006-07. (Carstensen, Kobza, Mathiak, Robarts, Silviera, Vang voting yes; Winston absent)
The goals require the superintendent to do the following:
1. Initiate and complete a comprehensive, independent and neutral review and assessment of the District’s K-12 math curriculum.
• The review and assessment shall be undertaken by a task force whose members are appointed by the Superintendent and approved by the BOE. Members of the task force shall have math and math education expertise and represent a variety of perspectives regarding math education.
• The task force shall prepare and present to the BOE a preliminary outline of the review and assessment to be undertaken by the task force. The outline shall, at a minimum, include: (1) analysis of math achievement data for MMSD K-12 students, including analysis of all math sub-tests scores disaggregated by student characteristics and schools; (2) analysis of performance expectations for MMSD K-12 students; (3) an overview of math curricula, including MMSD’s math curriculum; (4) a discussion of how to improve MMSD student achievement; and (5) recommendations on measures to evaluate the effectiveness of MMSD’s math curriculum. The task force is to present the preliminary outline and a timeline to the BOE for comment and approval.
• The task force is to prepare a written draft of the review and assessment, consistent with the approved preliminary outline. The draft is to be presented to the BOE for review and comment.
• The task force is to prepare the final report on the review and assessment.
2. Develop in collaboration with the Board and external advisors, a plan for the District to communicate to the community why parents or guardians should send their children to MMSD schools. Specific tasks include (1) determining what parents and guardians consider important in selecting schools; (2) determining whether and how MMSD schools provide what parents and guardians consider important in selecting schools; (3) using the information gained from parents and guardians, developing a vision of what MMSD should be in the future; and (4) developing a communications plan to promote MMSD schools and why parents or guardians should send their children to them. Timeframe to develop: 6 months.
3. Provide information to the Board in a clear, accurate, complete yet concise, and timely manner. The Board will evaluate progress on this goal through the use of a rating sheet for Board members to give periodic feed-back on the information they receive from the administration. Information provided to the Board shall be rated for timeliness, accuracy, organization and presentation.
4. Implement the Administrative Intern Professional Development Program. Program participants should be selected by the 4th quarter of this year. Special attention will be given to the recruitment of people of color and other historically under-represented groups in administrative positions in all employment categories of the District. (principals, building services, etc.) A report on the program shall be provided to the BOE at least annually.

Superintendent Rainwater: “We need to dramatically change our high schools.”

On Monday, November 27, the Madison School Board will begin to address rumors about major changes coming to our high schools. There are some realities behind the rumors.
For example, West High School substantially reduced the English courses for tenth graders this year. The principal at East High School met with parents last week. He delivered a message that many parents understood as an explanation that decisions on curriculum changes at EHS have already been made and would be carried out. Period. He has since said that he welcomes student and parent viewpoints. End of Gifted Class Drawing Protest And last month there was–to say the least–confusion and misinformation about when students can opt to take college courses for high school credit.
However, the main source of community comment and concerns may be Superintendent Rainwater’s October editorial announcing his commitment to redesign of the high schools. Changing our high schools The editorial that went sent to homes across the district via student backpacks is long on generalities and short on specifics, giving rise to the kinds of questions that I have been hearing at work.
In my opinion, now is the right time for the school board to set parameters and goals for changes in the high schools. That’s our role. We should hear the ideas coming from the schools and their communities as well as those coming from central administration before any process to redesign the schools goes forward.
I welcome both an on-going board discussion and community public discussion of possible changes to our high schools, particularly changes that could raise academic goals for all students and ensure a wide range of academic challenging courses and activities.

Keep an eye on math, board tells Rainwater

The Madison School Board has given Superintendent Art Rainwater a set of specific orders to accomplish in the coming year, including several directives to take an in-depth look at the district’s entire math curriculum.
In the past several years, area math educators have expressed concern about the effectiveness of the Madison district’s reliance on a reform math curriculum, which emphasizes word-based problem-solving.
Another goal board members mandated for the superintendent for next year is that he collaborate with them and other advisers on a plan to tell community members why parents and guardians should send their children to Madison public schools.
In addition, the board will evaluate the administration on providing information in a clear, accurate, concise and timely manner.
By Susan Troller, The Capital Times, November 21, 2006

Continue reading Keep an eye on math, board tells Rainwater

National Council of Teachers of Math Changes Course on Teaching Math Fundamentals

SEATTLE — For the second time in a generation, education officials are rethinking the teaching of math in American schools.
The changes are being driven by students’ lagging performance on international tests and mathematicians’ warnings that more than a decade of so-called reform math — critics call it fuzzy math — has crippled students with its de-emphasizing of basic drills and memorization in favor of allowing children to find their own ways to solve problems.
At the same time, parental unease has prompted ever more families to pay for tutoring, even for young children. Shalimar Backman, who put pressure on officials here by starting a parents group called Where’s the Math?, remembers the moment she became concerned.
“When my oldest child, an A-plus stellar student, was in sixth grade, I realized he had no idea, no idea at all, how to do long division,” Ms. Backman said, “so I went to school and talked to the teacher, who said, ‘We don’t teach long division; it stifles their creativity.’ ”
As Math Scores Lag, a New Push for the Basics

Audit Faults Wisconsin’s Reading First Grant Process

Wisconsin education officials failed to ensure that schools and districts that received federal Reading First grants adhered to the program’s strict guidelines, a failing that, if not rectified, could cost the state nearly $6 million of its $45 million allocation, a federal report concludes.
The audit by the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general, dated Oct. 20, found that nine of the state’s 26 grant recipients had not received the required approval of a review panel and may not have met all the requirements for receiving the money.
By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, Education Week, November 1, 2006

Continue reading Audit Faults Wisconsin’s Reading First Grant Process

Big Brother working in Food Services?

A plan to fingerprint elementary school students when they buy lunch has some parents worrying that Big Brother has come to the cafeteria.
The Hope Elementary School District has notified parents that, beginning this month, students at Monte Vista, Vieja Valley and Hope elementary schools will press an index finger to a scanner before buying cafeteria food.
The scan will call up the student’s name and student ID, teacher’s name and how much the student owes, since some receive government assistance for food. 3 California schools to fingerprint students

Dane County health insurance costs are lowest in Wisconsin

A new study by the Institute for One Wisconsin found that Dane County had the lowest regional health insurance cost in the state, as did the Madison metropolitan area compared to other metro areas.
The analysis by the nonprofit research and education organization, which supports a progressive agenda, found that there was a nearly 30 percent cost variation between the highest and lowest cost areas.
Northwestern Wisconsin had the highest costs by region, followed by west-central and then southeastern Wisconsin. The Racine metro area had the highest cost, followed by the Chippewa Valley and then La Crosse.
By Anita Weier, The Capitol Times, October 31, 2006.
October 31, 2006

Continue reading Dane County health insurance costs are lowest in Wisconsin

Toss Out the PR Playbook

As a senior adviser and former president of Public Agenda, I’m often asked to interpret public-opinion research in relation to the priorities of major education groups. These groups are seeking information that can help them refine their “messaging” strategies to promote a particular agenda.
“Messaging,” when it assumes that the solution is a given, merely in need of better packaging, is the last thing education reform needs more of. What is undeniably needed in its stead is authentic public engagement, and lots more of it.
The American public education system is facing multiple challenges that are unique in its history, and its ability to respond will depend on greater public involvement and understanding than has been evident to date.
By Deborah Wadsworth, Education Week, October 25, 2006

Continue reading Toss Out the PR Playbook

Getting out information about MMSD health insurance costs: some progress


At the October 23, 2006 meeting of the Human Resources Committee for the Madison School Board, I reported on why the Board of Education and employee representatives should work together to reduce future health insurance costs.
With one exception, my data came directly from the September 25 presentation by Bob Butler, attorney-consultant for the Wisconsin Association for School Boards. Madison School Board HR Committee: Health Care Costs Discussion What’s new in my presentation [880K pdf version]is the cost for employee health insurance in 2006-07 ($43.3M) and the portion of this year’s budget that goes to pay for health insurance (13%).
Here’s the short version of my presentation.
Reason 1: Health insurance costs for school districts are increasing at higher rates than for the private sector or other government employers in Wisconsin.
Reason 2:
The percentage of the district’s operating budget that goes to health insurance is large and growing rapidly.

  • $43,303,350 will go to employee health insurance for 2006-07
  • 13% of the total budget for 2006-07 will go to employee health insurance
  • 17% of the budget under revenue limits will go to employee health insurance

Reason 3: Spending more and more on health insurance means that the district must go to strategies such as cutting positions, not replacing employees that retire, increasing class sizes, or creating positions that do not qualify for health insurance in order to balance the budget.
Reason 4: Health insurance costs are drastically reducing dollars that can go to pay competitive wages.
Reason 5: Health insurance costs are also drastically reducing post-retirement benefits to our employees.
Reason 6: Changes in providers and plans can significantly affect future costs.
Reason 7: Districts can have a significant impact on future health insurance costs by working with employee representatives to propose changes in plan designs, providers and wellness plans.

