Fall Referendum – 3 months to Time Zero

The Madison School District’s Fall $23.5M Referendum Question will be in front of voters 3 months from today. The question asks voters to fund 3 iniatives with a single yes or no vote:

What K-12 issues might be on voter’s minds November 7?

The community has long supported Madison’s public schools via above average taxes and spending (while enrollment has largely remained flat) and initiatives such as the Schools of Hope and the Foundation for Madison Public schools, among many others. The November 7, 2006 question will simply be one of public confidence in the governance and education strategy of the MMSD and the willingness to spend more on the part of local property taxpayers.

UPDATE: Recently elected Madison School Board Member Arlene Silveira posted words seeking input on the Progressive Dane “In the News” blog.

20 thoughts on “Fall Referendum – 3 months to Time Zero”

  1. I’m more inclined to vote yes than the last time around, just because the board, if not the administration, has begun to act more responsibly. However, I do have concerns about putting all issues in one referendum. I’m still concerned about too many kids at the Leopold site, and I want to see whether there is going to be a school closure or consolidation of programs that are currently in rented space. I also want some guarantees that there is going to be a buy-in from the administration to community involvement in saving strings and other arts programs from future budget cuts. Also, I want to see the administration back off its push to “dumb down” certain curriculum. In short, my vote is up for grabs, and the administration can secure it by being more committed to higher standards, a diverse curriculum, community involvement, and a more open budget process.

  2. Well said, Donald.
    Your final points would make a good bluprint for improvement in the MMSD: higher standards, a diverse curriculum, community involvement, and a more open budget process.

  3. Donald and Ed
    Two questions (for clarification). What would you view as evidence of “higher standards;” and what do you mean by a “diverse curriculum”?

  4. After I posted my questions to Donald and Ed, I started thinking about Jim’s post and their comments. I’m still interested in what Donald and Ed have to say, but I don’t think those issues should have much to do with how people vote in November. The questions before the voters concern building facilities and refinancing debt, not curriculum or strings, or demographics, or Fund 80, or the content of report cards or a host of other very real concerns in the community.
    At this referendum voters have to judge not the district as a whole, but whether these measures are needed or will contribute to the good of the community. Most of us aren’t experts on real estate market projections or school population statistics, so we aren’t in the best position to decide if the building measures on the ballot are the best solution or even a good one (I think the refinance is a no brainer, but I’m no expert there either). So it is right that we (and voters) look at the process by which this plan was arrived at, how it got on the ballot.
    In this case it seems that the process was exemplary. At each step, starting with the citizen task forces to identify needs and options and get a sense of public opinion, employing the expertise of administrators throughout (that’s what they are paid for), and finally working so that all board members came together on the plan are, to me, indications that this was done right and that therefore the plan is a good one that deserves support.
    So Jim has identified many important issues of concern (and Donald and Ed have added to this list) and it is good that these get aired (on SIS and elsewhere), but I think they belong in a separate discussion. I’m not naive enough to believe that for many this won’t be a referendum on the district in general or public education in general or taxation in general and I personally welcome the opportunity to cast a vote that will be perceived as a thumbs up to MMSD and public education. Still, I think that as educational activists in Madison we would better serve the community by helping them focus on what is on the ballot and urging them to vote on the matter before them, not their feelings about other school related matters.
    The one partial exception is taxation. I’m sure we will hear a lot about taxes and school taxes in the coming months and some of that will no doubt come from me. At the start I’d like to remind people that the way school finance is structured in Wisconsin, with incredibly rare exceptions (I don’t know of any), major capital projects require districts to go to the voters for funding. By design, new buildings and major additions are not funded out of general operating revenues. So you may not like the budget process or the final product, but that also doesn’t have much to do with whether there is a need for new buildings.
    Jim is right that many of the things he lists will be on voters minds, let’s work together (those for and against the referendum) to try to make sure that the voters understand and vote on the merits of the proposal as it appears on the ballot.

