School Board member Gloria Reyes decided not to recuse herself from a vote on Personalized Pathways Monday night after another member brought up the issue last month.   

After a tense meeting in November led to a delay in a vote, the Madison School Board approved an expansion of the Personalized Pathways initiative Monday night by a 5-2 margin.

Under the expansion, East, La Follette and Memorial high schools would add a second Pathways option focused on information technology and communications. All four of the city’s high schools currently have one Pathways option focused on health services.

Pathways students in MMSD take a set of classes designed around a specific theme, which are then supplemented with experiential learning opportunities such as field trips to area businesses and postsecondary institutions.

The proposal was not set to pass in November after three members — TJ Mertz, Kate Toews and Nick Vander Meulen — voiced their opposition to the expansion. Another member, Gloria Reyes, said in November she would recuse herself from the vote.

On Monday, Mertz and Vander Meulen were the sole nay votes. 

Reyes’ recusal was the subject of controversy on the School Board, ultimately leading to her announcing at a Dec. 3 work group meeting that she would not recuse herself from the vote.

“The day of the initial vote (in November), I was not given the opportunity or the time to make an informed decision,” Reyes said at the work group meeting. “Although I appreciate my fellow board member ensuring that we are accountable to our ethical responsibilities, it was apparent to me that there was politics happening behind the scenes and that is frankly disappointing.”

Mertz had asked MMSD general counsel Matt Bell prior to the November meeting about Reyes’ potential conflict of interest. In addition to being a School Board member, Reyes is the deputy mayor for public safety, civil rights and community services. The city of Madison is one of several partners that works with the district on Personalized Pathways.

Reyes has had to recuse herself from some votes in the past that deal with partnerships between the city and the district. She said earlier this month that she reviewed the Personalized Pathways issue with the Wisconsin Association of School Board’s legal counsel and decided she did not have a conflict of interest because she would have no personal or professional gain from voting in favor of the expansion.  

“We should not play politics on the lives of our children,” Reyes said at the work group meeting. “I was elected to provide a point of view that has been missing from this table. You will not silence me by trying to be the ethical police when it suits your agenda or using your political clout to influence my decision.”

Cindy Green, MMSD’s executive director of secondary programs and Pathways, said recruiting students and the application process for the program won’t start until January because the vote to expand it was delayed until this month.

Nicki Vander Meulen said she opposed the expansion due to having only one year of data on its success. 

"We only have had one year of data and I feel we need more time to implement Pathways before we expand it," Vander Meulen said. 

Kate Toews, who in November opposed the expansion after citing concerns about its effect on the availability of standalone honors classes, voted in favor of Pathways Monday. She said at the work group meeting that she would push for a larger discussion about standalone honors in April 2019.

“I would never want to expand Pathways at the expense of honors classes,” Toews said in November. “I don’t think anyone wants to do that."

Toews offered an amendment Monday night that added language to the Pathways expansion proposal calling for maintained access to standalone honors courses in the 2019-20 school year. The amendment was also approved. 

A report presented to the School Board in early November noted that Pathways students earned on average 0.2 fewer conventional honors credits than their matched peers.

Several people, including a student, East Principal Mike Hernandez and community members spoke in favor of the Pathways expansion during the public comment period. 

The expanded Pathways initiative will affect nearly half of incoming ninth-grade students next year. 

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Education Reporter

Negassi Tesfamichael is the local education reporter at The Cap Times. He joined the paper in 2018. He previously worked as an intern at WISC-TV/ and at POLITICO.