Nearly everyone who spends time watching the Madison school board in action agrees it has been transformed. Even the board's harshest critics say it's doing better at tackling fiscal, managerial and achievement-related problems than in years past.
Many attribute this change to a loss of influence, due to retirement and voter rejection, by a bloc of members who've long controlled the agenda.
Next April, three of the board's seven seats are up for election, and voters could give a decisive majority to reformers, who've picked up seats in the past two elections. That would solidify the rejection of those who've pointed to state-imposed revenue caps as the biggest hurdle to improving Madison's schools.
Last year's election softened bright-line divisions, and board votes are no longer as predictable. But election endorsements and campaign donations still reveal two distinct factions. One is made up of reformers Ruth Robarts, Lawrie Kobza and Lucy Mathiak; the other consists of Carol Carstensen, Arlene Silveira, Shwaw Vang and Johnny Winston Jr.
Already, candidates are seeking endorsements and aligning themselves with one of the two factions. The filing deadline is Jan. 5.
Among the key issues will be how the candidates approach budget constraints, stagnant student achievement, and a decline of middle- and upper-class families coupled with growth of low-income and minority students.
So far, two candidates say they'll be running for Seat 5, to replace Robarts, who's retiring at the peak of her influence.
The first is Maya Cole, the stay-at-home mom of three young boys. Cole lost last spring to Silveira by 70 votes out of more than 30,000 cast. Cole is backed by Robarts, Kobza and Mathiak, and is already drawing criticism from the other side.
'I realize I'm the target,' says Cole, who admits to thinking twice about running again because of attacks against her. 'A lot of things blew my mind about the democratic process for a supposedly nonpartisan seat on the local school board.'
Cole, a progressive activist, has practical experience as president of Franklin-Randall's PTO. She talks ably about educational policy and often cites national studies and experimental projects.
Running against Cole is Marj Passman, a retired Madison schoolteacher of 25 years, with two grown children and five grandchildren.
'I don't want to sound Clintonian, but it's the revenue caps, stupid,' says Passman with her thick New York accent, naming the biggest issue facing the district. 'They're killing us,' she says. But Passman is hopeful that changes in state law will come following the re-election of Gov. Jim Doyle and turnover in the state Legislature.
A former elementary, middle and high school teacher, Passman says a teacher's perspective is sorely needed on the board. And she's eager to 'continue the good will' that's surfaced on the current board, saying approval of November's referendum shows high community support for schools.
Passman's dilemma will be how to embrace the good will of those she's blasted in the past. In a letter published before the last board election, Passman attacked citizens who participate in the schoolinfosystem.org blog and proclaimed she never saw 'any sense of depth' coming from Cole and Mathiak. She said the pair 'have no trust in our schools' and that their 'incessant attacks on our schools are beginning to wear thin.'
A primary election appears likely for Seat 3, to replace retiring Shwaw Vang.
Beth Moss, whose family moved to Madison four years ago, has degrees from Duke University and the University of London, and spent two years with the Peace Corps in central Africa. She taught French one year in the Rio Grande Valley. She cites state financing as the biggest issue facing the district.
'I really feel that we should appreciate our schools, and it would be nice to have somebody with my perspective on the board,' says Moss, who has a 12-year-old daughter on track to take advanced courses and a 14-year-old autistic son who needs special help. 'I've come into this district, and I feel really good about our schools. They're such a gift to the city of Madison.'
Moss and Passman are allies from the pro-referendum group Community and Schools Together (CAST), and will likely have the support of Carstensen, Silveira and Winston.
Also running for Vang's seat is Pam Cross-Leone, who's long been active in school parent groups. Her two children attended Emerson, Sherman and East, each during times of crisis and turmoil.
'We've had a rough go at our schools, but I've always stayed involved,' she says. 'A lot of work needs to be done all the time to make sure you've got a great education for everyone ' for those heading to college and for those who seek working-class jobs after high school.'
A customer-service trainer and former union steward at Madison Gas and Electric, Cross-Leone runs the concession sales for East's football and basketball games and is an active member of the school's booster club. She's also a United Way volunteer.
Cross-Leone says she's been recruited to run for the board in the past, but was dissuaded by its 'divisiveness and nastiness.' She already has the support of Kobza, Robarts and Mathiak.
A third candidate for Seat 3 is Rick Thomas, a small-business and real estate consultant. Thomas has a degree in education from the UW-Madison and owned and operated Right Touch Drycleaners for 12 years. He and his wife live on the west side and have an 8-year-old son who attends Orchard Ridge.
'I've had experience knowing how to run a business that isn't top-heavy,' says Thomas, who'd like to direct money away from administration and into classrooms. 'I want to make the school district a little more lean. I'd do everything I can to make sure we don't have a referendum on the ballot every year.'
Thomas says the biggest issue facing the district ' and the main reason some people want to pull their kids from the schools ' is 'not about curriculum or achievement, but worries over safety and security.'
The third seat up for election is held by Winston, the board's most politically ambitious member. Winston has fulfilled campaign promises by launching community partnerships and promoting positive change on the board. Even his critics agree Winston has been instrumental as board president in setting an aggressive agenda and reducing the infighting.
Perhaps as a sign of Winston's appeal, no one has announced plans to run against him. But he's not breathing easy yet.
'The school board elections have not been kind to incumbents,' says Winston. 'People want things to be different. I get that. I'm working hard, and I'd like three more years.'