  5. Good questions, Tom.
    As an example of higher standards, I’d like to see the superintendent support reading interventions that succeed more than 50% of the time for first graders. Yet, he’s happy with the 50%-60% success rate for Reading Recovery.
    For diverse curriculum, I’d like the MMSD to offer curriculum options which challenge each and every student, whether the student is a 10th grade non-reader or a 10th grader reading at a college level.
    What do “higher standards” and “diverse curriculum” mean to you, Tom?

  6. Ed
    They aren’t phrases I would use, in part because they can mean so many things.
    I think challenging all students and having high expectations are good things, provided teachers and students are given the tools and resources they need. The most convincing research I’ve seen places teacher/community expectations above “standards” (often meaning high-stakes testing, based on politically mandated ideas about what should be taught) as key to high achievement in all demographic categories. Measuring and cultivating expectations isn’t easy, so “standards” talk is more popular. So I’m good with challenging and pushing for expectations. On Reading Recovery, although I’ve looked and asked I have yet to see good data that indicates a high likelihood that the population served by reading recovery would have a significantly higher success rate in other programs. I believe in high expectations but recognize that despite the best intentions, research, programs and expectations there are some students who will not meet the expectations, will not be “successes”. I’m not saying to write them off as a group or individuals, we have to keep trying. I am saying that with some groups of students targeted for remediation 50-60% success rates look pretty good to most people. I know we disagree
    “Diverse curriculum” brings to mind some good things, like addressing multiple learning styles, employing a tool box of remediation approaches and considering multiple viewpoints, but it also can sound like another name for traditional tracking, even of the most extreme kind. That’s why I wouldn’t use the phrase.
    As I said in my other comment, I want to continue this conversation. Let’s just separate it from the referendum.

  7. My comment was intended to follow the direction provided by Jim. He asked, “What K-12 issues might be on voters minds November 7?”
    Voters’ views on the district and the administration’s and board’s decisions generally will influence how people vote, especially in this election. Far more people are going to vote than is usually the case in school elections. At least half of the voters are going to be people who probably never or rarely vote in school elections. Probably three-quarters of the voters are not going to focus in the three questions alone, but are going to factor in how they feel about the board and the administration, and what they hear about other school issues.
    If the board wanted those voters to focus in more on the referendum issues only, it would have been better to separate the issues, rather than bundle them together. By bundling issues, voters are forced to expand their focus. They have to consider whether they support the whole, even though they might oppose one part. I’ll tell you this from 30 years of experience: voters only need one little reason to vote “no.” By expanding the focus the board gives people more reasons to vote no.

  8. Tom,
    I keep asking this question but no one answers. Maybe you will. Do you believe a 50%-60% success rate is about all that can be achieved because 1) some students just can’t learn or 2) no one knows how to teach them?

  9. Ed
    I’ll be happy to continue this converstaion in a forum that is more a more appropriate for your concerns about Reading Recovery. I sincerely don’t want voters who click on this thread looking for information about the referendum to get side-tracked by other issues.
    Again, voting for or against the referendum will not have any impact on Reading Recovery, it will not secure or eliminate strings instruction, it will not change the laws surrounding Fund 80…it will decide on two building proposals and one refinance plan. Jim and Donald are correct that many of these other things will probably be on many voter’s minds, but we should try to change that. Let’s work together to remind voters what is and isn’t on the ballot.

  10. TJM,
    Unlike you, I am not worried about folks who visit this site becoming confused over what is at issue in the fall referenda. I give them more credit than you do.
    SIS encourages open discussion and debate, unlike another blog on which I believe you are active, where strategies are actively developed to distort viewpoints expressed here.
    Thus, may I respectfully suggest if you want to exercise control or tightly monitor the discussion, you are posting on the wrong site.