Continue reading Getting out information about MMSD health insurance costs: some progress

Could be much worse

Having long believed that there are solid grounds for criticizing the Madison School Board, I am happy to see how well we compare in our conduct and meetings to some school boards.
School board has a truancy problem
Steve Brandt, Star Tribune
State conservation officer Brian Buria was checking a wetland complaint on Deer Lake last summer when he encountered a nude Minneapolis school board member.
“It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I said, ‘Jeepers. You got to be careful about that. You can get yourself in trouble. You could get registered as a sex offender exposing yourself.’ ”
Neighbors say it was just another swim for Audrey Johnson. Bert Robertson, who lives next door, is among the neighbors who say that Johnson has been living at her family’s Itasca County cabin, almost 200 miles from her Minneapolis constituency.
Johnson is one of three members of the seven-person board whose attendance has plummeted this year.
Johnson and Colleen Moriarty, both lame ducks whose terms conclude Dec. 31, have missed six and nine, respectively, out of about 30 public meetings since January, records indicate. Mid-termer Sharon Henry-Blythe has missed seven.
Responding via e-mail from her cabin, Johnson said she has spent substantial time at her cabin for family reasons and acknowledged the skinny-dipping, but she disputed the neighbors’ time estimates for both. She said she keeps in touch with constituents mostly by e-mail but also by phone.
Other board members say the absences are frustrating, one factor in the perception that the board has lost steam this year.
There’s plenty to deal with: falling enrollment, tight money, an achievement gap, reforming middle and high schools. The board sets policy in these areas, hires a superintendent and oversees finances.
“It’s never an easy job, but when I look at what’s on their plate, it’s an awful lot,” said Ann Kaari, a former board chairwoman.
The board adopted a budget in June with only four of seven members present; the numbers were the same on Aug. 22 and Sept. 26, when the board got state testing results. Minutes indicate that the board hasn’t met at full strength since July 11.
“It’s been really frustrating not to have a full board for meetings,” said first-termer Peggy Flanagan. “Frankly, when you run for the board you say you’re going to serve the people of Minneapolis, and people need to honor that commitment to the end of the term.”

Continue reading Could be much worse

Dane County Saves $1.2M on Employee Health Insurance: Will the Madison School District Follow This Lead?

Recently, the Sun Prairie School district and its teachers’ union successfully bargained with DeanCare to bring down future costs for employee health insurance. This week Dane County and five of its employee unions agreed to save $1.2M in employee health insurance costs for 2007 by moving all covered employees to one provider, Physicians Plus HMO. County reaches pacts with 5 of 9 employe unions They chose Physicans Plus HMO following a competitive bidding process.
Can the Madison School Board learn from these examples? I hope so.
On September 25, the Human Resources Committee (Kobza, Vang and Robarts) heard a presentation from a Bob Butler, an attorney-consultant from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards on this topic. Containing MMSD’s employee health insurance costs: what’s next? The presentation demonstrated why school districts have no choice but to work with employee representatives to try to get the best health insurance for the lowest cost.
On Monday, October 23, the Human Resources Committee will consider making recommendations to the full board regarding future health insurance costs. The meeting will be at 7:45 p.m. in McDaniels Auditorium and will be televised.

Nations With ‘Happy’ Students Post Poorer Scores

A nation full of students who enjoy mathematics and feel confident in the subject is not necessarily a nation that scores high on international math tests, a report being released this week concludes.
The report from the Brookings Institution suggests, in fact, that the so-called “happiness factor” in math may be inversely related to achievement. In countries where students express high levels of math confidence and enjoyment, it says, students tend to score below average on international math exams in 4th and 8th grades, and vice versa.
Students in the United States are among the world’s happiest, though their average scores are higher than those for most countries that rate strongly on the “happiness” scale.
By Debra Viadero, in Education Week, published October 18, 2006

Continue reading Nations With ‘Happy’ Students Post Poorer Scores

More concern about technology in MMSD: another teacher explains the problem

Recently, I posted a letter from a middle school teacher in Madison regarding inadequate computers at one of our middle schools. Fancy programs on aging computers:an MMSD teacher tries to make things work
Today the Madison school board received another letter from a teacher explaining how the current state of computers and software makes teaching harder and more stressful. While this is a typical complaint from the schools, I don’t see the same problems with central administration computers.
Dear Board Members and Mr. Rainwater,
I have been a teacher for MMSD for fifteen years. I am committed to and love this district and its students. I work at …. This is a wonderful building in which to work. The staff is solid, caring, and professional.
….
A second concern in our building is technology. I love the new attendance system and am currently using the grading program on infinite campus which I also enjoy. Unfortunately, our computers are slow and often freeze up. Quite often, I have to call my attendance into the office because it takes 10-15 minutes for the computer to load. We have little access to adequate computers as a staff. It makes it difficult to be able to keep grades in a timely manner. Six of us in 8th grade have to share one antiquated computer for our planning area. My guess is that most other professionals in this city would not even think of working with such inadequate technology.

Continue reading More concern about technology in MMSD: another teacher explains the problem

Teaching Math, Singapore Style

The countries that outperform the United States in math and science education have some things in common. They set national priorities for what public school children should learn and when. They also spend a lot of energy ensuring that every school has a high-quality curriculum that is harnessed to clearly articulated national goals. This country, by contrast, has a wildly uneven system of standards and tests that varies from place to place. We are also notoriously susceptible to educational fads.
Editorial, New York Times, September 18, 2006

Continue reading Teaching Math, Singapore Style

Report Urges Changes in the Teaching of Math in U.S. Schools

In a major shift from its influential recommendations 17 years ago, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics yesterday issued a report urging that math teaching in kindergarten through eighth grade focus on a few basic skills.
If the report, ”Curriculum Focal Points,” has anywhere near the impact of the council’s 1989 report, it could signal a profound change in the teaching of math in American schools. It could also help end the math curriculum struggles that for the last two decades have set progressive educators and their liberal supporters against conservatives and many mathematicians.
Article by Tamar Lewin, New York Times, September 13, 2006

Continue reading Report Urges Changes in the Teaching of Math in U.S. Schools

Fancy programs on aging computers: an MMSD teacher tries to make things work

From time to time, I wonder whether MMSD’s central administration decisions take into account the needs of staff in our schools. Here’s a recent letter to the school board from a middle school teacher discussing the poor fit between software and hardware at the school.
“I came in very early this morning to run new student summaries for several of my kids who had decided to make up missing work in order to raise their grades. I think we would all agree that this is a good thing.
I spent 15 minutes trying to get my computer to print one student’s summary. The computer kept locking up on me and I would have to cold boot it. Actually, this is not my computer; it is the only computer in the planning area shared by 6 eighth grade teachers. It runs Windows 98.

Continue reading Fancy programs on aging computers: an MMSD teacher tries to make things work

Containing MMSD’s employee health insurance costs: what’s next?

In June of 2006, the Madison School Board identified containment of employee health insurance costs as a major goal for its Human Resources Committee for 2006-07. On September 25, the HR committee began to study current health insurance costs, projections of future increases in these costs and the implications of failing to slow the expected increases. At the September meeting, Bob Butler, an experienced negotiator and consultant from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, presented the facts. 9/25/2006 Health Insurance Presentation
When the HR committee meets again on October 30, I will ask the committee to follow up on key recommendations in the Butler presentation. I will propose two things: a public education campaign and a public process for exploring alternatives. The public education campaign would explain in detail why it is in the best interests of the employees and the district to contain health insurance costs. The public process for exploring alternatives would involve inviting representatives of our employees to engage in a joint and public exploration of changes in plan designs, insurance providers, wellness programs and other options.

Early Repairs in Foundation for Reading

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Children with severe reading problems usually struggle for years before getting the help they need. But a growing number of neurologists and educators say that with the latest diagnostic tests, children at high risk for these problems can be identified in preschool and treated before they ever begin to read.
The newer tests, available in computerized versions, measure a child’s fluency with the skills that are the foundation of reading: the ability to recognize differences between sounds, the knowledge of letters and the accumulation of basic vocabulary and language skills. The National Early Literacy Panel, a committee of experts convened by a consortium of federal agencies, has found that these tests, when given to 3- and 4-year-olds, predict later reading problems as effectively as they do when they are given to kindergartners and first graders, said the panel’s chairman, Dr. Timothy Shanahan of the University of Illinois in Chicago. The committee plans to recommend increased preschool screening when it publishes its findings later this year.
The panel also will recommend some shifts in teaching techniques, said a panel member, Dr. Susan Landry of the University of Texas Medical School at Houston. These include having at-risk children spend more time in small groups that address their specific weaknesses; emphasizing skills like blending sounds (C + AT = CAT), which have been found to be good performance predictors; and training parents to reinforce school lessons.
The point is to identify and attack the problems early, when they are easiest to correct.
“Once a child falls behind, it’s very difficult to catch up,” said Dr. Angela Fawcett of the University of Sheffield in England.
Article from New York Times by By JOHN O’NEIL, published: October 4, 2006

Continue reading Early Repairs in Foundation for Reading

Press release: MMSD Information sessions about Nov. 7 referendum

The Madison School District will hold four referendum information sessions in advance of the November 7 referendum. The public is invited to attend any of these sessions.
Thurs. October 12 6:30 PM Sennett School 502 Pflaum Rd. 53716 Lecture lab
Tues. October 17 6:30 PM Cherokee School 4301 Cherokee Dr. 53711 LMC
Wed. October 18 6:30 PM Sherman School 1610 Ruskin St. 53704 Cafeteria
Wed. October 25 6:30 PM Jefferson School 101 S. Gammon Rd. 53717 Lecture hall

Continue reading Press release: MMSD Information sessions about Nov. 7 referendum

9/25/2006 Health Insurance Presentation

On September 25, the Human Resources Committee of the Madison School Board heard a presentation from Robert Butler, a negotiations consultant from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, about the ever-increasing costs for employee health insurance for school districts. Mr. Butler also recommended steps for the district to take in the future. The committee meets again on Monday, October 30. Board members on the committee are Lawrie Kobza and Shwaw Vang. I am the chair.
Butler’s presentation [269K PDF].

