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Sunday, April 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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CITIZEN DAVE

Citizen Dave: Aging leadership makes change harder for Madison schools


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There has been a lot of ferment recently around the Madison school district.

Some of that's understandable. We're a community that cares deeply about education and, besides, there's bound to be some churn whenever there is a change in leadership. But that was magnified by the botched process that ended up with the selection of Chicago Public Schools' Chief Instruction Officer Jennifer Cheatham as the new superintendent. Happily, Cheatham, who starts her new job next month, seems to be a very good choice. Let's not get hung up on the process if the result is good.

Then there was the bizarre case of Sarah Manski, who won a primary for one of the open school board seats only to drop out less than two days later. Manski and her husband Ben, long-time activists who often chastised others for lack of transparency, apparently had contingency plans to move to California if Ben got into graduate school there. Why they didn't reveal that and why Manksi ran in the first place are still unanswered questions.

Two things are clear -- despite her previous lack interest in education issues, Manski was encouraged to run by the old guard liberal establishment (most of it white), and her gambit essentially ended up freezing out a minority candidate in Ananda Mirilli, who finished third and so didn't advance to the general election in April. (Full disclosure: I endorsed Mirilli in the primary, for what that was worth, which apparently wasn't much.)

Now a couple of current school board members, Mary Burke and Ed Hughes, who are not up for reelection this time, are backing Wayne Strong, an African American, who is running against Dean Loumos for another open seat. Loumos has the endorsement of that same long-entrenched old guard. Burke and Hughes seem to be making a point of opposing those forces by backing Strong.

If all that weren't enough, the school board's current president, James Howard, is being challenged by another candidate recruited and backed by the same establishment folks.

Much of this has its roots in the recent proposal by the Urban League to create Madison Prep, a charter school aimed at concentrating on minority students, especially African American young men. Some say the proposal divided the community with MTI, and those close to the union were willing to go against it, while other progressives, especially minorities, felt that Madison Prep was a bold stroke worthy of a try.

I was with those who supported Madison Prep.

I understood its flaws (and there were a lot of them), but I felt that if Urban League President Kaleem Caire had gone before the school board and just said simply that the minority achievement gap was a problem, everyone would have nodded in agreement and gone on with business as usual. Madison Prep was the equivalent of screech through a bullhorn. In my mind it didn't matter all that much that it wasn't approved; the idea served its purpose by getting everyone's attention. Some good has come of it.

But to underscore their disgust with all things that threaten the status quo, the establishment organizers of a recent forum on minority achievement called Ed Talks made a point of not inviting Caire. When it comes to the old guard, only those with acceptable views need show up at the table.

Here's the larger point.

While much of this has been characterized as a racial split in our community, and it is, I believe this issue is just as much the result of a generational divide. The truth is that most of the people standing in the way of any kind of meaningful change are aging progressives in their late sixties and seventies, self-satisfied folks who are just sure that they have all the answers to every problem. They are at the highest levels of MTI and other unions, city government, and even a newspaper in town. They cling tightly to power, and they seem not to know when it's time to let a new and more diverse generation step up to leadership positions.

So, yes, much of the controversy surrounding our schools is race-based, but much of it also has to do with the tired leadership in a lot of major institutions in Madison. I don't think we'll make real progress on this or other serious issues facing our community until we get fresh faces and new ideas in place.

It's time for a change.

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