A lawyer and former teacher will replace a lawyer and former teacher in the uncontested Madison school board elections on April 1. The result will be the most inexperienced board in years at a particularly important time for the city's public schools.
The school board is perhaps the hardest-working body of local elected officials and, judging by the throngs that flock to public meetings on issues big and small, also the most democratic. While the board's past effectiveness has been marred by infighting and grandstanding, the last two years have been much more congenial, under the presidencies of Johnny Winston Jr. and Arlene Silveira.
After the elections, the seven-member board will lose the inquisitive eye of Lawrie Kobza and the institutional memory of Carol Carstensen. Replacing them are Ed Hughes, a reserved but intriguing lawyer, and Marj Passman, a provocative and passionate retired teacher.
They will join rookies Beth Moss and Maya Cole, who are still struggling to master the issues. Silveira is likely to remain president, and Winston will be the most senior member. Rounding out the board is Lucy Mathiak, whose temper, colleagues say, has muted her effectiveness.
Here's a look at the departures and arrivals.
After 18 years, Carstensen is retiring, taking with her an encyclopedic grasp of school issues. Over time, she has become the board's most identifiable member, a media favorite and smart reader of political tea leaves.
Carstensen grew up in Cleveland, attended college at UW-Madison and got a master's degree in teaching at Yale. She taught for a few years in Washington, D.C., before returning to Madison in 1973 when her husband was hired as a UW law professor.
In 1990, she ran for school board against incumbent Earl Kielley, a conservative who challenged district policies against Christmas tree displays and a health curriculum that described homosexuality as normal. The race drew national attention, including Kielley's appearance on Pat Robertson's 700 Club.
"I thought he was destructive to the board and the image of the district," says Carstensen. In "a wilder campaign than I could have imagined," she trounced Kielley, and has since handily won four more citywide elections.
Over the years, Carstensen has learned to "hold my tongue and not take the potshots" that other board members have reveled in. She's also learned a thing or two about dealing with the public.
"All you can do is give people facts and information," she says. "Usually people in this community will come down on the right side of an issue." Her experience as a mother has helped: "Sometimes, you just have to keep your mouth shut and let people learn from their mistakes. You don't always have to explain to people why they are wrong."
Three years ago, Kobza was elected to the board as a protégé of Ruth Robarts, who had become a lone dissenter in a sea of self-righteousness.
"There was a lot of talking and moralizing," Kobza says of the board she joined. "Certain members were really using the board as a forum to make statements of their personal views, and because of that the business of the school district really got short shrift."
Kobza soon showed she wasn't a politician who liked the sound of her own voice. She was almost always the most prepared board member, having obviously studied the issues at hand. She spoke with the precision of a lawyer and was able to make progress on several of her priorities.
"I really do think I made decisions by always thinking about the big picture," she says. But Kobza never seemed quite at home in the political arena, and was never as comfortable as some of her colleagues - notably Carstensen and Winston. She's looking forward to freeing up personal time, and won't miss the nastiness.
"You get to see a lot of the negative side of people when they're advocating strongly for one thing that they want," she says. "People say a lot of uncaring things."
After losing to Maya Cole in last April's election, Passman chastised the local media for not robustly covering her campaign. Now running unopposed, she apparently wishes even less had been said.
Although never before expressing concern, Passman nearly refused to meet with Isthmus for an interview. She says a mention of her "thick New York accent" in an article last year was anti-Semitic and that "50 people" called her to express outrage at this description. She faults Isthmus for downplaying her call to eliminate state revenue caps and thinks the paper mocked her proposal for an Internet sales tax by calling it a "big idea." And she says Isthmus stirred up trouble by reporting inflammatory comments she'd posted online criticizing Maya Cole and Lucy Mathiak as lacking "any sense of depth."
Passman's reputation for divisiveness - like her thin skin - is often on display. Her challenge, much like Mathiak's, will be to balance a strong personality with the need to work well with others.
But Passman, a retired Madison schoolteacher, is deeply engaging when trading stories from the classroom. She talks passionately about society's need to combat the social ills that affect public school students, including drug abuse, affordable housing and health care.
"Schools can't do this alone," she says. "We need the city, county, state and federal governments with us."
A Madison attorney, Hughes says the deeper he looks at school issues, the less easy it becomes to make snap judgments: "Everything is more complicated than it first appears."
Hughes, who admires Kobza's inquisitiveness and independence, says school safety and academic rigor will be high priorities, as will summer school expansion and launching a music and arts festival to showcase student work and raise money. He hopes to be a cheerleader for the district in the business and professional communities, and says a successful school district is essential to Madison's economic vitality.
"The schools are the first domino, and people are concerned about the first domino falling," he says. Already, "I know lots of folks who don't send their kids to Madison schools, for lots of reasons."
An expected referendum next year will require community support, and the school board must show it's not ignoring the issues.
Without downplaying the district's fiscal challenges, Hughes says "it's possible to use the revenue caps as an excuse not to do anything. If I were really working to change the revenue caps, I'd be working for the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee. I'm running for the school board because I want to change Madison schools."