How Can This Continue: Negotating Health Insurance Changes

Robert Butler[PDF]:

Health insurance has become the most prevalent issue discussed at the bargaining table today. Recent premium increases for school districts with July renewal
dates have focused even more attention on this issue.
Many administrators and board members ask: How can this continue? How do we communicate to our employees, our taxpayers and other interested constituents the effect that our health insurance costs have on our budgets? How do we maintain and, hopefully, expand our educational offerings when our costs for health insurance continue to eat up an ever larger portion of our budget?
There are many factors that have contributed to the high cost of health insurance: utilization of services, demographic trends (such as life expectancy and obesity), healthcare provider consolidation, duplication of services, new products and services, the growing number of uninsured, marketing of prescription drugs, medical malpractice expenses, level of benefits and plan design, among others.
This article will provide insight on how to address items that we can control at the bargaining table: the level of benefits, plan design and consumer behavior. Remember, health insurance is an economic and emotional issue; people don’t always make rational decisions when negotiating over this topic.

Butler is Co-Director of Employee Relations Services, Staff Counsel; Wisconsin Association of School Boards.
Negotiating health care costs with employees is the first item on the Board’s Human Resources Committee agenda: Monday, September 25, 2006 @ 6:00p.m. in the McDaniels Auditorium [map].

First item on Human Resources Agenda for MMSD: Negotiating health care costs with employees

In August the Human Resources Committee of the Madison School Board—Lawrie Kobza, Shwaw Vang and I–voted unanimously to adopt committee goals for 2006-07 previously presented in this blog.
Human Resources Committee of Madison Board To Set Agenda

Accordingly, Bob Butler, a collective bargaining consultant from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, will discuss why and how school boards should approach negotiating changes in the cost of employee health insurance plans [How Can This Continue? Negotiating Health Insurance Changes]. The meeting of the Human Resources Committee is currently scheduled for 6:00 p.m. in McDaniels Auditorium on Monday, September 25.

Human Resources Committee of Madison Board To Set Agenda

On Monday, August 21 the Human Resources Committee of the Madison School Board will have its first meeting at 7:00 p.m. in Room 103 of the Doyle Administration Building (545 West Dayton Street).
Following a goal-setting meeting of the Board on June 19, the committee will address a number of important issues, beginning with alternative ways that the district could negotiate health insurance coverage for its employees with the goal of providing the same quality service, higher wages and savings for the district. Committee members this year are Shwaw Vang and Lawrie Kobza. I am the chair.

Continue reading Human Resources Committee of Madison Board To Set Agenda

Community service levies climb since cap lifted

Five years after state legislators released them from state-imposed revenue caps, school districts’ community service tax levies have nearly tripled, reaching $49 million this year.
The rampant growth in these property taxes – earmarked for community-based activities – took place as the total levies for schools statewide rose by 22.7%.
That has raised concerns about school districts skating around revenue limits and has prompted one lawmaker to request an audit of the program.
State Rep. Debi Towns (R-Janesville) said she is curious why property taxes that pay for recreational and community activities offered by school districts have grown so much since the 2000-’01 school year. In that time, the number of school districts raising taxes for such services has doubled to 240.
“I’m not saying anyone’s misspending. I’m just saying the fund has grown tremendously, and the purpose never changed,” said Towns, chairman of the Assembly Education Committee. In November, Towns called for the Legislative Audit Bureau to study how select school districts use their community service levies.
“So that, of course, leads to a natural questioning of what are they doing differently now than they were doing before,” she said.
The growth in the community service levies is expected to continue next year.
Arts, police, pools
Already, Milwaukee Public Schools has launched a arts education program through its recreation centers that it expects to fund with $1 million in community service funds. The Mukwonago School District plans to keep a police officer in its high school, despite the recent loss of a grant, with a $60,000 boost in property taxes from its community service levy.
The Menomonee Falls School District, which has not raised its levy for recreation and community activities in more than a decade, is counting on a $180,000, or 63%, increase next school year to continue operating one of its two pools.
School administrators say they have a simple explanation for why they are turning to their community service levies more now than they did when they were capped – it didn’t matter before. Because both the general and community service funds were restricted by revenue caps and eligible for state aid, it was simply an accounting preference whether a district paid for it from one fund or the other.
Athletics or academics?
But once the Legislature removed the caps on the community service levies for the 2000-’01 school year and gave school districts an opportunity to keep their recreational activities from conflicting with educational programs, more took advantage of it.
“I think – when you look at districts across the state – that’s really what caused the jump,” said Art Rainwater, superintendent of the Madison Metropolitan School District, which in 2005-’06 had the largest community service levy in the state.
Like some of the bigger community service funds, Madison’s supports a full recreation department with adult and youth programming. But it also helps pay for television production activities, after-school activities, a gay and lesbian community program coordinator and part of a social worker’s time to work with low-income families, Rainwater said.

The School District’s community service levy is expected to grow to $10.5 million in the coming school year. In contrast, the same levy for Milwaukee Public Schools – which serves nearly four times as many children in its educational programs – is expected to reach $9.3 million, said Michelle Nate, the district’s director of finance.
Although the state Department of Public Instruction has issued guidelines to school districts on how they should use their community service levies, it leaves it up to local residents to decide whether their school boards do so wisely and legally.
In the Greendale School District, which at $990,000 had the sixth-largest community service levy in the state last school year, business manager Erin Gauthier-Green acknowledges that her school system has gotten good use out of the fund.
But she also said the School District plans to reduce the property taxes it levies for community services by $300,000 next year now that it has completed some repair projects and before taxpayers complain.
“We know it can be a hot-button issue,” Gauthier-Green said.
By AMY HETZNER
ahetzner@journalsentinel.com
July 22, 2006

Home starts here remain weak

Home building in Dane County remains the weakest it has been this century, according to the latest figures from MTD Marketing.
There were just 129 permits issued for single-family homes and duplexes here in June, well below the 222 last year and at least 39 below every June since 1999, the earliest year for which MTD reported figures. The June permits did have a record average value of $243,038. The average square footage was 2,357, behind only the 2,379 a year ago.
Year-to-date through June, there were 822 permits in Dane County, 414 below a year ago and at least 167 below every year since 1999. This year’s permits had a record average value of $250,444, up from the prior record of $239,166 a year ago. The average square footage was a record 2,480, edging out the 2,477 in 2004.
From The Capital Times, July 10, 2006

Appleton’s schools models for health

APPLETON (AP) – Lunch hour at two local schools became the subject for a film crew as part of a federal agency’s plan to show how the Appleton district is trying to promote healthy lifestyles and fight the epidemic of childhood obesity.
The media crew also filmed fitness programs at Edison Elementary School and West High School and interviewed staff members, including Superintendent Tom Scullen, for the footage due to be aired June 20 as part of a national talk show on child health and nutrition.

Continue reading Appleton’s schools models for health

Better MMSD budget process? Maybe next year.

The National School Board Association argues that local school boards exist to translate the community’s educational goals for its children into programs and to hold staff accountable for the quality and effectiveness of the programs:

Your school board sets the standard for achievement in your district, incorporating the community’s view of what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. Your school board also is responsible for working with the superintendent to establish a valid process for measuring student success and, when necessary, shifting resources to ensure that the district’s goals are achieved.

Don’t expect to see that kind of process as the Madison School Board adopts a $383.7M budget for 2006-07.
On April 24, 2006, Superintendent Art Rainwater presented his proposed budget for 2006-07 to the school board. MMSD Proposed Balanced Budget for 2006-07 To the credit of the administration, the documents are better organized and provide more detail than in recent years.
Nonetheless, the board’s adoption of next year’s budget will likely be an unsatisfying process for parents and the community. I say this because the Madison board has again skipped the decision-making steps that are necessary for budget decisions to occur within a framework that we can all understand and support.
Long before the school board tries to evaluate a budget, the board should have translated the community’s vision for the education of its children into specific, measurable goals for student achievement. Key Work of School Boards
We don’t have such goals except for third grade reading, completion of algebra and geometry and attendance. What kind of budget commitment should we make to offering a comprehensive high school program? We don’t know, because we have set no standards for the “challenging, contemporary curriculum” that we claim is a strategic priority for the district. What funds should we commit to fine arts education? We don’t know, because we have no achievement goals in the arts or any other curriculum area. Should we cease funding a “Race and Equity” position at the $100,000 a year level? We don’t know because we don’t have objectives for the position to accomplish.
The board should also have developed a shared understanding of how data will be used to evaluate the district’s progress toward meeting its goals.
We don’t determine which data will be used in decisions about educational programs or any other aspect of the budget. Should we cease the “same service” approach to the teaching of reading? Should we continue to invest in “instructional coaches” who teach teachers how to present the Connected Math program? Again, we don’t know. The administration claims that its curriculum decisions are data-driven. However, the administration does not share the student achievement data behind our “same service” approach or proposed new programs nor has the board agreed to rely on whatever data that the administration may use in its internal analysis.
As the result of the April elections, the board has two new members: Lucy Mathiak and Arlene Silveira. Both promised to focus on standards and accountability during their campaigns. Maybe next year will be better. That’s important because the fuss that occurs each spring as the board struggles to “restore” programs or staff that the superintendent has cut should not occur. We should not be on the defensive–always having to create our own individual rationales for replacing cut items or changing programs. We should be on the offensive—judging the superintendent’s budget against the goals that we have set for our programs and the measurements of effectiveness that we have agreed on.
Please stay tuned.
Ruth Robarts
Member, Madison School Board

How healthy are Madison schools?

