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Madison school board showdown: Four candidates face off in the most hotly contested election in years

Credit:Carolyn Fath

During a March 1 candidate forum, four candidates vying for two seats on the Madison school board explained their positions to a large audience at the Warner Park Recreation Center.

It was the sixth forum since January, and, for 90 minutes, the audience listened intently, though a lot of them were supporters, campaign volunteers, district watchdogs and union reps who likely already knew whom they would be voting for on April 3.

For many, the battle lines were drawn near the end of last year's debate over Madison Preparatory Academy, the charter school proposed by the Urban League of Greater Madison that the board rejected on Dec. 19, largely because the teachers union opposed it. Accordingly, two candidates who opposed Madison Prep shored up early union endorsements, including from Madison Teachers Inc.

One of them, two-term incumbent Arlene Silveira, 53, is fighting to retain her seat against Nichelle Nichols, 43, who entered the Seat 1 race in response to the board's rejection of Madison Prep. Nichols says the race is a choice between new leadership and the status quo. Silveira, on the other hand, says the district needs a board member "who can hit the ground running."

The Seat 2 race to replace outgoing board member Lucy Mathiak pits firefighter Michael Flores, 34, against philanthropist Mary Burke, 52, in a contest couched in the language of the Occupy movement. Flores, a member of Fire Fighters Local 311, has gained union support in part because of his opposition to Madison Prep, while Burke had donated $2.5 million to the effort. Flores' most vocal supporters have tried to obscure Burke's extensive experience by assailing her as an out-of-touch 1 percenter.

Madison Prep engaged the community more than any other educational issue in years, sparking an outsized interest in the schools that shows little sign of waning. Candidates this year will have taken part in an unprecedented 12 candidate forums, among dozens of smaller events and listening sessions. (Candidates in seven of the last nine elections ran unopposed.)

The way the candidates tell it - and observers tend to agree - the future has never been more uncertain for the Madison school district, which faces an array of challenges. There are budget shortfalls and state aid cuts; unmet federal benchmarks and student achievement gaps; declining enrollment and outdated facilities. The list goes on.

The stakes are high for everyone, not just for the unions, though teachers and staff will be among those most immediately affected. Whoever voters elect will have a direct say in guiding the district's transition from the collective bargaining agreement to an employee handbook, in accordance with a state law enacted last June that stripped teachers, and others on the public payroll, of many collective bargaining rights.

The handbook will likely retool the terms of employment in the district and also redefine the way children in Madison are educated. Already, most of the candidates, as well as some sitting board members, have floated ideas on how the board might exercise its new "flexibilities" once the contracts expire.

As the school board wrestles with these and other thorny issues - including how high to raise the property tax levy - what is ordinarily described as a "thankless job" is poised to become even more unmerciful in its demands. The candidates, with their sleeves rolled up, say they're ready for battle.


Nichelle Nichols, 43
Vice president of education and learning, Urban League of Greater Madison

Education: B.S. in family and consumer journalism from UW-Madison; M.S. in business management from Cardinal Stritch University
Volunteer: Board member, Dane County Youth Commission

Arlene Silveira, 53
Director of global sales, Promega Corp
Education: B.S. in biology, chemistry and secondary education from Springfield College; M.S. in molecular and cell biology from Connecticut College
Volunteer: Two terms on the school board; former PTO president

The Seat 1 race in many ways resembles the race for Seat 2 with one important distinction: The wealthier candidate with global business experience received the union endorsement. In fact, looking at Arlene Silveira's endorsements, it might seem the former school board president has half the city behind her.

"There's going to be a lot of hard decisions that need to be made this budget year," says Silveira, director of global sales for Promega Corp. "Being able to hit the ground running is incredibly important because I think this is going to be a very tough year for the district."

Elected to the school board in 2006, Silveira claims among her chief achievements the development of the district's strategic plan and the creation of 4-year-old kindergarten. But Nichols argues that after six years on the board, Silveira has little to brag about.

"I'm sure she's done good work, but it's not memorable work," says Nichols, vice president of learning for the Urban League of Greater Madison. "We need to have people at the table who are willing to put in the work."

Like Burke, Nichols has spent more than a decade working with programs geared toward improving student achievement. She currently manages the Schools of Hope of program in Madison's secondary schools, created in a partnership among the district, the Urban League and the United Way of Dane County.

A Madison native, Nichols has four sons, three of whom attend Madison schools. She says her experience parenting African American boys in the district will be a "reality check" for the board.

"That's not saying my experience is the experience of every African American with children, but it's an important voice to have at the table."

Nichols says she represents those who are not normally part of the process, while Silveira touts her "broad base of support" and "interest in many issues."

"You have to have the courage and curiosity to do things, and be ready to go," says Silveira. "I have that experience."

Employee handbook

Assuming that Act 10 is still in effect when the district's collective bargaining agreement expires in June 2013, the district will be guided by a handbook outlining district policies, workplace rules and job expectations.

