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Test time for Madison school board candidates James Howard and Tom Farley
Rivals for open seat take Isthmus' school quiz
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James Howard and Tom Farley.
James Howard and Tom Farley.

Madison voters will soon be put to a test, perhaps one of the more important ones they've faced in recent years. On April 6, they'll get to decide who will fill an open seat on the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education during its biggest financial crisis.

It's apt, then, that the opposing candidates - James Howard and Tom Farley - also be put to the test. We gave them a series of essay questions on a range of pertinent topics, from how they'd cut the school budget to challenges they've faced with their own children in Madison schools.

Their answers, lightly edited for length and style, follow.

Isthmus: What are two specific programs you would suggest cutting or policies you would suggest changing due to ongoing budget challenges, and why?

Howard: In Wisconsin, for 17 years, since 1993, we have had a school funding plan that caps a school district's annual revenue increase at 2.1%, although the actual cost to run a school district has averaged 4% during those years. Secondly, the state of Wisconsin is supposed to pay two-thirds of the cost of schools. This has never happened. So I'd suggest lifting the revenue caps and legislating complete state funding of public education.

Farley: Certainly, the state's funding formulas and current economic cycles have had a major effect on this current budget crisis. However, budget challenges will be "ongoing" until the district addresses our own systemic issues. Policies regarding talented and gifted students should be based on national best practices. We should also address length of school year and school day, which are far too limiting and lag other countries.

Name a decision made by the Madison Board of Education during the last year that you disagree with, and explain why.

Howard: I disagree with the decision to start 4-year-old kindergarten in 2011-2012 instead of in 2010-2011. The rules for 4-year-old kindergarten state that financial returns to the district start after year three. With economic uncertainty and volatility forecast for the next several years, there isn't an economic advantage to starting the program later. The economic advantage is in starting the program sooner.

Farley: I am more concerned with decisions the board has not made. The current economic downturn was widely anticipated, and funding inequities well known. Yet the board demonstrated the same oversight it has for decades - waiting for funding, tinkering with line-item cuts and debating over percentage formulas for reductions. The board should have been devising better long-term strategies.

Do you favor a year-round school system?

Farley: No, I do not support year-round schools. However, I do support a longer school year. Currently, the U.S. lags its peer countries by some 20 school days per year. Within the current limits of our school-year calendar and test-driven educational system, students are taught at crash-course speed [and have] heavier homework loads. Even extending school days by one hour will produce those 20 extra days.

Howard: Currently I am not an advocate for a year-round school system. I would need to have knowledge based on research that indicates a year-round system educates our children better. [And] even with research data supporting a year-round school system, all stakeholders such as school administrators, families, teachers and the BOE would have to agree that this is best for our community.

How, exactly, would you go about attracting families to Madison schools?

Farley: The most effective and sustainable means is through a well-developed and strategically managed communications plan. Better communications that deliver information and also reinforce the district's vision - such as safety in schools - will achieve this objective. Regardless of the subject matter, families need to continually hear messages that connect to their own values and concerns - in every email, voice mail, speech, conference, newsletter, website and event.

Howard: Madison public schools have achieved recognition because of our diversity of high-quality programs. I believe it's important that parents are informed about academic achievements in the district, which ranks very high when compared to other school districts. Many Madison public school graduates graduate from major universities and become global citizens contributing substantially to their communities. A communication plan that articulates these successes would help attract and retain families.

Name one specific policy or program you would champion to assure the district lives up to the promise of educating all.

Howard: Strengthening community and family partnerships is one of the school district's key strategic priorities. The district welcomes community involvement in its schools and partnership programs. The Foundation for Madison's Public Schools and other organizations help provide needed resources to our schools. Without these community partners the financial impact on our schools would be greater. I will champion community involvement by organizations and families.

Farley: The combination of Madison's culture and diverse community assets uniquely position our schools to serve the educational and social needs of the special needs population. Increased focus on special needs programs will produce a wide range of benefits as well, such as attracting more peer support, more resources. Such programs can also endow all students and staff with valuable life skills.

What's the biggest challenge you've faced with your children in Madison's schools, and how was it resolved?