By mid-June the Madison School Board plans to adopt a new food policy that addresses food safety and nutrition. Proposed Comprehensive Food Policy Developed by Student Work Group The proposed policy does not address physical activity opportunities for our students, although activity is an important factor in evaluating food policy implications.
This would be a good time for the Madison community and the school board to engage in an in-depth discussion of the connection between physical activity, school nutrition and health. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention offers outstanding do-it-yourself materials to review school health at elementary, middle and high schools. CDC School Health Index.
The CDC also grants funds to help elementary schools improve the health of school children by increasing physical activity and nutrition programs. Mini-Grants for Physical Activity and Nutrition Improvements

Sandburg parents also question quality of 3rd quarter report cards: “What a waste”

I continue to receive messages from elementary school parents about the lack of information on the 3rd quarter report cards regarding the academic achievement of their children.
Concern about quality of 3rd quarter report cards (cont)
Good afternoon,
A friend just passed on the article on the web about Crestwood and Elvejhem parents being upset about 3rd quarter report cards. Well, there are some at Sandburg as well.

Continue reading Sandburg parents also question quality of 3rd quarter report cards: “What a waste”

Concern about quality of 3rd quarter report cards (cont.)

Expressions of parent concern over the quality of third-quarter report cards for students in Madison’s elementary schools continue. Parents at Thoreau School joined parents from other schools who have wondered why their children make so little progress in the third quarter of the year in many subject areas that no information on progress can be provided to their families. Another Parent Concerned About Third-Quarter Report Cards and Can We Talk 3: 3rd Quarter Report Cards
Here is a letter from Thoreau parents to the Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Schools.

Continue reading Concern about quality of 3rd quarter report cards (cont.)

Another Parent Concerned about Third-Quarter Report Cards

Recently, a parent expressed concern about the quality of third-quarter report cards at Crestwood Elementary School.
Can We Talk 3: Third-Quarter Report Cards
Today a parent of students at Elvejhem Elementary asked Madison School Board members why the teachers only reported on 10% of content areas. I have asked Superintendent Art Rainwater for a response to the parent’s concerns.

Continue reading Another Parent Concerned about Third-Quarter Report Cards

Math Rebellion Up North: Ashland Students Favor New Algebra Course, Fewer Enroll in Core Plus

Kevin O’Brien:

An overwhelming majority of Ashland students who were given the choice between traditional math and the Core Plus curriculum decided to take algebra I courses next school year, according to a report given Monday by Ashland High School Principal Steve Gromala.
In a report to the Ashland School Board, it was noted that 83 percent of students signed up for algebra I, which was offered for the first time in several years after parents and board members demanded an alternative to the Core Plus curriculum.
A total of 170 students, including 115 incoming freshmen and 55 of next year’s sophomores, enrolled in the newly offered algebra I course for the 2006-07 school year. By comparison, 34 students enrolled in Core Plus 1.
The addition of algebra I next school year is the first step toward offering a dual-track math curriculum that will allow incoming freshmen to choose between algebra classes and Core Plus. Additional classes such as geometry, algebra II and pre-calculus will be added in future years as students advance.

Continue reading Math Rebellion Up North: Ashland Students Favor New Algebra Course, Fewer Enroll in Core Plus

Wisconsin State Journal Endorses Maya Cole and Lucy Mathiak

The Madison School Board can no longer afford to do business as usual.
More to the point, families in the Madison School District can no longer afford a school board unwilling to take bolder action.
For that reason, voters should elect to the board on Tuesday two candidates promoting change: Maya Cole and Lucy Mathiak.
From Wisconsin State Journal, April 2, 2006
At stake is the School Board’s ability to pull the district’s budget out of quicksand, address shifting demographics, narrow the achievement gap between minority and white students and restore the public’s trust.
Cole, 43, is a stay-at-home mom with three sons from 6 to 9 years of age. She has been involved in a variety of school and political organizations, from the Franklin/Randall Parent Teacher Organization to Mothers Acting Up, a group encouraging mothers to be politically active on behalf of children.
Mathiak, 50, is an assistant dean at the University of Wisconsin’s College of Letters and Science. She has two teen-age sons, and her husband has two older daughters. She has been involved in several East High School organizations.
Cole and Mathiak come to the school board race from different backgrounds. But both believe that challenges closing in on the Madison schools demand action that the current majority on the School Board is failing to take.
They are right.
Their opponents, in contrast, are far too comfortable with the status quo. Running against Cole for Seat No. 1 on the board, being vacated by Bill Keys, is Arlene Silveira, 47, a marketing director for Promega Corp. of Fitchburg, and president of the Cherokee Middle School Parent-Teacher Organization. While Silveira would bring a welcome business perspective to the board, she lacks Cole’s drive to change the board approach.
Mathiak’s opponent for Seat No. 2 is incumbent Juan Lopez, a board member for 12 years who is too wedded to the way things have been done.
The Madison School Board is in an unenviable position. Outdated and unproductive state school financing rules have put school districts like Madison in a perpetual financial squeeze.
Meanwhile, the makeup of the district’s population has been shifting. Minorities compose a greater proportion of the student population, and the population is shifting from where the schools are to where they aren’t. In addition, the achievement gap between minority and white students continues to suggest that Madison’s schools are failing to deliver for too many students.
The board has cut, combined and conserved to hold costs down, and it has made some encouraging progress on closing the achievement gap. However, the board’s majority continues to shrink from new approaches, preferring to blame the state for a lack of money.
Yes, the Legislature should address school funding. But waiting for a magic solution from the Capitol only compounds the problem. Rather than looking to the state for answers, the board should look to itself.
The times require bold action. Between the two of them, Cole and Mathiak have some enlightened ideas, including plans to make the school budget process simpler, improve oversight of the budget and curriculums, reach minority students with more effective teaching and fairer discipline, challenge students with higher standards and consider the consolidation of administrative staff in the district’s central office.
A year ago the State Journal endorsed incumbents in two school board races on the belief that the board would continue to set priorities and address challenges. But since then, a lack of public trust in the board contributed to the failure of two out of three questions on a school referendum, and the board’s majority appeared to stick its head in the sand during the budget process.
It is obvious now that change is required.
Cole and Mathiak can supply new direction.

Endorsements come in many colors

In campaigning for the Madison School Board, I learned something that may be useful for voters. There are two very different kinds of political endorsements.
Endorsements that candidates seek. Some candidates seek the endorsement of organizations. In these situations, the organizations endorse the candidate only if the candidate passes its litmus tests. Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI) has this kind of process. Candidates are invited to complete a very long and detailed questionnaire and must appear before the Political Action Committee (PAC) to explain their answers. Endorsed candidates receive direct financial assistance from the PAC and help with the campaign (leafleting neighborhoods and get-out-the-vote phone banks). The PAC also buys “independent” radio and newspaper ads supporting the endorsed candidate.
Endorsements that candidates do not seek.. There is, however, a second kind of endorsement. Candidates who run as “independents” do not seek organizational endorsements and PAC funds. They do not make promises to move the organization’s agenda forward. They make clear that they are not seeking PAC funds. Nonetheless, the organization decides independently to support the candidate. The organization decides without consulting the candidate. It exercises its independent right to buy ads in support of a candidate. In the April election, ads from the “Get Real” organization are an example of the second kind of endorsement.
Big picture? Independent candidates–as in the April 4 school board race—offer value choices to voters. They stand as individuals. They ask for support for their goals. The only promises that they make are the promises to the voters. If elected, they are free to work for the values that the voters shared. They are not in the position of the candidates who owe their election, at least in part, to organizations that have their own interests.

Ruth Robarts: Cole, Mathiak Offer Fresh Perspectives For School Board

From The Capital Times, Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Dear Editor: Old problems facing the Madison school district will continue and worsen unless the School Board opens its mind to new solutions.
We must raise public confidence in our decision-making, in order to gain support for the programs that our children need and the construction of new schools that is on the horizon. An open process that considers all the options would greatly increase confidence in our decisions, the likelihood of passing well-conceived referendums and business support.
I am supporting Maya Cole and Lucy Mathiak in the April 4 board election because both candidates bring new perspectives and independent thinking to the important public discussion of the future of our schools. Both worked their way through public schools and have children in our schools. Both volunteer in the schools. Both are committed to giving the public a bigger role in setting the course of the Madison schools. Both are aggressively looking for new approaches, and both understand that board members are the voice of the community when it comes to choosing curriculum to meet our children’s needs.
At the same time, Maya Cole and Lucy Mathiak are very much individuals. They offer different skills and work experiences. They think their own thoughts and communicate with a wide range of different friends, neighbors and colleagues. They are not clones of each other or anybody. They offer us a new synergy on the School Board.
Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” He was talking to us. Let’s give his idea a serious try.