Silveira and Nichols agree that the district should begin that transition sooner rather than later. Citing a need for "dialogue," both agree that teachers and staff must have a meaningful role in shaping the end product.

"Certainly not everyone is going to agree," says Nichols. "But it's not going to fly to just have a handbook and throw it on the table."

Nichols and Silveira both support identifying and preserving the contracts' best provisions while giving the board some flexibility to try new things. Both vow, however, to leave the pay scale untouched. Though neither supports adopting the full collective bargaining agreement, Nichols says she'd like to see some restrictions placed on administrators.

"I'm sure many will be looking for opportunities to extend days and go off in new directions," she says. "But some of those things might not be in the best interest of our district."

Silveira envisions the handbook as "a series of easy-to-understand policies applicable across the district." She sees opportunities for the board once it is freed from union impositions. Specifically, she'd like to redefine the school day.

"Right now we have very defined times, so one of my hopes is that we could certainly work on defining different rules and guidelines around that," she says. "This may include extending the school day, more evening classes, an additional summer semester or Saturday school. With the new handbook, we have to have the flexibility to go beyond the traditional school day."

Budget woes

Next year's district budget begins with a $12.4 million shortfall, though district number-crunchers believe the board can get this down to $2 million before having to eye a property tax increase.

Both Nichols and Silveira are apprehensive about raising taxes, but say it will be necessary if the district is going to gain traction on issues like boosting student achievement, upgrading old facilities and reducing class sizes.

"I completely support teachers having every tool they need to be successful because at the end of the day, that's where the rubber hits the road," says Nichols.

But Silveira says it's important to keep sight of costs. "There are so many initiatives going on right now, we have to focus our efforts in a way that helps on the budget side," she says. "It's not an easy thing to do, unless you have the courage to do it."

Nichols says the board must think critically, and in new ways, about the entire system to ensure children are getting the most out of taxpayers' money.

"Arlene talks about extended days," says Nichols. "But there are implications with that in terms of teachers and how we'll pay for it."

Racial achievement gap

Though on opposite sides of the Madison Prep debate, Silveira and Nichols both applaud schools Superintendent Dan Nerad's preliminary plan to close the racial achievement gap. But they worry the district will stumble on implementation.

Silveira likes many of the plan's ideas, particularly extended school days and a renewed focus on vocational training. But she says it's too early to say which ideas will win the day.

"It's going to come down to choice, to having the courage to reprioritize and use the data for what's working and what's not," she says. "We need to stop doing things that aren't working."

Nichols was pleased to see the plan focus on culturally relevant teaching strategies, but is concerned that the district's other challenges will impede movement on this issue, as has been the case in the past. "There are things they've been doing incrementally," she says. "But we can't afford another decade of slow change."


Michael Flores, 34
Firefighter, paramedic, part-time disc jockey

Education: Firefighting and paramedic certification from MATC
Volunteer: Reads to elementary students, DJs school dances

Mary Burke, 52
Former Trek Bicycle executive

Education: B.A. in business administration from Georgetown University; MBA from Harvard University
Volunteer: Co-founder of AVID/TOPS college prep program; fundraiser for Boys & Girls Club of Dane County; sits on various boards; tutor at Frank Allis Elementary; mentor

The two candidates vying for Seat 2 aren't that dissimilar, ideologically. Both are crusaders for social and economic justice, both are active in the community, and both volunteer in Madison schools. They agree more than they disagree, and their commitment to public education is unquestioned. But their campaigns, like their personal backgrounds, have been worlds apart.

Michael Flores, whose three children attend Nuestro Mundo, a dual-language immersion program, was prompted to run, he says, by fellow union officers who felt he'd make a good school board member.

"I saw the opportunity to be on the decision-making side," he says. "It's my chance to step up and do more."

Flores has campaigned largely on his relatability, emphasizing his poor upbringing, hard-line union views and ethnicity as assets to a district where one in two children are considered low-income, nearly one-fifth aren't native English speakers, and battles loom over workers' rights.

"Other candidates might not have an idea about coming to school hungry and with old shoes," he says. "It's that connection. You have to walk the walk before you can talk the talk."

Burke's campaign has eschewed identity politics, focusing instead on her years of finance, fundraising and education experience. She says her run is a natural outgrowth of the 13 years she's worked to provide low-income children with an equitable education.

Burke made her $2.5 million pledge to Madison Prep last October after the teachers union and the Urban League tentatively agreed that the charter school would employ union staff. The Urban League pulled out of the agreement after the cost proved prohibitive.

Burke says her personal wealth - derived largely from holdings in her father's company, Trek Bicycle - has led to many incorrect assumptions about her.

"People's values and experiences are determined by how they live their lives and not by the size of their checkbook," she says. "If you want strong public schools in Madison you need the kind of experience that I bring to the table."

