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Balance of power could shift with school board election

On April 3, voters will elect three members to the Madison Board of Education. At least two will be newcomers, replacing retiring Ruth Robarts and Shwaw Vang, while board president Johnny Winston Jr. is runing for a second term. Victories by Beth Moss and Marj Passman could give Madison Teachers Inc., the teachers union, greater control of the board's majority. A victory by Maya Cole, meanwhile, could provide a continued 4-3 split between MTI-endorsed politicians and more reform-minded officials. Here's a look at the three races.

Seat 5: Maya Cole vs. Marj Passman

Marj Passman says she's preached about the Madison school district's financial crisis for years. 'The community out there is getting it,' says Passman, who is challenging Maya Cole in what is likely to be the closest of three races for seats on the Madison school board.

'We've reached the bottom line,' she says. 'We can no longer sit at the board meeting every week and not say something to the state and federal government.'

The district is hamstrung by state-imposed revenue caps that restrict spending and unfunded federal mandates that drive up costs, she says. Passman's big idea? Investigate a state tax on Internet purchases to finance the public schools.

Increased funding for Madison schools is Passman's central campaign theme, and it stands in stark contrast to Cole, who argues the board needs to be more visionary and forward-thinking while working with legislators to change the state's school-financing system.

Passman, a retired Madison schoolteacher, has the support of the teachers union, Madison Teachers Inc. Her criticisms of revenue caps echo those of other MTI-backed candidates in recent campaigns, including Bill Clingan and Juan Jose Lopez, who were soundly defeated by the liberal insurgents who now back Cole.

Cole is a progressive activist and PTO president whose views align her with board members Ruth Robarts, Lawrie Kobza and Lucy Mathiak. Cole narrowly lost to Arlene Silveira last spring by 70 votes out of 30,000 cast.

Cole says Madison's schools need to pay more attention to issues such as the impact of poverty on students, something she says she knows about as the daughter of farmers who didn't graduate from high school. Cole and her husband, a Dane County court commissioner, have three young boys.

'I really think it's important to find innovative ways of moving our district forward and getting out of old models,' says Cole. She stresses the need for the board to set long-range budgets to avoid the annual paralysis that comes each spring with the debate over budget cuts. 'To sit there and wring our hands and say there's nothing to be done until we get more money' doesn't work, she says.

Cole wants to increase the district's enrollment as a way to generate more state aid. She points to the success other districts have found with charter schools attracting new students, and says the Madison board's rejection of the Studio School charter earlier this year was an example of backward thinking.

Passman rejects such ideas as the Studio School as impractical. 'The decision is moot,' she says. 'We just don't have the money right now. It's silly to even discuss it.'

Passman says her priorities will include organizing a lobbying group of school boards to work against the revenue caps and to find new taxing sources. She says the public's 'complete transformation' on school financing will make this task easier: 'When I started this, I didn't think I'd take on the responsibilities and the mantle of solving these problems.'

Seat 3: Beth Moss vs. Rick Thomas

Beth Moss may be the breakout candidate to emerge in this spring's election. A mother of two and former Peace Corps member, Moss garnered 11,240 votes in the February primary to Rick Thomas' 5,919.

'It's been really gratifying over the past few months to talk to so many people about what they see and want from our schools,' Moss says. A relative newcomer to Madison, she was a leader in a pro-referendum group last fall and has won endorsements from Madison Teachers Inc. and Progressive Dane.

But Moss cautions that those endorsements may be overblown. 'I'm a pretty independent person,' she says.

Moss says she supports charter schools and a 4-year-old kindergarten program. 'It's important that we offer alternatives because every child learns differently, and every family looks for something different in the schools,' she says.

Thomas was a surprise primary winner, edging out Pam Cross-Leone, who had been favored by the reform wing of the school board. Thomas has campaigned on three issues: school safety, accountability and parental involvement. Thomas stresses his working-class background and his experience as a small business owner. He says he's politically independent and criticizes the involvement of political groups in school board campaigns.

'Nobody is talking about classroom climate and safety, but if we're not providing our teachers and children with a good environment, we can't prepare students for the future,' Thomas says. 'We need to focus on some basic things, like listening to teachers, not talking back, and not bullying other kids.'

Seat 4: Johnny Winston Jr. (inc.) vs. Tom Brew

Facing an uninspired challenger, school board president Johnny Winston Jr. may be the first Madison school board incumbent to be re-elected since 2005. Don't expect his victory speech to include any thanks to teachers union leader John Matthews, who has publicly chastised Winston.

'I have no idea why John Matthews has disrespected me the way he has, but it's a shame, because I feel like I should be treated better than that,' says Winston, a Madison firefighter, graduate of West High School and the lone African American on the board.

Matthews pointedly withheld the union endorsement of Winston, despite the fact he is being challenged by self-described 'conservative libertarian' Tom Brew. Matthews told Isthmus last month that he wanted to send Winston a message that 'you just can't sit around and smile and be nice.'

Winston suspects that MTI is snubbing him because he's willing to work with the non-union-endorsed board members. The irony is that Winston has toed the union line on other issues, including voting against a charter school proposal he initially championed.

Brew, a former Dane County Board supervisor, says voters aren't getting their money's worth from the schools, but he's failed to mount an aggressive campaign. Brew has missed several candidate forums because, he says, he never heard about them. He is a lifetime Madisonian who spent two decades working as an insurance agent. He lives on the southwest side and has three grown children.

Winston is also a lifetime Madisonian. His father, John Winston Sr., was the city's first black police officer, and his mother, Mona Winston, is well known for her civic involvement. Winston says being president of the school board 'is the biggest honor I've ever had,' and hopes people have 'seen the growth in me' during his three years on the board.

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