Michael Maguire: No business as usual for Cole, Mathiak

From The Capital Times, March 29, 2006
Dear Editor: The recent years’ actions of our Madison School Board create a nice template for a new reality television series, “School Boards Behaving Badly!”
The passionate, yet appropriately measured, and get-things-done approaches of Ruth Robarts and Lawrie Kobza would be complemented quite well by Maya Cole and Lucy Mathiak.
Cole is a bright, out-of-the-box child advocate who has a very clear focus on short-, mid- and long-tem thinking about how to tackle the school district’s toughest, high-priority issues of budgeting and enrollment. She brings no baggage of influences created by long-term relationships with district personnel, the major point of contention I have with Arlene Silveira’s candidacy. I worked with Arlene on the Memorial/West Task Force and I know that she has some good ideas.
With Maya Cole, district stakeholders can be assured that there are no favors to be made in doing what’s best for our district’s children, their families and taxpayers.
Lucy Mathiak is simply the better candidate. To date, she’s only delivered a no-nonsense, non-emotional vision for good district planning that, like Cole, is not burdened with a “business-as-usual” approach often assumed by incumbent board members.
Let’s create a majority of transparent doers on the School Board! Vote Cole and Mathiak!
Michael Maguire
Madison

MSCR committee planting questions at School Board forum

On March 30, the North Side Planning Council will host a public forum for school board candidates at the Warner Park Community Recreation Center starting at 7 p.m. Usually, the NSCP moderates a panel discussion with the school board candidates. During the forum, the candidates respond to a set of questions developed by NSCP. When time permits, the moderator facilitates questions from the audience.
There’s a new twist this year. A citizen advisory committee for the Madison School Community Recreation (MSCR) program is planning to bring a list of its own questions.
On Tuesday, March 28 the MSCR Citizen’s Advisory Committee will meet to “develop questions to ask Board of Education candidates” at the NSCP forum, according to the official agenda of the committee.
The citizen members of the advisory committee are all appointed by the Board of Education. Board member Johnny Winston, Jr., is currently the representative of the school board on the committee. Senior staff from MSCR participate in these meetings.

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

Continue reading The fate of the schools

Young Madison Activists Reflect On Resistance

Three years ago, a group of fifth-graders at Madison’s Crestwood Elementary School took on “The Man,” as they like to put it.
The students, dubbed the “Recess Rebels,” tried to restore an outdoor recess that administrators had removed in a restructuring of the school day.
They didn’t win, but they claimed a few victories along the way, such as forcing a districtwide vote by all elementary teachers on the issue.
The students, now eighth-graders at Jefferson Middle School, have given up the fight but not the passion.
Six of them will present a 90-minute workshop Thursday at the National Service Learning Conference in Philadelphia titled “Taking a Stand: Empowering Youth in the Community.” The students wrote a proposal for the workshop and were accepted to present.
About 2,000 educators and 1,000 students are expected to attend the conference, which promotes an educational method in which students identify and address community needs. Former President Clinton is the keynote speaker.
By Doug Erickson, Wisconsin State Journal, March 21, 2006
derickson@madison.com 608-252-6149

Continue reading Young Madison Activists Reflect On Resistance

Candidates agree education is at crossroads

Madison School Board candidates Juan Jose Lopez and Lucy Mathiak look at what is happening in schools here in very different ways, but on at least one issue they are in complete agreement: Public education here and throughout the Badger State is at a critical crossroads.
But the two candidates vying for School Board Seat No. 2, which Lopez has held since 1994, have quite distinct notions about the nature of the challenges facing the Madison Metropolitan School District.
By Susan Troller, The Capital Times, March 21, 2006

Continue reading Candidates agree education is at crossroads

What about heterogenous classes with high-track curriculum?

It’s clear from educational research that “tracking” high school students into low to high-level courses based on their prior academic achievement denies opportunities to low income students and many students of color. De-tracking is clearly in order for school districts seeking to offer equal educational opportunity to all students.
However, de-tracking can be done in many ways. The MMSD administration’s plan for tenth grade English courses at West High School follows one model: eliminate high level courses, require all students to take the same course and depend on teachers to “differentiate” instruction so that students of all ability levels and interest are challenged and gain academically.
A diverse suburban district in New York has narrowed the achievement gap in math by offering its high-track curriculum to all students. Rather than offer a mid-range materials with special opportunities for very capable students to accelerate to all students, the district has offered the same high-level courses to all students. Students having difficulty with the course material also attend special support classes and receive afterschool help four days a week. Closing the Achievement Gap by Detracking?
The resulting gains in student achievement are worth our consideration.
from Phi Delta Kappan, April 2005

Leveling the Playing Field: Creating Funding Equity Through Student-Based Budgeting

When the Cincinnati Public Schools devised a reform strategy for improving student performance, it became clear that the district’s traditional budgeting system was inadequate. The authors trace the district’s process of moving to a system of student-based budgeting: funding children rather than staff members and weighting the funding according to schools’ and students’ needs.
By Karen Hawley Miles, Kathleen Ware, and Marguerite Roza, from Phi Delta Kappan magazine, October 2003.

Continue reading Leveling the Playing Field: Creating Funding Equity Through Student-Based Budgeting

President to School Board: New ideas are OK, sometimes…

Carol Carstensen, President of the Madison School Board, announced in a recent letter to The Capital Times that new ideas are OK with her, so long as they are not illegal, in violation of contracts, can save money and are capable of implementation. School Board ideas must be feasible
The Madison district will spend $37M on health insurance for its employees this year. That’s about 10% of the operating budget. The district also foresees an $8M gap between its expenses and revenues for 2006-07.
Looking for ways to provide high quality health insurance for the teachers at lower costs would seem like a good idea in these circumstances. The district had even set the stage for this new idea by forming a task force with the teachers union to explore options for different coverage.
However, Ms. Carstensen had zero interest in this new idea. Not one Board meeting on the topic, not one instruction to the district’s representatives. She skipped the two meetings of the task force. When the union announced that the talks were over, she had no comment.
Illegal? In violation of contracts? Not a good way to save money? Impossible to implement? Which of the four tests did the health insurance task force fail?

What’s not to like about funding new community programs?

On March 6, the Madison Board of Education will vote on Johnny Winston Jr.’s proposal for the district to spend approximately $200,000 this year on four community programs. Great Opportunity Needs Your Support
Sounds good. These are all good programs run by good people with good ideas and goals.
The question before the board, however, is not whether we like the programs or think that they would use our funds for good purposes. The question is whether the district should commit these dollars from this budget to these community programs at this time.
I think that the answer is no.
Fiscal policy problem: “These dollars” are the dollars remaining in the Reserve for Contingencies in our budget for “community programs and services” budget, aka Fund 80. Three months remain in our fiscal year. It is good fiscal policy to have money in reserve for emergencies. If an organization must spend its reserve, it is good fiscal policy to use the funds for one-time costs, rather than to create new programs that will need funds again the next year. It is bad fiscal policy to spend all of the Reserve for Contingencies on new programs. We will have no capacity to deal with emergencies in the remainder of the fiscal year if we make this commitment. The same programs will add $208,000 to next year’s budget for Fund 80 (the basic allotment to each program plus 4.1% for increases in their costs).

Continue reading What’s not to like about funding new community programs?

Want to know whether the Madison schools get a good health insurance deal for teachers? Forget it.

Most of the $37M that the Madison school district will spend this year for employee health insurance goes to the cost for covering our teachers and their families. That’s about 10% of the total annual budget.
I support high quality health insurance for all of our employees. As a school board member, I also have a duty to ensure that all district dollars are spent wisely. I should know whether the district gets the best coverage that it can for teachers at the best cost that it can find. I cannot make good decisions regarding future contract negotiations or future operating budget referendums without this kind of information.
In nine years of service on the Madison school board, I have learned little in executive sessions on negotiations that would help me answer the basic question: are we getting a good deal on health insurance for teachers? When the district and Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI) agreed to form a joint task force that would publicly consider health insurance options, I hoped that open competition among providers would help me understand how the current commitments to Wisconsin Physicians Services and Group Health Cooperative compare to other options. I had hoped that the public would also learn something about how effectively the district negotiates over the cost of health insurance.
Forget it. The district and the union held two meetings on this topic and invited two insurance companies, in addition to the current providers, to make proposals. The union took an internal poll and decided to end the discussions. Teachers bar shift in health coverage
Business as usual continues. No direction from the board regarding the task force is one of many reasons that the public and the school board are no better informed as the result of creating the task force.