Burke has been active in the community, both as a volunteer and philanthropist. Perhaps most notably, she led the transformation of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County from a ragtag community center to one that offers an array of programs for low-income children. She also co-founded the acclaimed AVID/TOPS program that has made quantifiable gains in minority student achievement and is now offered in all four high schools.

Flores admits he's short on experience, but believes the perspective he has to offer will better suit the board.

"According to the achievement gap I should be in prison or elsewhere," he explains. "But I had good teachers and I always pulled away from the negative stuff. I can identify with those issues."

Employee handbook

While Act 10 stripped most public employees of their collective bargaining rights, it will also give the Madison school board more control over how district resources are managed.

Flores has suggested easing staff anxieties by adopting the entire collective bargaining agreement as the handbook, a move not supported by any other candidate.

"We have to be respectful of the employees because they drive the machine," he says. "We need to give them what we can."

Both candidates say changes to the pay scale are off the table, with Burke believing the board can acquire flexibility without harming teachers and staff, who she foresees playing a central role in the upcoming discussion.

"We need to find that balance so it's not used as a lever to make cuts," she says. "The only way we're going to address issues of student learning is to make sure we have great teachers."

Budget woes

Next year's budget deficit will surely complicate the funding recommendations to address outdated facilities, declining enrollment and the student achievement gap.

"Declining enrollments are just the death of a district," says Burke. "If we lose another 6,000 students in the next 15 years, we will look like Milwaukee."

(In 2010, Burke oversaw a state-sponsored study that showed declining enrollments were pushing Milwaukee schools toward bankruptcy. The study identified ways to save money without cutting jobs or teacher pay.)

While the Madison district has $10.5 million in unused tax levy authority and $4.5 million in new levy authority, both Burke and Flores look first to potential savings within the district. For example, auditing program costs and effectiveness could lead to savings and improved student achievement, says Burke.

"We need to do that more often because the environment changes, the students change," she says. "A program may work in one environment but not another."

Like Burke, Flores points to the $4.4 million the district loses annually to open enrollment, a figure expected to climb even higher following recent changes to state law that extended the enrollment period from three weeks to three months.

But Flores takes a harder line on taxes, believing the district ought to focus on internal savings. Additionally, he would like to see a program aimed at recruiting more volunteers to assist teachers and other district personnel.

"That doesn't come with a financial cost, and most people are happy to volunteer their time to better the community," he says. "Once we turn the tide, we can be a little more liberal with the money."

Racial achievement gap

For 13 years Burke has made minority student achievement something of a personal crusade, retiring from a lucrative executive career in 2004 to volunteer full-time in Madison schools and with the Boys & Girls Club.

With Madison Prep off the table, the candidates now look to Dan Nerad's preliminary plan to address the issue. But with a price tag of $105 million, both candidates say the cost is unsustainable.

Burke would like to identify elements of the plan that can be implemented on a smaller scale until data are collected to justify a district-wide expansion. That's the model she's used with the AVID/TOPS program. "You use the data like a flashlight, to make sure we're on the right path," she says.

Burke is not opposed to using the district's unused levy authority to fund Nerad's final plan, which will go to the board after April's election.

But Flores is reluctant to fund the plan by raising taxes, opting for a more cosmic approach to minority student achievement.

"I would like to continue the grassroots movement that began with Walker," he says, and "bring that focus to the achievement gap."

He's not keen on cultural-relevance training for teachers, saying educators have told him it isn't helpful. "One of the comments a teacher made to me was the best cultural teaching came from people in the community," he says.

Despite his aversion to raising taxes, Flores says he could potentially get behind a tax hike to fund the final plan "if there is community buy-in."

"I'm going to be okay asking for that money if I can tell you that that money is going to be well spent," he says. "I'm proud of my taxes, because I believe in my community."

This is what 'green' schools look like

Efforts to make Madison's schools more "sustainable" have taken on different forms in recent years. West High School has installed solar panels on its roof, while students at Thoreau Elementary wrote and performed a short skit on the impact of climate change on polar bears and penguins. Some two dozen school gardens have sprung up, and there is a movement to serve locally grown food in school cafeterias.

What is the school board doing to support these innovative educational programs? More broadly, what does the school board plan to do to support sustainability?

Sustain Dane, a local nonprofit, and Isthmus are cohosting a forum that will pose these questions to the candidates for the two contested school board seats. The three-person panel includes Isthmus news editor Judith Davidoff, Sustain Dane executive director Kristen Joiner and East High junior Erin Barry. The forum is Monday, March 19, 7 p.m., First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Dr.

Candidate forums
March 19, 7 p.m. First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Dr. Sponsored by Sustain Dane and Isthmus
March 21, 7 p.m., Covenant Presbyterian Church, 326 S. Segoe Road. Sponsored by Society of Professional Journalists.
March 22, 11:30 a.m., Madison Club, 5 E. Wilson St. Sponsored by Leadership Greater Madison.

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