On Tuesday night, the ground floor meeting room at Christ Presbyterian Church overflowed with people gathered to hear from six candidates running for two seats on the Madison School Board.
Over 150 people attended the forum, hosted by Grandparents United for Madison Public Schools. The primary election is February 21 and the two winning candidates for each seat will face off in the general election on April 4.
Seat 7 incumbent Ed Hughes shared a table with his opponents Matt Andrzejewski and Nicki Vander Meulen. Hughes ran unopposed in prior School Board contests. School Board Seat 6 is open since incumbent Michael Flores decided not to seek a second term. Candidates Cris Carusi, Ali Muldrow, and Kate Toews hope to win his seat.
Given the large number of candidates and limited time for the event, participants offered opening and closing statements, responded to seven questions and limited their answers to 90 seconds. Nan Brien, former School Board president and GRUMPS member asked for each candidate's stance on topics ranging from budget appropriations to redesigning the middle school experience.
All candidates agreed that, if elected, they would actively work to increase wages for the lowest paid workers in the district, including special education assistants and food service staff. However, opinions slightly diverged regarding how to recruit and retain qualified teachers. Vander Meulen thought teachers should earn more money and the district should cover health premiums.
Andrzejewski said the bottom line is “budget choices,” and more money should go into teachers' pockets directly, versus supplementary education materials.
“We don’t need a lot of newfangled, fancy things,” he said. “We need good teachers and we need to pay them well.”
Hughes reminded listeners that 85 percent of the district’s budget is already spent on salary and benefits, and the board should involve teachers in the compensation negotiation process.
“We can sit down and think if there is a better way to allocate that, and I think that we should, but it’s got to be a collaborative undertaking with our teachers,” he said.
Muldrow said the best way to tackle the teacher shortage was to make teaching more racially diverse and inclusive. She suggested the district “tackle how we hire teachers by looking at our students,” she said.
“What are students allowed to see themselves become?” she asked.
Toews and Carusi both agreed that the district needs improved working conditions for teachers. Toews told the audience that she visited the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s teaching program, and students were hesitant to apply to MMSD because of the low starting salary. She said the district needs to do more to “make sure (teachers) have a say in what their day looks like.”
Carusi acknowledged the teacher shortage, but was firm that she does not think the district should loosen hiring requirements to attract more applicants. She also pointed to MMSD’s behavior education plan as a focus area to improve teacher working conditions.
“We have to spend the money to make (the behavior education plan) work. We have to provide small class sizes and support in the school building,” she said. “To ensure that our teachers have safe working conditions where they can implement restorative practices effectively.”
Brien also asked candidates how they plan to deal with controversial issues. She highlighted the roll out of Personalized Pathways and the Educational Resource Officers' contract negotiations as recent examples of hot button issues.
Carusi liked how the School Board handled the ERO question by forming an ad-hoc committee.
“I think it’s a model we can use to resolve other controversial issues in the district,” she said.
Muldrow said, if elected, she would work to bring more diverse voices to the table, including students and people that may not be able to make it to School Board meetings in person.
She asked, “How do we broaden and expand people’s ability to interact with the School Board and their schools?”
Toews said “listening to people with different opinions is one of the most important jobs of any elected official.” Speaking as a parent, she said that it is sometimes difficult to keep up with all the initiatives in the school district. If elected, she wants to develop a process for garnering community input about what issues the district should focus on.
“I would love to bring more focus to what we are working on. If we as a community can say ‘Here’s the one thing we have to get right over the next three years,’ let’s focus on that,” she said.
Andrzejewski echoed Toews’ sentiment about focus, saying that the district should direct its energy into teachers and focus less on grant-funded programs, like pathways.
“Our superintendent told us that she felt teachers were suffering from ‘initiative fatigue,’” he said. “If we are going to focus on teachers, let’s focus on teachers instead of hitting them over the head with one initiative after another.”
Hughes defended the board’s work, asserting that it is able to focus on more than one issue at a time. Hughes clarified that pathways started with grant funding, but the implementation process is in the district’s budget. While Hughes defended pathways’ merits, he said the board should critically evaluate the program after the first year.
“My view is that we ought to slow down on the pathways,” he said. “Right now, the proposal is we’ll get a second pathway going in the second year. I don’t think we should do that. I think we should stop and look at how the first pathway is working and talk to each of the high schools about a next pathway that makes sense for them.”
Vander Meulen said the board needs more transparency and accessibility to the public.
"We need our communities engaged," she said. "Why are we making people come to the board? The board should come to them."