Five candidates are competing for three seats on the Madison school board, with the general election on April 2, 2013.
The political context for the races is explosive, given Gov. Scott Walker's revolutionary proposals for education in Wisconsin: cuts to public school funding, an expansion of the voucher program, and a revamping of teachers' evaluations and bargaining rights.
In Madison, the issues are particularly complex, with the intense disagreements over the district's achievement gap between white and minority students.
In the race for Seat 3, former La Follette High School teacher and low-income housing provider Dean Loumos is running against retired Madison police lieutenant Wayne Strong. The winner will replace retiring school board member Beth Moss.
In this competitive series of elections, there are numerous candidate forums and listening sessions under way, and we thought we'd pose our own questions to candidates.
This week, we ask the candidates about where they think incoming superintendent Jennifer Cheatham should direct her attention. We also ask about the changes in collective bargaining wrought by Act 10: How have they affected the district, and how should it respond to this new policy?
What should the priorities be for new Madison schools superintendent Jennifer Cheatham?
One of the top priorities for Dr. Cheatham clearly has to be addressing the many complex issues surrounding the achievement gap. In 2009, I was a member of the district's Strategic Planning Committee. During that time, the achievement gap was identified as the number one issue facing the district. I believe that this remains the top priority for the district, and should be the top priority for the new superintendent.
This will undoubtedly be a tremendously huge challenge for the Dr. Cheatham, as she will need to balance the needs of higher achieving students and those students are not achieving at the level they should be. When it comes closing the gap, I would like to see Dr. Cheatham take a bottom up approach, i.e. begin the process by examining why our lower achieving students are not achieving at the rate they should be. Improving the performance of low achieving students will improve the overall academic performance of our district. As it currently stands, African American students are suspended at a rate of nearly 25% and are only graduating at a rate of 50%. For Latino students, the rate of graduation is an unacceptable 59%. Dr. Cheatham must develop effective strategies to improve the numbers if we are to gain any meaningful traction on closing the achievement gap. Dr. Cheatham appears to have had some success in narrowing the gap in her previous district. We must work with her in order to ensure that she has the same success here.
Dr. Cheatham will also want to consider learning about the schools as one of her top priorities, and engage in listening sessions with the community and stakeholders, including school staff and students. She will need to earn the trust of the community and work with all of the stakeholders and partners to develop strategies that will move the district forward. Safe schools, high academic achievement for all students, and improved graduations should be among her priorities if we are to truly make this district a model for other districts around the state and the nation.
Dr. Cheatham will have to be demonstrate that she is completely in support of building the best public school system there can be, and develop a clear plan on how to gather community support by working with parents, educators, civic leaders, and communities to ensure excellence for all Madison students.
Madison has phenomenal teachers and students, and by harnessing what is working well for many students in the district we can work together to provide solutions for the students who struggle. Addressing the disparities in educational outcomes for students of color is a moral and economic imperative, requiring strong leadership and earnest communication amongst all parties.
Fortunately for Dr. Cheatham, I believe our district is home to some of the best educators and community leaders, and I further strongly believe that this community is ready to make a much stronger commitment in this area. As a community and as a potential Board member, we are going to have to make some difficult decisions for the future of our children, and the superintendent's ability to bring multiple parties to the table and facilitate productive dialogue between them, will be essential.
How has Gov. Scott Walker's collective bargaining law affected the district, and how should its policies proceed in this new environment?
The aftermath of Act 10 has a dramatic on the district. It has resulted in significant reductions in pay for our teachers and school staff over the course of the last two years. The result of the collective bargaining process has resulted in major readjustment of bargaining power between the district and the union. To the extent in which Act 10 seemed to be a direct attack on our teachers, it has quite understandably had a negative effect on morale.
Last fall, Judge Colas ruled that parts of Act 10 were unconstitutional, including the provision that limited bargaining only to base wages. The Board of Education took this opportunity to enter into an agreement with the union that runs through June 2014. This bargaining that occurred after Judge Colas' ruling seemed to strike a reasonable balance between the district and the union.
Going forward, if Judge Colas' ruling is reversed, the Board will have to develop an employee handbook to take the place of the collective bargaining agreement. To my understanding, the decisions about a new employee handbook would be made by the Board. It is imperative that the Board be respectful of the essential role of teachers, while balancing the needs of the students we have the responsibility to educate.
Gov. Walker's decision to go after the right to collectively bargain demonstrates to me the disdain he has for the democratic process. Not only is ending the ability for a major stakeholder to participate in developing fair workplace rules contrary to what is needed for building a strong school system, but it also installs a system of top-down administration that always causes dissension and will inhibit buy-in from the very people we are charging with implementing policies and curriculum.
What is needed is a system where teachers feel supported, and that they not only can give feedback but can have an equal say in developing the strategies and policies that they will be required to live and work in. Just as our new school superintendent will have to develop strong connections to the community, she will also have to do this with the Board and staff. Closing off the ability for one of the major stakeholders to communicate their thoughts and plans is contrary to the idea of building the best schools we can have.
I have years of experience in developing community partnerships similar to what our schools are doing now, and we will need to increase in the future to address our most pressing needs particularly as it pertains to the achievement gap. Enacting policies that effectively strip our teachers and support staff of equal participation is the absolute wrong strategy to follow. I will do everything I can to build strong partnerships with community groups, but also with our teachers and support staff so they can continue to do the great work they are doing and to also adequately address the challenges they are being asked to solve.