  11. Joan
    I wasn’t asking for tight control, simply some self-restraint in keeping posts and comments on topic to make it user friendly.
    I’ve never tried to cut off debate or avoided a difference of opinion. I was simply telling Ed and the other readers that in this thread I would not be writing about Reading Recovery. I’ve written about it elsewhere and so has Ed. I’m sure we will both write about it again. I just won’t do it in the context of the referendum. That’s my self-restraint in action.
    I give the voters great credit, they can separate the wheat from the chaff, but why not make it a little easier?
    I was also asking that activists on both sides concentrate on the questions actually being asked of the voters when advocating for or against the referendum. If you think it is appropriate to punish families in overcrowded neighborhoods because you don’t like other things the district has done, or conversely if you want to ask voters to ignore the merits of the proposals and simply vote on the basis of positive accomplishments of the district, then that is your right. I just think it would be better if neither side did these things, so that is what I asked.
    As to another blog, I believe you are mistaken. I have never posted a word about Madison schools on any other blog. You obviously have some hostility, but it is misdirected at me.

  12. Sorry, but I’m not going to let you frame this as me having some personal hostility towards you, TJM. Why I wrote is because, like many others who post here, I want to keep the discussion honest and open.
    My reference was to your posting on another MMSDschool-related blog’s listserve, a distinction I should have made more clearly.

  13. Joan
    Yes I am involved in Advocates of Madison Schools, no it is not a blog (although I have heard mention that a blog might be in the future) and no I didn’t recognize your description of that group.
    This is the group’s “mission statement.”
    “Advocates for Madison Public Schools (AMPS) serves as a unifying force for those who believe that strong public schools and success for all kids equate with strong communities. A combination of proper funding, proven practices and public support is essential to ensure that we retain our high quality public schools and in turn, our high quality of life in Madison.”
    I haven’t read anyone on that listserve advocating distorting anything. What I have seen are active and interested discussions about how to promote the good things about MMSD, improve what members believe needs improving and counter negative impressions. Strategies and talking points do get discussed, (as they do on the TAG list), but none of these have anything to do with distortions.
    I didn’t want to make it personal, I just thought if I left your mischaracterization unaswered some might believe that what you wrote was true. At no level was it true. So please don’t distort the work of AMPS.
    To keep my promise of self-restraint, I need to tie this back to the referendum. That’s hard (so hard that unless there is another obvious untruth that I am compelled to respond to, I will not continue this discussion in this thread). Let me just close by saying that I too value the openess and even messiness of SIS (in person and in posts I have defended SIS as an open forum), I look forward to the wide ranging discussions that I am sure will continue on the site, and again implore those on both sides to work to help voters in November decide on the merits of the proposals.

  14. TJM,
    I really don’t want this to get personal either, but you’ve just said I didn’t tell the truth. Let me respond with something I believe you wrote in your other group:
    “What I was talking about was a little less factual and a little more rhetorical. I think that with many of the TAG advocates we need to push them hard on the “We are doing this because we care about minority kids and not for our own children” stance. One way is to look closely at the consquences for what they champion. Even going to reducto ad aburdum levels. The other is to expose how shallow their stance is.
    I think I did some of this here:

  15. Pushing anyone to stand by their rhetoric (which is what I was talking about) is far from distortion, in fact I think of it as clarification. No Joan, you did not tell the truth, or maybe you just don’t recognize it.
    Also, you are free to respond, but that’s not what you did, you simply quoted out of context. So yes, do respond. What is wrong with pushing people on their rhetoric?
    I also do not appreciate seeing things I wrote taken out of context. That was part of a larger discussion and although I would like to give more of the context here, without permission from all the other particpants I would never share any of the material with anyone, much less publish it in an open forum. I stand by what I wrote, but am disturbed by the lack of respect for privacy that you and some group member display. The archives of that list are clearly marked members only.
    Last note on this, Jim Zellmer is a member of AMPS, I don’t think that he thinks the purpose is to distort the work of SIS.
    Jim, if you think it would be a good idea, I will be glad to post everything I wrote (and nothing by anyone else) in the discussion Joan quoted in another thread (please contact me if you think that is a good idea). I will not post anything else on this in the context of the referendum