Teachers bar shift in health coverage

Madison’s teachers union said Friday it will not agree to reopen its contract with the School District to renegotiate health-care benefits, dashing hopes the district could find cheaper coverage.
A joint committee of district and union representatives has been studying rising health- care costs, but both sides had to agree to reopen the 2005-07 contract to take any action. Either way, officials say taxpayers would not have seen savings, at least not in the short term.
John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., said a strong majority of union members like the coverage they have and don’t want to jeopardize it, even though any savings would have gone to higher salaries.
“Members of MTI have elected to have a higher quality insurance rather than higher wages, and that’s their choice,” he said.
By Doug Erickson, Wisconsin State Journal, February 18, 2006
derickson@madison.com

Continue reading Teachers bar shift in health coverage

Lapham Student Move Called Unlikely

Kobza Says Most Of Board Rejects Idea
A new Madison School District report that outlines how Lapham Elementary School students could be moved to the Marquette-O’Keeffe school site has rattled parents and staff, but the School Board member who requested the analysis says she doubts it will go anywhere.
As outlined in the report, the move would free up space at Lapham for other school district programs, including Affiliated Alternatives, which currently rents space on Brearly Street, MSCR (Madison School Community Recreation) programs and a day care facility. An early childhood program would remain at Lapham under the scenario sketched out in the report.
By Susan Troller, The Capital Times, February 16, 2006

Continue reading Lapham Student Move Called Unlikely

Alliances Are Unconventional In School Board Primary Race


Madison school politics make for some strange bedfellows.

Take the case of the Feb. 21 primary race for the School Board, in which three candidates are vying for the seat left open by incumbent Bill Keys’ decision not to seek re-election.
The marketing manager of a Madison-based biotechnology giant has been endorsed by the powerful Madison teachers union and Progressive Dane. Meanwhile, an activist stay-at-home mom who helped put pink paper locks on legislators’ doors to protest concealed carry legislation is aligned with voices in the community that challenge the district’s status quo. As a critic of the board’s budget, she has struck a chord with some conservatives.
And then there’s the unanticipated late entrant into the race who forced the primary to be held, a UW doctoral candidate in medieval history who arrived in Madison last August.
By Susan Troller, The Capital Times, February 16, 2006

Continue reading Alliances Are Unconventional In School Board Primary Race

A Tale of Two Budgets: the Operating Budget for Madison Schools versus its Budget for Community Programs and Services

Everybody knows that the Madison School district has an operating budget for the district’s educational programs. The district also has a second budget for community programs and services. The second budget is sometimes known as “Fund 80”.
Things to know about the community programs and services budget:
1. “Fund 80” sounds like a source of outside funding, such as federal aid. It’s not. When the district spends funds for community purposes, it accounts for the expenditures under this accounting title.
2. The district cannot raise property taxes for the operating budget more than a small percentage from year to year without passing a referendum. That’s not true of the community program budget. The district can raise taxes for community programs and services by any percentage without going to referendum and it does. In other words, there are two budgets and two taxes.

Continue reading A Tale of Two Budgets: the Operating Budget for Madison Schools versus its Budget for Community Programs and Services

By Invitation Only: How the MMSD-MTI Health Insurance Task Force Limited Its Options

In June of 2005, when the majority of the Madison School Board approved the two-year collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union, the agreement included a task force to study and make recommendations on possible changes in health insurance coverage for the teachers, the majority of the district’s employees. Task force members would be the superintendent and his appointees and John Matthews, exuective director of Madison Teachers,Inc. (MTI) and his appointees. They were to issue a report no later than February 15, 2006.
From the beginning, the task force provision was a great deal for the teachers union. It was risk-free. If the parties could identify health insurance savings, the savings would go directly to increase teacher wages during 2006-07. The parties would re-open the contract to switch dollars from this important fringe benefit to wages. If not, the teachers would keep the current coverage and current wages.
A gain for the district was not so easy to identify. Superintendent Art Rainwater talked about the potential health insurance savings as a benefit in future negotiations. Lowering health insurance costs during 2006-07 would allow the district to continue high quality health insurance coverage for its teachers (as we should) and go into future negotiations with a reduced base for health insurance costs. With health insurance costs for all employees running at about $35M per year, any longterm reduction would help the board redirect significant dollars to school programs and staff.
If the task force had used the year to take a comprehensive, objective look at health insurance alternatives for the teachers, the school board might expect an important report this week. It would tell the board how dollars currently going to health insurance could be used for wage increase at no loss in quality of care for district employees. I don’t expect anything like that because we have not seen a serious effort to seek out alternative insurance proposals and evaluate them and the board has exercised no oversight or direction.
The task force has met twice at MTI headquarters, on January 11 and January 25. It did not solicit a wide range of proposals for health insurance for the teachers.
Instead, the task force invited the current providers, Wisconsin Physicians Services and Group Health Cooperative, plus Dean Care and Unity to make presentations. They did not invite Alliant (whose insurance is good enough for MMSD administrators and the custodial union), Physicians Plus (a very competitive local provider with a doctors’ network that overlaps the current providers), the State Health Plan (open to school districts) or WEA-IT (a company associated with the Wisconsin Education Associations Council). John Matthews, who continues to serve on the Board of Directors for WPS, did most of the questioning of the insurance companies at the task force meetings. The gist of his questions for Dean Care and Unity were whether they could provide what WPS currently provides, according to him.

Continue reading By Invitation Only: How the MMSD-MTI Health Insurance Task Force Limited Its Options

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY MIDDLE SCHOOL DESIGN TEAM

Focus groups have been held with parents, middle school teachers, current high school students, current middle school students, and representatives of community organizations that are connected to our middle schools through tutoring, mentoring or other programming. Summaries of those focus groups are attached.
The design team has set one additional all day meeting to draft the recommendations. This meeting will be held on December 20. The report will go to the Superintendent and will also be made available to the original parent focus group for their feedback and suggestions.
Throughout this process, information, questionnaires and summaries of input have consistently been made available on the district website.
The design is going to focus on specific, consistent recommendations regarding length and duration of classes in middle school in the areas of FiFine Arts, Life Skills, Mathematics, Wellness, Student Services, and World Languages.

Administrative Analysis of Referendum Scheduling

A note from Superintendent Art Rainwater to the Madison Board of Education on 2006 Referendum scheduling:

At Carol’s request we have prepared an analysis of the possible dates to seek referendum approval for one or more new facilities. The analysis includes our view of the positives and negatives of three dates: April 06, June 06 and September 06

mmsd2006ref.jpg

Good goals, flawed reasoning: Administration Goes Full Speed Ahead on English 10 at West High

At January and February school board meetings, Madison Superintendent Art Rainwater reported on the administration’s plan to go ahead with one English course for all tenth graders at West High School starting in 2006-07. The goal of the plan is to increase academic opportunity for students of color. The mechanism is to teach all students the same curriculum, leaving it up to teachers to “differentiate” their approach and give equal challenge to every student. The school board has taken no action on this plan and does not plan to adopt, modify or otherwise vote on the plan before it is implemented.
I support the goal. I am not convinced, however, that the mechanism is based, as claimed, on the best research. The presentations to the Performance and Achievement Committee have raised my level of doubt.
At the January 30 meeting, the board heard from a University of Wisconsin expert. His published research on the subject of differentiated teaching concluded that more research is needed on this subject. Where the expert found successful differentiated teaching in high schools,the circumstances of the schools were far different from the circumstances at West High School. For example, successful “differentiated” classes occurred in schools where administration could match the skills and motivation of the teachers to the classes and where students vied for spots in the classrooms. We have a staff based on seniority and teacher options within the seniority system and must accept all students at tenth grade level into the program.
We were asked to consider the Biology I/ Advanced Biology I program at West High as a basis for making the change in the English program. In that program, approximately 20 students qualify for the advanced course and all others take Biology I. We were told that taking Biology I (rather than the advanced course) had not prevented a high percentage of West students from becoming National Merit Semi-Finalists. Never mind that the tests used for selecting the semi-finalists do not test science skills. At best, this correlation shows that taking Biology I did not harm the high-scoring students skills and aptitudes in non-science areas.
Two of our teachers made more persuasive arguments for caution in moving to “differentiated” courses. One cited research showing that the teacher training for these courses is a five to ten-year process. The other teacher gave us the factual background necessary to analyze the administration’s proposal. That teacher’s testimony follows.

Continue reading Good goals, flawed reasoning: Administration Goes Full Speed Ahead on English 10 at West High

State ranks 13th in national health study

By Anita Weier, The Capital Times, JAnuary 31, 2006
Wisconsin ranked 13th among the states in a national health study, down from ninth in 2004, as obesity and child poverty rose.
The study, titled America’s Health Rankings 2005, analyzed personal behaviors, community environment, health policies and health outcomes.
The healthiest states were Minnesota, Vermont, New Hampshire, Utah and Hawaii, in that order. The least-healthy was Mississippi, followed in order by Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas and South Carolina.
Wisconsin’s strengths included a high rate of high school graduation, a low rate of violent crime, a low incidence of infectious diseases and a low rate of uninsured people.

Continue reading State ranks 13th in national health study

School Board split on referendum: must vote by Feb. 17

By Susan Troller, The Capital Times, January 31, 2006
Madison voters may be looking at another referendum on school building this spring to address overcrowding issues, but the School Board appears split in its support of taking the issue to the voters.
School Board President Carol Carstensen has recommended that the administration prepare language that would ask voters to approve spending for a new $17 million elementary school on the city’s far west side and an addition to Leopold Elementary, south of the Beltline in Fitchburg. Both proposals were unanimously recommended by a citizen-led task force that has been studying boundary issues and overcrowding since last fall.

