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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 55.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Chafing at charters
District aims to kill Studio School; will 'reformers' go along?
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Kobza and Mathiak will likely decide the school's fate.
Kobza and Mathiak will likely decide the school's fate.

Among the issues that divide members of the current Madison school board, none is more urgent than whether to support a third charter school.

At stake is the Studio School, a new charter that hopes to open next fall inside Emerson Elementary (see "Chartering Change," 11/10/06). The school would start with two classes of kindergarten and first-grade students and expand to a K-5 elementary school with 142 students by 2009.

But the Studio School is hitting roadblocks, and its fate is uncertain. This week, district officials presented the board with a 21-page memo opposing the Studio School. The memo mainly cited budget concerns but also claimed that no research supported the school's constructivist teaching philosophy for elementary students.

District officials have long been cool to charter schools. Three years ago, Superintendent Art Rainwater opposed Nuestro Mundo, a Madison charter school now hailed as a success. Nuestro Mundo went forward only after the school board ordered him to make it work.

Now, backers of the Studio School have until March 1 to convince four of the seven current school board members to again overrule Rainwater. That seemed an easier prospect several months ago, but currently only Ruth Robarts and Johnny Winston Jr. appear entirely supportive.

Carol Carstensen remains steadfastly opposed, while Arlene Silveira has indicated she'll likely vote no. Shwaw Vang has given mixed signals.

That leaves Lawrie Kobza and Lucy Mathiak, viewed as reformers after they ousted popular incumbents by presenting themselves as change agents. And both have suggested they could go either way.

"My ultimate vote will depend on whether it's absolutely cost-neutral," Kobza said Monday night. "If there's any additional cost, I cannot support it."

Mathiak calls herself "heatedly ambivalent," saying she's concerned about staffing costs from low student-teacher ratios and uncertainty about future expansion plans.

At Monday's hearing, the Studio School was supported by about a dozen citizens, including Ray Allen and Peter Muñoz, two challengers in April's mayoral race.

"I think you need to be responsive to the needs of middle-class parents," just as the district is to poorer families, said Allen, a former school board member. Muñoz said he initially opposed charter schools until his work with Nuestro Mundo, and now sees the Studio School as a "great value" for the city.

But citizen praise was matched by district badmouthing. At every stage, district officials exaggerated the potential problems posed by the school, and at no point did they provide evidence that they had worked to resolve them.

For example, Rainwater wants the 44-student school to have its own full-time principal and secretary, while Studio School backers want to save money by sharing Emerson's resources.

Rainwater's insistence on spending more money, which could torpedo the proposal, left some shaking their heads. Kobza asked whether it would make sense to even consider other charters, as Rainwater's rules would make them financially unviable.

Rainwater, amazingly, conceded the point: "I agree that you would never have a charter school" given these requirements, he said.

And that revealed one the larger truths of the Studio School debate. For all of his successes, Rainwater has resisted attempts to tinker with the status quo. Instead of seriously and creatively considering how to make the Studio School proposal work, his administration has done everything possible to find reasons to oppose it.

The question now is whether Kobza and Mathiak will sit back and let this opportunity slip away.

How Kobza and Mathiak vote will do more than establish whether they're serious about pushing for change and innovation. It may also affect this spring's political campaigns, especially given their ties to Maya Cole and Pam Cross-Leone, who are also running as reformers.

Ironically, Robarts and Winston have emerged as the board's strongest leaders on reform efforts.

Robarts, who is retiring at the peak of her influence, on Monday again demonstrated her problem-solving ability, convincing a majority of her colleagues to direct district officials to meet with Studio School supporters and hammer out as many differences as possible.

Winston, meanwhile, is finishing his first year as board president with an impressive record of uniting his colleagues. As the Studio School's biggest board supporter, Winston is also cementing his reputation as an innovator.

Supporters of the Studio School were visibly disappointed Monday. But some recall the night in 2004 when Nuestro Mundo won approval and its supporters wept for joy.

"We kind of expected a tough night," says organizer Nancy Donahue. "But some of these things can be worked out immediately if the district just sits down with us."

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