Farley: As parents of a physically disabled child, we were faced with educating teachers, identifying each school's accessibility issues and constantly requesting maintenance support (building access, walkways shoveled). While some teachers are exceptional in this area, the overall environment is not inclusive. To resolve this, we began to empower our child to self-advocate - while I chose to resolve this by running for school board.

Howard: Our biggest challenge is to have our children challenged at the highest level academically. Historically the teachers and schools have been very willing to work with our family to ensure that our kids were and are challenged. Fitting the curriculum to the student has been a success for our family and has resolved our issues at the elementary school level. The offering of a wide range of challenging classes at the high school level was also a resolution.

How can the district better add transparency to its employee assessment and evaluation system, as called for under President Obama's education reform initiative?

Farley: The teacher evaluation guidelines in President Obama's reform initiatives are inherently flawed. It's also quite probable that Wisconsin will not receive any current federal funds. So why create another false system and try to manage under it? Instead, we should establish a true evaluation system that is not test- or merit-based yet produces positive results and uses measurements that we accept. This will give us freedom to reward teachers in much more meaningful ways.

Howard: Because of open meetings and information disclosure laws, our district currently operates with a high level of transparency. I believe that more disclosure under law is better. Increased employee assessment and evaluation as called for under Obama's education reform initiatives should be accomplished through requirements to disaggregate data on student outcomes for accountability and public reporting purposes. Holding schools accountable for the achievement of all students should be a high priority.

Not everyone learns the same. What are the best ways to add innovation to Madison schools?

Farley: Foster creativity at all levels. Help teachers build flexibility into their lesson plans, and enable them to draw creativity out of their students. If a student isn't handing in assignments, find methods more comfortable to the student (verbal tests, recorded homework, assign one-page essays instead of two-pages, etc.) and that build on success. In non-academic areas of learning such as safety and discipline, create more peer-led Teen Courts that foster empowerment and build decision-making skills.

Howard: The Madison public schools are some of the most innovative in the country. We constantly develop programs and policies such as the new Talented and Gifted policy to ensure all students are challenged. Our district has also added charter schools such as Nuestro Mundo and is currently supportive of the newly proposed Badger School. I believe we should continue to look at all opportunities to be innovative, deciding if the opportunity adds to our district.

What was your most memorable experience while you were in school, and why?

Farley: After years in Madison's parochial schools, my parents sent me to Sherman Elementary for eighth grade. It was the most diverse environment I had ever experienced; even the curriculum was different (shop class, home economics). The environment was less rigid and strict, but the public school teachers clearly made efforts to connect with students. I felt respected and in return learned to return that respect. I also felt more connected to my neighborhood and its culture.

Howard: I believe that many different things motivate us as students. For some it's arts and others sports or science. Because students have different motivations it increases the value of our public schools because we have a diversity of high-quality programs. My most memorable experience was obtaining a greater than 3.0 grade point average as a senior. I had never accomplished that before my senior year.

What is a favorite book you would recommend everyone -- in and out of school -- read and why?

Farley: I would humbly recommend my own book, The Chris Farley Show. So many people have told me how greatly the book has affected them. Because of this book, I now have a better relationship with my brother than I did while he was alive. I'm proud that Chris' story begins in Madison. No matter what he did during his lifetime, it was very clear that Chris was always just a kid from Madison.

Howard: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown is a history of Native Americans in the American West in the late 19th century. This book tells a story which should be told as part of United States history and to improve cultural competency.

James Howard
Age: 56
Job: Research economist, USDA Forest Service.
Public service: Active on district and community committees including the schools' Strategic Planning Committee and co-chair of the Community and Schools Together (CAST) school referendum support group.
Kids in school: A son at Sherman Middle School, one daughter at Emerson Elementary School and one daughter graduated from East High School.

Tom Farley
Age: 48
Job: Advertising and marketing manager with Full Compass Systems Inc. and manager of the Chris Farley Foundation.
Public service: Community involvement includes appointments to the Dane County Human Services Board, Madison Art Commission, and Madison Alcohol License Review Board.
Kids in school: A son and daughter at West High School, and another daughter graduated from West.

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