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Monday, July 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Saving our schools
East-siders rally to protect their neighborhoods

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The sun came up over the near east side Tuesday morning. It wasn't supposed to. Forecasters said to expect thunderstorms. But for an hour or so, sunshine painted the upper branches of the sugar maples that line the streets within the heart of the isthmus.

For those of us in the Lapham and Marquette neighborhoods, it was hard to avoid the symbolism. Clear skies rode in on the fair winds of change at the previous night's school board meeting. The board's earlier decision to consolidate Lapham and Marquette schools at Lapham - and close Marquette - was reversed.

The original decision was a harsh product of the inexorable pressure of state revenue caps on the school budget. The reversal was a product of many things. Among them, a courageous, open-minded school board willing to, as board member Johnny Winston Jr. put it, "think outside the box."

It was also the result of thousands of hours of advocacy work by Marquette and Lapham residents, including many neighbors who don't even have children in the schools.

The month-long drama also produced a new Madison label: "politically affluent." Most of my neighbors were incensed when a school board member, wrestling with her original vote to close Marquette, branded us as such. We were guilty, in her eyes, of bullying the board into re-sculpting the budget to suit our needs.

This was odd: to be accused by a public servant of the crime of participating in the political process. The board, after all, is elected, and we had paid close attention to which candidates this spring had promised to not close neighborhood schools.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, then, in the ecstatic afterglow of the vote to reverse Monday, when a reporter approached me in the Doyle Administration Building parking lot. "How can your neighborhood's actions be seen as anything but selfish?"

I told her she had the question wrong. If we all agree that public schools are important, isn't a neighborhood that doesn't band together to stop a school closing committing a selfish act of indifference?

Beth Moss' plan to stop the consolidation was an unselfish act itself. It required the newly elected board member to publicly switch her position after first voting to close Marquette. Her description of her new plan, and Lawrie Kobza's questioning of it, served as the debate's yin and yang. Kobza was interested in the budget numbers within the buildings. Moss was interested in the lives within the buildings.

The board's student representative distilled the debate down to a single line: Saving $80,000 simply wasn't enough money to justify closing a neighborhood school.

The 80 grand was $170,000 short of what Marquette neighborhood activist Bob Queen offered the district a week ago. To keep the pairing intact, Queen was prepared to bankroll the purchase and development of a little-used slice of the O'Keeffe field. His plan was backed with a check for $250,000, which he waved before the board.

Queen's dramatic gesture changed the dynamics of the debate. It got people outside the Lapham and Marquette neighborhoods to start asking their own school-closing questions.

Though it seems like a year ago, I attended a meeting last Wednesday in Superintendent Art Rainwater's office to discuss Queen's proposal. As I expected, Rainwater pointed out that Queen's - and any plan this spring - was a temporary fix. A one-year reprieve from the yearly budget ax. "You don't understand revenue caps, Andy," he said.

But I do understand revenue caps. Revenue caps were the exact reason we were in his office with a Band-Aid solution.

It's the reason our neighborhood, and perhaps your own, will be back next year if needed with a different Band-Aid. And back again the year after that. Revenue caps don't discourage those of us who are committed to public schools. They motivate. In the age of caps, to not come up with a temporary fix is to lie down and watch neighborhood schools die.

My wife, Peggy, wept in my arms when the vote was taken. Her body shook up and down against my own as I held her. She's a third-grade Marquette teacher who's taught there long enough to see neighborhood children from her classroom graduate from high school, get jobs, go to college, and sometimes go to prison.

She's as devoted to them as she is to the students she'll hug goodbye next month. Monday night, she wept harder than she has since her father passed away many years ago.

There's a pride that goes with those tears. It's also deep inside her fellow staffers at Marquette and Lapham. It comes from living and working in a place that has always embraced people from the most difficult circumstances. This requires extra work of teachers. More than anyone, they know the profound payoffs their labors can produce.

This is exactly why Lapham and Marquette staff will do right by the alternative education programs that will also be anchored in their buildings next fall. It won't be easy, but their experience in the classroom and on the streets of our neighborhoods will create an environment that will inextricably weave the young souls of the needy together with the young souls of those who are better equipped.

All of this will be worth the pain of the last several weeks. And Madison will be a healthier city for it.

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