Continue reading School Board split on referendum: must vote by Feb. 17

One of these things is not like the others: School Board Oversees Task Forces Except When Savings in Health Care Costs at Stake

Recently, the Madison School Board has authorized a plethora of special committees to consider issues confronting the district and to make recommendations to the board. These committees have the potential to improve future board decisions by bringing new ideas and new information to our attention.
Currently, there is a special committee to advise the board on advertising. There are the two large task forces that recently issued recommendations regarding overcrowding and under-utilization problems in the West, Memorial and East High attendance areas. There is committee of parents, teachers, and administrators to suggest changes in our health and safety policies regarding animals in our classrooms. There is a committee to review whether staff and other resources are allocated equitably to the schools, taking differences in student populations into consideration. There are budget forums intended to seek community input on next year’s budget.
In every case, the board publicly discussed its goals for the committee before launching it. In every case, the board voted on a specific charge to the committee and set procedures and a timeline for meetings. In every case the board has received regular reports on the progress of the committee.
The glaring exception to this process was the creation of a task force of teachers union and district representatives to consider whether changes in health insurance programs for the teachers might make it possible for the district to shift dollars from health insurance payments to wages. Millions of dollars in potential savings are at stake.

Continue reading One of these things is not like the others: School Board Oversees Task Forces Except When Savings in Health Care Costs at Stake

Science Standards Mediocre, Study Finds

Fordham Foundation criticizes focus on ‘discovery learning.’
More than two-thirds of states have science standards that earn a C grade or worse for their quality, in part because they overemphasize “discovery learning,” the idea that students should be encouraged to acquire knowledge through their own investigation and experimentation, a study issued last week concludes.
Too many of those standards—documents that spell out what students are expected to know—also present science in a sprawling, unorganized way that is short of facts and content, according to the report by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
By Sean Cavanagh, Education Week, December 14, 2005

Continue reading Science Standards Mediocre, Study Finds

Very disappointing start for MTI-MMSD health insurance task force

On Wednesday, January 11, representatives of Madison Teachers, Inc. (MTI) and the Madison school district met at the union’s headquarters for three hours. MTI Executive Director John Matthews chaired the meeting. It was the first of two meetings at which MTI and MMSD will supposedly explore the potential for savings on health insurance costs for the teachers. Those expecting a serious effort by union and district representatives to compare costs and services from a range of health insurance providers and press the companies for savings will be seriously disappointed.
There were two presentations at the meeting: one from representatives of Wisconsin Physicians Services (WPS) and one from Group Health Cooperative (GHC). Despite a promise from the board president and superintendent that the meeting would be videotaped, the district did not tape the meeting. So far only the text for the WPS presentation (with accompanying PowerPoint) is available for public review.
At the meeting on January 25, 2006—also at MTI’s headquarters at 821 Williamson Street beginning at 1 p.m.—the task force will hear presentations from representatives of Dean Care and Unity. There has been no explanation of why there will not be presentations from Physicians Plus or the State Group Health Plan. Both offer services comparable to those that teachers currently receive under the collective bargaining agreement between the parties at competitive rates.

Continue reading Very disappointing start for MTI-MMSD health insurance task force

Public Not Welcome at MMSD Talks about Future Health Insurance Costs

Last August, MMSD parent KJ Jakobson asked “whether the new joint district-union task force for investigating health insurance costs be a truly collaborative effort to solve a very costly problem? Or will it instead end up being a collusion to maintain the status quo?” Collaboration or collusion: What should the public expect from MMSD-MTI Task Force on Health Insurance Costs?
Her question remains an important one. If the task force of representatives of the school district and Madison Teachers , Inc. identifies future cost savings from changes in health insurance providers, the district could save million of dollars per year after 2007. Although the savings would go to higher wages for teachers during the 2005-07 collective bargaining agreement, there would be possible savings for the district budget in future years. The district now pays about $37 M per year for health insurance for its employees.
Unfortunately, the history of the task force to date suggests that Ms. Jakobson’s fears were well-grounded.

Continue reading Public Not Welcome at MMSD Talks about Future Health Insurance Costs

Report of Committee to Redesign Middle School Curriculum: Top Secret for Now

An administrative report recommending changes the middle school curriculum district-wide that was due in late December is now expected some time in January. Shwaw Vang, chair of the Performance and Achievement Committee of the MMSD school board, held a second meeting on the expected report on December 19. According to minutes of the November meeting on this topic, the December meeting would be an opportunity for Board members to provide feedback or input.
Unfortunately, the Board received no new information about the likely proposal of the committee, although the recommendations will affect most areas of the middle school curriculum, including Fine Arts, Life Skills, Mathematics, Wellness, and World Languages as well as Student Support Services. Among other things, the recommendations will result in equal minutes of instruction across subject areas.

Continue reading Report of Committee to Redesign Middle School Curriculum: Top Secret for Now

Community Invited to Suggest Budget Reductions

Residents of the Madison Metropolitan School District will be given the opportunity in 11 January sessions to make suggestions and set priorities for budget reductions necessary for the 2006-07 school year. The budget reduction exercise uses a $100 budget that reflects the proportionate share for 47 major program areas of the actual MMSD budget.
MMSD Press release, 12/22/05

Continue reading Community Invited to Suggest Budget Reductions

They’re off and running: Three new faces seek seats on Madison’s school board

This week is the official start of the spring campaign season, and three local parents are launching bids for Madison’s board of education.
Arlene Silveira, 47, the president of Cherokee middle school’s parent-teacher organization, and Maya Cole, 42, an active member of the parent-teacher group at Franklin-Randall, are seeking the open seat being vacated by Bill Keys. Both say they’ll circulate nomination papers starting Dec. 1, the first day the law allows.
And, in the race generating the most buzz, Lucy Mathiak is seeking the seat now held by Juan Jose Lopez. The most aggressive of the three candidates, Mathiak could significantly alter the makeup of the board.
“People are disgusted and worried about our schools,” says Mathiak, 50. “People are tired of speeches. They want action, and they’re not seeing it.”
Lopez hasn’t decided whether to seek a fourth three-year term, but says he’s “leaning toward running.” He adds, “There are two things I love most. The first one is working with kids and the second is working on the school board.”
By Jason Shepard, “Talking out of school” from Isthmus, December 2,2005

Continue reading They’re off and running: Three new faces seek seats on Madison’s school board

Report Proposes Employee Health Insurance Savings through Switch to State Health Care Plan

According to a recent report by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, the Madison school district could save $2.4M per year by negotiating health insurance coverage for its teachers through the state’s employee health insurance plan, rather than continue with Group Health (HMO) and Wisconsin Physician’s Service plans.
The $100 Million Question: Breaking the Health Insurance Monopoly”.

We Can Make Health Care Affordable

Wisconsin families and businesses are being priced out of health care coverage. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can turn things around.
Every day brings new evidence that we are in the middle of a health care crisis.
The Wisconsin Realtors Association released a poll earlier this month that showed 66 percent of Wisconsin residents are worried that health care costs will soon become unaffordable.
By Wisconsin State Senator Judy Robson (D-Beloit), a registered nurse, from WisOpinion.com, November 21, 2005.

Continue reading We Can Make Health Care Affordable

Study Indicates Changes in Global Standing for U.S.

The nation’s 4th graders may not stack up quite so well against their peers around the globe as previously thought, but also may not post as big a drop-off in achievement when they get to high school, a new analysis of international-test comparisons concludes.
The study, conducted by the Washington-based American Institutes for Research and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and the Urban Institute, looked at two international-assessment comparisons, covering grades 4 and 8 and 15-year-olds. It found that, when compared only with those countries that participate in both studies for all three student groups, the United States ranked in the middle or bottom of each.
By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo
From Education Week, November 22, 2005

Continue reading Study Indicates Changes in Global Standing for U.S.

School’s anti-war assignment canceled

A letter-writing campaign by third-graders at Allis Elementary School encouraging an end to the war in Iraq was canceled because it violates School Board policy, district officials said Tuesday.
Julie Fitzpatrick, a member of the 10-teacher team that developed the project for the school’s 90 third-grade students in five classes, said the assignment was intended to demonstrate citizen action, one of the district’s standards in social studies.
By Sandy Cullen, Wisconsin State Journal, 11/23/05

Continue reading School’s anti-war assignment canceled

Board of Education in No Rush to Explore Health Insurance Savings

Last June, the Madison Board of Education ratified the 2005-07 collective bargaining agreement with Madison Teachers, Inc. The agreement commits the district and the teachers union to form a task force to identify potential cost savings from changes in health insurance coverage. If the task force finds savings, the parties may renegotiate the health care provisions. The deadline for this work is February of 2006.
Months ago, both sides named their representatives to the task force. Months ago, the Board’s attorney declared that the task force meetings—–prior to possible renegotiation—–would be public meetings. Five months have passed without a public meeting of the task force. The Human Resources Committee, which has oversight of this process, has not mentioned the topic or called for a report from administration. In fact, the board has received more updates from the administraton about discussions on the future of guinea pigs in classrooms than it has on possible savings in health care costs. Now only a few months remain to collect information on this complex topic, analyze the options and, if possible, renegotiate the health insurance provisions in the two-year agreement.