  16. I am supporting the referendum. Leopold needs the space and the far west side needs a new building. It’s pretty clear, via the citizen task forces, that no other ideas will work to handle the capacity issues. As a north-east side resident, I can also see a need for a new building on the far east side in the next 5-10 years. I’d hate to see the city any more divided geographically, as has been the case for many years. I’ve found that this division came more at the behest of certain former board members than it did from community members. They played east and west against each other to remain in power. So, I’m supporting the Leopold addition and the far west elementary school, and I hope that my friends and neighbors on the west side and in Fitchburg will do the same when the Sprecher area on the far east side needs an elementary school.
    I’m also very happy that the current board is looking to the future in an organized and realistic fashion. I’m happy that they aren’t bickering, that the personal attacks have ceased, and that the hard work is being done. As I’ve written here before, I trust each member of the BOE, something that certainly wasn’t the case in prior iterations!

  17. Jason Shepherd, writing recently said:
    But on many academic achievement measures, Madison is simply mediocre. Pointing this out, though, is sometimes seen as heresy by board members and district officials. That in itself is part of the problem.
    Consider the scores from third-grade reading tests.
    The Madison board and school district have regularly touted these scores as proof of significant progress. The number of students scoring “advanced” or “proficient” has risen from 58.9% in 1998 to 82.7% in 2005, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. In September 2004, a front-page Wisconsin State Journal headline declared, “One racial gap has closed,” based on data showing little or no racial disparity among those who failed the test.
    But whether Madison can claim victory for rising test scores is debatable, given that the state as a whole has seen significant increases in scores. Madison’s rate of improvement is not much greater than that of the state and nearby districts. Indeed, Madison still ranks 16th among Dane County’s 16 school districts.
    His point, that some see simply asking questions as heresy, is a good one.
    Ed, Joan, Mary Kay Battaglia (see her most recent post:
    ) and many others, including teachers, have taken flak for asking questions. All are obviously strong supporters of public education. Those who don’t support it have moved or placed their children in other learning environments, including the growing homeschool movement (though we all contribute via property, sales and income taxes and fees).
    Over the past few years, I’ve heard from teachers in person and via email regarding health care costs:
    Math rigor:
    and recently on the November referendum. One teacher asked why the mmsd is “planning to construct new facilities when it cannot maintain what it has”.
    From my perspective as a parent and taxpayer, I want the mmsd to provide the very best educational opportunities to all 25,000 children via its staff and $332M current budget. I am very concerned that the largely “same service” or “cost to continue” – how often we hear those words – approach to everything is creating a growing intellectual atrophy (again, another highly respected teacher mentioned the districts “deep commitment to Reading Recovery” in this light).
    Ironically, I believe that Milwaukee will have a far richer K-12 environment over the next few decades, including their public school system.
    I hope the mmsd pursues virtual learning opportunities. There are segments of the student population that could certainly benefit from this approach. These tools could be offered year-round.
    Madison is not the only community with such discussions. A group of parents in Seattle recently chided their public school district for “taking only incremental steps”:
    Their top 3 academic investment suggestions:
    Place a major focus on teacher hiring, development and retention.
    Establish throughout the district a curriculum consistency and rigor, focused on math, science, reading and writing, with added emphasis on music and language.
    Invest in targeted class-size reductions and improved student-teacher ratios.
    Let the discussion continue.

  18. The larger point I was making but can’t much elaborate on now as I’m out of town on a shakey internet connection is that we all bring values and assumptions to this discussion. Some folks are more upfront about that than others.
    TJM–I would never post a private email conversation without permission, but listserves don’t carry the same privacy considerations. That’s my view, of course and one I’m putting out there for you to challenge.
    Let’s have that larger conversation, then, about what is meant by public education. Since people who post here feel strongly about this issue, I fully expect this to be reflected in their writings. But it’s a conversation long overdue.

  19. Was the vote by the Board to go to this specifically worded referendum unamimous? I don’t recall seeing the numbers.

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