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Passman and Cole talk superintendents for Madison schools
Take Home Test 2007: Week 2, Seat 5

After serving nearly nine years as superintendent of the Madison schools, Art Rainwater will retire on June 30, 2008. This means one of the school board's major tasks will be choosing Rainwater's replacement. In this second week of Take Home Test, Isthmus asks the school board candidates to evaluate Rainwater's performance and explain what they're looking for in his successor.

Here are the responses from the two candidates for Seat 5, Marj Passman and Maya Cole.

The Daily Page: What do you see as the strong and weak points of Art Rainwater's term as superintendent?

Marj Passman
Art Rainwater became superintendent at a difficult time, having had a number of less effective predecessors, and he quickly rebuilt community trust.

As a former teacher, I saw him as a leader whose student-centered philosophy coincided with my own. He was willing to be held accountable for student achievement. He put his job on the line to commit our district to programs necessary to create success.

One part of Art Rainwater's tenure that I will always hold in high esteem is how he attended to the needs of students who have been traditionally marginalized in our schools and in our society -- those children with special needs, English language learners, students in alternative programs, our gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender and questioning students.

On the other hand, I wish I and other teachers could have gotten to know him better. His visits to our schools were too few.

After several poor principal appointments, better decisions on personnel were required and he should have worked with the board to restructure the hiring process.

I wish that there had been a greater effort to include parents, teachers and the public in the decision making process.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Art Rainwater, he is a man of integrity and honor. In other words, he is just the kind of person one wants to be in charge of our children.

Maya Cole
He has faced challenges and great pressures under a spending cap in a growing community. The superintendent had to step in during a volatile time and smooth relations with our teachers' union when they were at an all-time low. He took this in stride and built bridges where none existed between himself and Mr. Matthews.

Publicly, he shares his commitment to all of the children of the Madison Metropolitan School District. Rainwater, along with the MMSD board, had set the focus on closing the achievement gap in reading and math well before this problem was addressed on a national level. The district has also come a long way in getting this message out to the community.

Rainwater has received various awards recognizing his contributions to this trend. So where does he need improvement? I can only answer this question as a candidate, not as a member of the board. I do wish the community had a clearer answer to this. The superintendent wasn't evaluated for several years. We need to ask why. When I look at the categories of his 2006 evaluation, I see his grades are above average in several areas.

I would have expected more improvement in these aspects of his job over the past decade. We should remind ourselves that we are the city of Lake Mendota, not Lake Wobegon. Our women are strong and our men are good-looking, but I want a leader of our district to achieve more than above-average; we expect this from our kids.

What qualities do you want to see in the new superintendent?

Marj Passman
There is a photograph, soon to be on my web site ( of Superintendent Don Hafeman helping me move into Lincoln as Madison's first elementary-school computer teacher. While carrying my boxes into the lab, he noticed Lincoln's highly respected custodian, Joe Guegel. He went up to Joe, who was on his hands and knees scrubbing the lab's carpet, shook his hand and thanked him for all the work he had done to help set up the newly paired school. Joe beamed with gratitude.

I would like the new superintendent to get to know the schools, their staffs, their students, and their parents. I want the uniqueness of our city to be considered in every decision made. I want the good and decent people of my profession to be given the highest respect.

A knowledge of the history of our district should be a priority -- those programs that have succeeded and those in need of improvement. I do not want a radical revolution, but rather a carefully studied evolution directing us into the future. We need a person open to new ideas, but respectful of what we have already accomplished.

Above all, considering the financial constraints, the daily criticism of our schools, and the thankless task of being in the front line of attack from all sides, our new superintendent had better have an awfully thick skin and, at the same time, have some very good answers to some very difficult questions.

Maya Cole
I am thinking of someone like Bill McNeal, former superintendent in Wake County, North Carolina, and recipient of the National Superintendent of the Year award. He now serves as executive director of the North Carolina Association of School Administrators. McNeal worked hard to ensure the 127 schools in Wake County were socio-economically diverse places, he has said, "[because] I am adamantly opposed to have-not schools."

He set ambitious goals, expected high school performance and managed to break down the disconnect between administration and the teachers and staff in the trenches.

I would look for someone who recognizes that leadership is more than advanced degrees and efficient processes -- it encompasses many intangibles, such as imagination, creativity and integrity. Without them, you don't have leadership. Leaders with these traits inspire the community to coalesce around a common purpose.

Some leaders are good at process, management, or analysis. But what we need is someone who is good at building trust and relationships that reward and empower everyone involved in the education of our kids.

What was your favorite movie of 2006 and why?

Marj Passman
This would have been a hard question to answer, if not for a recent visit to some of my grandchildren. I watched one of those movies that any former teacher would have loved to share with her grandsons, Akeelah and the Bee -- talk about a teachable moment!

Akeelah is much like many students in Madison, unsure of her abilities, willing to concede her intelligence, but eventually through hard work, family support and caring educators (yes, caring educators) she comes to realize that she is a strong person. In other words, given the proper set of circumstances, all children can rise to the top.

My grandsons, ages 5 and 7, were glued to the screen, the different cultures coming alive to them. They saw young people in a positive setting, using their intelligence and applying their knowledge. Here was a respect for learning that I could offer to my progeny. It came complete with tension and drama -- would she win or lose?

What more could a grandparent ask for? "See what happens," I told Abe and Jordan, "when you work hard and learn to believe in yourself." It was almost too easy for the story to be used as a lesson for life, but I didn't hesitate -- I went full blast into the Aesopian tales of what we can learn from others.

Thank you Hollywood for giving a grandmother one of those moments of bonding with her grandchildren. All grandparents know how elusive those moments can be.

Maya Cole
I was absorbed by two films. The first was An Inconvenient Truth. I studied the issues of limited resources, global warming and oil shortages for years while in the Biological Aspects of Conservation program here at the university. It's a tough subject to wrap our minds around. This film, however, takes the facts and makes them understandable. Without the usual special effects, Al Gore, many times standing alone on a stage, articulates with passion the need to change. And it works.

Of all the films I have seen over the past few years, this one is as a testament to the value of the fine arts. I had many friends tell me that they changed their driving habits, walked more, bought local or got involved with a conservation group because this film made them feel they had to do something.

My other favorite movie was Duma -- released on DVD in 2006. It's a story of a 12-year-old boy named Xan and his coming of age in South Africa. There's wildlife and adventure. It is sweet without being saccharine.

However, the heart of this movie is the relationship between the boy and a cheetah and their journey to freedom and maturity. Too often "family" movies are geared to kids with short attention spans. This movie deals with death and loss and trust and forgiveness. It is a film that is beautifully made with intelligent storytelling. It is one film that will take me a while to let go in my mind.

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