Continue reading Board of Education in No Rush to Explore Health Insurance Savings

When all third graders read at grade level or beyond by the end of the year, the achievement gap will be closed…and not before

On November 7, Superintendent Art Rainwater made his annual report to the Board of Education on progress toward meeting the district’s student achievement goal in reading. As he did last fall, the superintendent made some interesting claims about the district’s success in closing the academic achievement gap “based on race”.
According to Mr. Rainwater, the place to look for evidence of a closing achievement gap is the comparison of the percentage of African American third graders who score at the lowest level of performance on statewide tests and the percentage of other racial groups scoring at that level. He says that, after accounting for income differences, there is no gap associated with race at the lowest level of achievement in reading. He made the same claim last year, telling the Wisconsin State Journal on September 24, 2004, “for those kids for whom an ability to read would prevent them from being successful, we’ve reduced that percentage very substantially, and basically, for all practical purposes, closed the gap”. Last Monday, he stated that the gap between percentages scoring at the lowest level “is the original gap” that the board set out to close.
Unfortunately, that is not the achievement gap that the board aimed to close.

Continue reading When all third graders read at grade level or beyond by the end of the year, the achievement gap will be closed…and not before

Wisconsin Assembly Passes Two Bills Expanding Charter School Opportunities

This week the Wisconsin Assembly passed two bills that could expand charter school opportunities in this state. The Legislative Committee of the Madison School Board will review these bills on December 5.
Assembly Bill 730 proposes to amend current law to allow 5 UW-System 4-year universities, in addition to UW-Milwaukee and UW-Parkside, to each sponsor not more than 5 charter schools. The vote to pass was 56-36.
Assembly Bill 698 would amend current law to raise the student enrollment cap from 400 to 480 for the elementary charter school (21st Century Preparatory School) sponsored by UW-Parkside. The vote on this bill was 62-29.

Continue reading Wisconsin Assembly Passes Two Bills Expanding Charter School Opportunities

Should MMSD Board Follow Open Meetings Laws or Change Them?

In her posting, “Westside Land Purchase – was public if you were interested, Marisue Horton suggests that I, as chair of the Madison School Board’s Legislative Committee “start making recommendations for change. Start changing the process instead of sitting around and bitching about it.”
I am not suggesting that we need new processes. Like Lawrie Kobza, I am advocating that the Madison School Board follow the spirit and letter of existing Wisconsin law. I agree with the principles of the Open Meeting law.
As the law states,

” [a] representative government of the American type is dependent upon an informed electorate, [therefore]it is declared to be the policy of this state that the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as is compatible with the conduct of governmental business.” Only in specified exceptional cases may the school board go into closed sessions.

I also agree with Lawrie that the narrow exception allowing ongoing negotiations to be discussed behind closed doors did not apply to the October 10 meeting on the purchase of 8.3 acres of land near your home for a future elementary school. The Board’s attorneys disagree. The legal issue will not be resolved until, as Bill Keys recommended, an official complaint has been filed with the Dane County District Attorney and we have his opinion. Isthmus newspaper has filed that complaint and in due time we will have a ruling by a neutral legal authority.
In this case, the Open Meetings law protects the public’s interest in knowing how much the district planned to pay for this particular parcel and the conditions of the sale before the sale was complete. That interest was not respected. Maybe other sellers would have come forward with better offers, if they had known that we were poised to complete this purchase and were willing to sell the land back to them at less-than-appreciated value in the future. Maybe not. We will never know. Seven weeks passed between the signing of the deal by administration and the closed session meeting at which the board accepted the terms. The closing is not until November 15. What was the rush on November 7?

Board of Education’s 2005-06 evaluation of superintendent: next steps

On October 31, the Human Resources Committee of the Madison Board of Education reviewed a memo from Juan Jose Lopez, the chair of the committee. According to the memo, the Board developed goals for the 2005-06 evaluation of the superintendent during its recent closed sessions to evaluate his performance between 2002 and now.
If so, I believe that the Board violated the requirements of the Wisconsin Open Meetings law in those sessions. The Open Meetings law permits the Board to meet in closed sessions to consider “performance evaluation data”. That is, the Board may discuss how the superintendent’s performance measures up under the performance standards. The law does not permit the Board to develop the standards for future evaluations behind closed doors. That’s why the October 10 meeting was scheduled as an open meeting. The Board must hold its discussion of future standards for this evaluation in public.
The memo also refers to a still secret document, “the Superintendent’s evaluation”, and recommends that the next evaluation of Superintendent Art Rainwater focus on four categories. Did the Board evaluate the superintendent in just four categories? We can’t say, because the sessions were closed. Were there other ideas about where improvement is needed? We can’t say, because the sessions were closed. Is this memo an accurate summary of Board discussions? We can’t say, because the sessions were closed.
The next step is another Human Resource Committee meeting. Board members are encouraged to submit recommendations for the next evaluation before this meeting.
The memo follows:

Continue reading Board of Education’s 2005-06 evaluation of superintendent: next steps

TABOR foes encouraged by Colorado

Sponsors of a proposed constitutional amendment to limit state and local tax increases today sought to put a positive spin on a key vote in Colorado to exceed similar limits there.
“I think this shows that TABOR is working,” said Rep. Frank Lasee, R-Bellevue, using the acronym for the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights. “The voters there had their say. When the people decide to tax themselves, that’s how government should work.”
But opponents of the proposal called it a death knell for Wisconsin’s proposal.
By David Callender and Anita Weier
November 2, 2005 in The Capital Times

Continue reading TABOR foes encouraged by Colorado

MMSD Legislative Committee Recommends Joining Statewide Coalition

On October 17, the Legislative Committee of the Madison School Board voted unanimously to recommend that the district join the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES) The organization is a diverse, statewide coalition working for comprehensive school-funding reform.
Partners in the coalition believe in the following core principles that serve as “membership criteria” and the rationale for a school-finance reform proposal based on the Adequacy model, the Wisconsin Adequacy
Plan.

Continue reading MMSD Legislative Committee Recommends Joining Statewide Coalition

Colorado Referendum Targets Revenue Cap

To some Colorado residents, Referendum C is the best chance to spare the state’s schools from deep budget cuts. To others, the ballot measure—which will go before voters Nov. 1—represents a steep tax increase and gives lawmakers too much power over how state revenues are spent.
Referendum C is a proposed five-year suspension of Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR. TABOR is a voter-approved 1992 constitutional amendment that imposed a formula-driven cap on state spending and required the state and local jurisdictions, including school districts, to give back to taxpayers any revenues in excess of the cap.
“It is by far and away the most restrictive tax and spending limitation in the country,” said Wade Buchanan, the president of the Bell Policy Center, a think tank in Denver. “It really is a measure that gives fiscal decisionmaking powers almost exclusively to the voters.”
From “Colorado Referendum Targets Revenue Cap: Easing restrictions would free up more tax dollars for schools and colleges”, by Linda Jacobson in Education Week, October 19, 2005.

Continue reading Colorado Referendum Targets Revenue Cap

Mary Gulbrandsen: MMSD Power Broker

No one appreciates Mary Gulbrandsen’s contributions to the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) more than her boss, superintendent Art Rainwater. When we included Gulbrandsen in Madison Magazine’s 2004 People You Should Know list, Rainwater was the first to let us know we’d made an inspired choice. As MMSD chief of staff for the last two years, Gulbrandsen’s influence on all aspects of Madison’s K-12 schools is undeniable. From long-range planning to finance and operations to performance and achievement, district administration minutes suggest Gulbrandsen has spent the last two years in meetings. But seeing her in action on some of the most difficult issues, like the school environment for kids and families of color, proves what a skilled administrator she’s become. Add on top of all that her striking warmth and good sense, and Gulbrandsen seems a perfect fit for her behind-the-scenes position of power.

From “Power Influence & Anonymity: The Seven Women Power Brokers You Need to Know” by Robert Chappell, Neil Heinen and Brennan Nardi
Madison Magazine, November 2005

Eyewitness Report: School Board Decisions on Bus Contracts

A recent editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal claims that the Madison school board rejected Superintendent Art Rainwater’s “painstaking” analysis of known problems with local bus companies when it granted long-term contracts to transport our students to locally owned companies. According to the editorial, the administration informed the Board about safety and reliability problems with some of the companies, but—safety and reliability be damned— the Board rushed ahead. The administration, having taken its stand, then meekly agreed to commit the districts to contracts likely to fail our students and their families.
Time for a fact check. I was there for the administration’s presentation, for the votes on the contracts and for recent Board discussions about the problems that have developed with one of the local companies, Mr. Mom’s.
This is my eyewitness report.

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State’s learning gap still vast

Wisconsin students stayed above national averages in test results released Wednesday, but a Journal Sentinel analysis of the data shows that the gap between black and white students was among the largest in the nation. In eighth-grade reading and in fourth-grade math, the gaps were larger than in any other state in the country.
By SARAH CARR
scarr@journalsentinel.com
Oct. 19, 2005

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Minority Overrepresentation in Special Ed. Targeted

From Education Week, October 12, 2005
By Christina A. Samuels
A new provision of federal law taking effect this school year allows, and in some cases requires, school districts to focus some of their federal special education money on reducing the enrollment of minority students in such programs.
The provision, contained in the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, requires some districts to spend as much as 15 percent of that federal aid on what are called “early intervening” services, which are meant to bolster the achievement of students before they are officially referred for special education.

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UW Center Established To Promote Reading Recovery

A gift of nearly $3 million is being used to boost teacher training at the UW-Madison in a special, reading program.
But that program, Reading Recovery, has critics, who say it’s not worth the necessary investment.
Training at a new UW-Madison Reading Recovery Center will involve videotaping teachers, as they instruct young children, in a one-on-one process between student and teacher that costs more than group programs.
Student progress with Reading Recovery in the Madison School District and across the country has been questioned.

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