In a 5-2 vote, the Madison school board early Tuesday morning rejected a proposal to open a charter school intended to help close the district's 43-year-old racial achievement gap.
The vote caps more than 18 months of heated debate over Madison Preparatory Academy, which would've opened next year as a pair of gender-specific middle schools. Urban League president Kaleem Caire, who spearheaded the proposal, promised the fight was just beginning.
"This board has never been challenged," he said. "We're going to challenge them."
Caire said the Urban League will file racial discrimination suit with the U.S. Justice Department, and urged supporters to run for school board.
The meeting, which slogged on for more than six hours, drew roughly 500 people to James Madison Memorial High School. Of these, 96 signed up to speak to the board with most supporting the school.
"There is no reason my African-American peers shouldn't succeed," said Adaeze Okoli, a Memorial senior and editor of The Simpson Street Free Press, a newspaper run by teens.
Referencing superintendent Dan Nerad's earlier announcement that he'd unveil a plan to address the racial achievement gap in January, she added, "It's not the time for the promise of another plan. It"s time to take action."
Black students in Madison have a 52% graduation rate. Madison Prep offered to provide them, and Latino students, with a culturally relevant curriculum, mentoring and an array of other specialized programs.
"You have the power and the authority to change a direction," said an African American pastor. "I encourage you to take a leap of faith and do something different."
But the 'no' vote came as little surprise. Going into the meeting a majority of board members had already stated publicly that they would reject the proposal. Still, the Urban League pressed ahead, handing baby blue Madison Prep t-shirts to supporters ahead of the meeting.
On the back was a famous Langston Hughes quote: "A dream deferred is a dream denied."
Under the proposal, Madison Prep would've cost the district an additional $2.7 million over five years, with the Urban League acquiring an unprecedented level of autonomy to manage the schools, one each for boys and girls.
Perhaps owing to the board's anticipated 'no' vote, around just 20 people spoke out against the plan. Local activist Allen Ruff lamented what he claimed was a "20 year effort to gut public education by taking money from public coffers and dumping it into charter schools."
Ruff groused that Kaleem Caire has received money from school choice groups "throughout his career."
But the night's harshest criticism was leveled not at the proposal but at the board itself, over a perceived lack of leadership "from the superintendent on down."
"You meet every need of the unions, but keep minority student achievement a low priority," said one parent.
Others suggested the same.
"This vote is not about Madison Prep," said Jan O'Neill, a citizen who came out to speak. "It's about this community, who we are and what we stand for -- and who we stand up for."
Among the issues raised by opponents, the one that seemed to weigh heaviest on the minds of board members was the non-instrumentality issue, which would've allowed Madison Prep to hire non-union staff.
A work preservation clause in the district's collective bargaining agreement with the teacher's union requires the district to hire union staff. Board member Ed Hughes said he wanted to approve Madison Prep, but feared that approving a non-instrumentality school would put the district in breach of its contract with Madison Teachers, Inc.
"It's undeniable that Madison school district hasn't done very well by its African American students," he said. "But I think it's incumbent upon us to honor the contract."
Hughes said he would seek an amendment to open the schools once the current union contract expires in June 2013.
In the end, neither the heartbreaking pleas of parents nor the confection of promises made by the Urban League were enough to change the minds of board members.
"This decision is the most difficult one I've had to face as a school board member," said Beth Moss, who took issue with what she saw exorbitant administration costs. Over five years, the Urban League would've collected $900,000 to manage the schools.
Board member Maya Cole said it was "painful to listen to the stories of parents," but she was unconvinced the proposal would help enough students.
After nearly an hour of rambling explanations by board members for why they voted how they did, the dream was officially deferred.
Whether it'll continue to be denied remains to be seen.