I could rattle off a half-dozen reasons why it's a good thing that Art Rainwater is resigning as Madison's school superintendent in 18 months. But I won't. I wish instead that he was staying on the job.
Rainwater's lame duck status and the uncertainty over his replacement come at a particularly bad moment for the schools.
In education-loving Madison, the schools are the city's pride and joy. But they face huge issues: the influx of educationally disadvantaged poor kids; the loss of middle-class families, who provide the ballast to keep schools on even keel; the deeply troubling "achievement gap" between white and minority students; and the onerous financial squeeze delivered by the state's perverse system of financing K-12 education.
Rainwater knows these issues. He understands how crucial their solution is to Madison's future. I'm sharply critical of some of his personnel and strategic decisions, but I don't doubt his sincerity and commitment to Madison's 24,000-student district.
But most of all, Rainwater deserves praise for recognizing political reality and taking a practical approach. Hardly a shrinking violet as a chief executive, he will back off, recalibrate his position and compromise when he's dealing with a fired-up teachers' union, parent group or the school board.
That's a good thing. The Madison schools need a leader who has strong vision yet is smart enough to trim his sails to the prevailing political winds.
Rainwater also shines as a communicator. He has the rare talent to talk about education in plain, everyday language. He comes across as a caring, regular guy who wants to do well by the kids. His ability to connect to the broader community has been a real asset for the schools.
With his retirement, the dangers are many. Rainwater's lame duck status will steadily diminish his authority. The school board may factionalize and tie itself in knots. A drift in leadership is a distinct possibility.
And who knows how the selection process will play out for his replacement? There may not be strong applicants. The best candidate may not be obvious. The final choice may be divisive. And what if the school board picks the wrong person for the job, as it did with Rainwater's predecessor, Cheryl Wilhoyte?
Given the uncertain outcome, I wish Rainwater had stayed on for a few more years. This is not a good moment for the Madison schools to be searching for a new superintendent.