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Madison's racial divide: The school board race exposes an ugly problem
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Reaction was swift and angry.

"Enough is enough of this. Hypocrisy is alive and thriving in Madison!" read a Facebook post from United Migrant Opportunity Services board chair Juan Jose Lopez.

"It was all part of a plan to silence Ananda Mirilli," wrote radio host and former Urban League board member Derrell Connor in a blog post entitled "Madison liberals hurting communities of color."

"To the communities of color in Madison, I say this: Don't forget what has happened here. If there was ever a time to become organized and engaged, it is now."

And perhaps most scathing of all, an editorial from The Madison Times:

"The MMSD School Board race that came crashing down pretty much typifies the status of race relations we see every day and the tremendous racial divide we have in Madison right now. White elite liberals dictating to, condescending to and manipulating Madison's communities of color. This is when they are kind enough to not completely ignore them, which, unfortunately, is most of the time."

This outcry was the result of a Madison school board primary in February. It didn't seem like a big deal at first: Only 18,452 voters bothered to cast ballots.

"The interest was certainly greater after the election than it was before," says TJ Mertz with a laugh. "There's no question about that!"

Mertz, who finished second in the primary, is now the only candidate actively campaigning to win Seat 5 on April 2. First-place finisher Sarah Manski stunned voters when she dropped out of the race the day after the primary, citing her husband's acceptance to a graduate school in California. Election rules say her name must remain on the ballot, though, and that leaves off the third-place finisher, Ananda Mirilli, who is Latina. Mirilli has decided not to pursue a write-in campaign.

"I don't know what was in Sarah Manski's head," says Mertz, who dismisses talk that Manski was part of a conspiracy among Madison's white powerbrokers to keep a person of color off the ballot. But, he adds, "What Sarah Manski did was shocking to many people, and people struggle with that."

The Manski incident has cast a pall over the three school board races that will be decided on April 2, intensifying racial tensions in Madison and forcing the candidates to explain their approach to an ever more glaring problem. Three slots are in contention: Dean Loumos vs. Wayne Strong for Seat 3, board president James Howard vs. Greg Packnett for Seat 4, and Mertz vs. essentially nobody for Seat 5.

There is one bright spot: more diversity than ever among the candidates themselves. Three of the five school board candidates, Strong, Howard and Packnett, are African American.

Connections and endorsements

Manski did not respond to a request for comment, but in the wake of her withdrawal, many of her critics point to a message posted in December by her husband, Ben Manski, on a listserv for the group Latinos United for Change and Advancement (LUChA). "One of Sarah's opponents in this three-way race is a supporter of using public tax dollars to fund private schools," he wrote. "She was recruited by the former head of a Bradley Foundation-funded group that promotes the corporate takeover of education. In turn, Sarah was recruited to offer an alternative to this other candidate."

"The former head of a Bradley Foundation-funded group" was code for Kaleem Caire, president of the Urban League of Greater Madison and the driving force behind Madison Preparatory Academy - a controversial proposal that has split the community along racial lines. Caire reportedly encouraged Mirilli to run for school board, but that doesn't mean she supports private school vouchers. In fact, she has said she doesn't support them.

"That isn't who Ananda was. Many of the folks who endorsed [Manski] had no problem with that depiction," Connor insists in an interview. "There was no thought as to how something like that would affect folks in this community and what kind of damage it would do."

Mertz, too, seems puzzled by the long list of high-profile politicians who lined up behind Manski before the primary.

"There's an assumption that...people who do endorsements vet the people they endorse and that prominent people in town are trustworthy on that kind of thing. When that turns out not to be the case, there's going to be a reaction."

Connor says many people of color are now eying those endorsements - from Rep. Mark Pocan, Mayor Paul Soglin, Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca and Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson - with suspicion.

"Were you endorsing her because you believe in her? Or are you doing it because of political connections - because you want to keep a certain group of established folks in the fold?" he asks. "If you're not part of an established group of people, your chance of winning goes down considerably. For Ananda, she didn't have those types of endorsements. And add to that how she was being portrayed."

Soglin says he was unaware of the listserv posting until informed by Isthmus and readily admits he encouraged Manski to run. At the time, he did not know who her opponents would be, and says she was the only candidate who sought his support before announcing her candidacy: "I thought she was a strong proponent for public education in the city of Madison."

Soglin says that the way candidates are recruited for public office and obtain their endorsements makes it hard for political newcomers like Mirilli to succeed in Madison and Dane County. They "are at a serious disadvantage in terms of building support and contacting those who might endorse them," he says. "We have to do something to better connect people."

Those same racial divisions

It's not surprising that the latest conflict in Madison involving race revolves around the school board. Fifteen months ago, as teachers watched their collective bargaining rights slip away and schools faced historic budget cuts, the Madison school board took a vote on Madison Prep, a proposed charter school. Fears over diminishing union power, crippling budget problems and the city's glaring achievement gap came to a head in that single vote.

"When someone wants to look outside of the public schools for solutions by giving millions of dollars to unaccountable charter schools, it's concerning to me," says Democratic legislative aide Greg Packnett, who is challenging school board president James Howard largely because of Howard's vote in support of Madison Prep. "I wanted to get in the race and stand up for public schools that are under attack from so many different angles."

Madison Prep was aimed at closing the achievement gap by catering mainly to poor students of color, offering them small class sizes and a challenging curriculum. And although the charter was ultimately defeated amid concerns over accountability, cost and the hiring of non-union teachers and staff, Packnett's candidacy reveals that fears surrounding Madison Prep live on.

"There's a dissatisfaction with the status quo among people of color," says Packnett. "Spending all this money on unaccountable charter schools is not the solution. Those aren't the two choices - the status quo or Madison Prep. That's what the debate got locked into."

But Howard insists the debate over Madison Prep should be long over.

"People need to get over the Madison Prep vote. It's time to move on," says Howard. "I think the community owes that conversation a debt of gratitude instead of looking at it as a divisive time."

Howard believes members of the school board have indeed moved on since the vote, and they're more focused than ever on tackling the achievement gap by increasing summer and after-school program enrollment and working even more closely with groups like the Boys & Girls Club, United Way and the Urban League. But he's not surprised that those same racial divisions are once again being felt.

"What Madison needs to do is get better about talking about race," Howard says. "I don't think we'll be able to make the progress we need to make in any level of our society here in the Madison community until we all get comfortable in dealing with race issues. And that includes issues that may be prevalent in our schools."

High stakes

There is no shortage of voices in Madison saying we need to come together. The stakes, they say, are too high.

"I see a direct correlation between the students who are not making it in our school district and the ones who are ending up in our juvenile justice system and ultimately our criminal justice system," says Madison Police Lt. Wayne Strong.

Strong is running for school board in an effort to help stop what he calls the "school-to-prison pipeline." He's been involved in the YWCA's restorative justice program, teaching kids conflict resolution and problem-solving skills.

Strong points to the high suspension rate among African American students. Nearly a quarter were forced out of school at least once during the 2010-11 academic year for disciplinary reasons. And the graduation rate for African American students remains abysmally low, at just over 50%. Strong insists those numbers should be a major concern to everyone in the district, not just families of color.

"This doesn't just affect African American students or students of color in general. It affects us all. So we've really got to come together and figure out a strategy so that all of our students are being served to the best of the district's ability."

And while Strong would like to see more diversity among school staff and those serving on the board, he says it's going to take more engagement from communities of color to make that happen.

"There needs to be a greater involvement, a greater sense of urgency on the part of people of color to get involved and to make sure that they're turning out to vote, make sure that their voices are heard. And that's how we have to do it," he says.

Strong's challenger for the school board, Dean Loumos, echoes that sense of urgency.

"There are a lot of people who, rightfully so, are frustrated and angry. I believe there's been tension that's existed in this city for a long time," says Loumos. "There's nothing more important right now than for this city to come together to support the best public school system we can have.... If it wasn't clear to people before, it must be clear to them now."

Loumos touts his experience working with kids at La Follette's "School Within a School" program in the 1990s. He's also spent the past 18 years running a nonprofit program focused on finding permanent housing for people who suffer from mental illness.

Loumos believes Madison has been slow to recognize our growing diversity, and even slower to embrace it.

"Change is difficult for people, even people who want to embrace change," he says.

But Loumos remains hopeful that diverse groups will rally around education, unified by the idea of a strong public school system.

"We'll bust through the obstacles that are keeping us apart. This is what I've done my whole career. Win or lose this thing, I'm in on this."

An uncomfortable conversation

It's one thing to say that people in Madison need to come together. It's quite another to actually make it happen.

"There are some people who are screaming at each other," says Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County. "I have seen it from both black folks and white folks. I've seen it from both poor and wealthy folks. It has to stop. While we're arguing and bickering and finger-pointing, our kids are suffering."

Johnson says he rarely gets involved in political issues, but felt obligated to speak out as reaction to Sarah Manski's withdrawal from the school board race became more and more heated.

"Could it have been a conspiracy? I don't know. But how do we learn from this issue, and how do we move on?"

In his three years with the Boys & Girls Club, Johnson has seen "pockets of people trying to do something here and there" to help Madison's poorest and most needy children. But he believes it will take a massive coordinated effort from the public and private sectors to deal with the underlying issues of poverty, hardship and, yes, race that are keeping kids from achieving. And Madison, he says, isn't there yet. It isn't even close.

"Race relations is a very tough subject that people don't want to talk about. It's a very uncomfortable conversation," Johnson says. "But if we can't have a real conversation about issues that are impacting those students who need us the most and their families, we'll be looking at these same issues 50 years from now."

Some warn that by then, all the fears that surrounded the Madison Prep vote - fears of a widening achievement gap, deteriorating schools, and privatization through vouchers and unaccountable charters - will have become a reality.

"If we continue to go down this road, we're going to end up exactly where Milwaukee did, where you have an achievement gap that stuck out like a sore thumb," says Connor. "It was either ignored or not enough was done to address it. And then you had the issue of vouchers and charter schools come up. And you had parents who were sick and tired of watching their kids drop out of school or just being part of a pipeline from dropping out of school to the criminal justice system who said, 'Look, I'm gonna look out for the best interest of my son or daughter. And if I'm not getting it in Milwaukee public schools, then I'm going to get it somewhere else.'"

As for Mertz, who's all but assured a place on the Madison school board, the outcome feels far from a victory.

"I'm in kind of a funny position because in one sense I'm perceived as being part of this power structure. But much of the power structure was backing Sarah Manski and not me," he says.

Mertz says he is ready to find common ground for the good of our schools and our communities. "We're not going to agree about everything, but there are places where we can work together."

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