The nine candidates in a crowded primary for three seats on the Madison School Board made their case to an audience gathered at Christ Presbyterian Church Tuesday evening.
The forum, organized by the Grandparents United for Madison Public Schools, was the first time the candidates shared the stage during the current election cycle.
The fast-paced forum moved quickly through a number of issues, ranging from how the School Board should handle new programs and initiatives started in the district and how best to evaluate them, to how they would handle hypothetical situations that might arise if elected.
Candidates also answered several yes-or-no questions on their support of Wisconsin’s private school voucher program, emergency licenses for teachers, restoring collective bargaining rights for teachers and itemizing the amount of a local property tax bill that goes to fund private schools.
Kaleem Caire, the founder and CEO of One City Schools, is running against Cris Carusi, a University of Wisconsin-Madison employee and public education advocate, for Seat 3. Both candidates will likely advance through the primary race since a third candidate, Skylar Croy, withdrew from the race last month. Croy’s name will still be on the Feb. 19 ballot.
For Seat 4, four candidates are seeking to advance through the primary, which will narrow that race to two candidates. Laila Borokhim, a local restaurant owner and district parent, is running against Albert Bryan, a semi-retired 85-year-old physician, as well as conservative blogger and former Dane County Board supervisor David Blaska and co-executive director of GSAFE, Ali Muldrow.
Current School Board member TJ Mertz is seeking re-election to Seat 5, and faces two challengers in the 2019 race: Amos Roe, a professional pianist and piano teacher, and Ananda Mirilli, an equity consultant for the Department of Public Instruction.
Mertz said with two current School Board members leaving in April, it’s important to have members who are willing to engage in all the work involved with serving on the seven-person governing body.
“Slogans, platitudes, buzzwords aren’t what being on the Board of Education is about,” Mertz said. “It’s about work.”
Mertz also said he was committed to building trust between the Madison Metropolitan School District and the community through increased transparency.
“You can’t build trust unless you practice trust,” Mertz said. “You can’t build trust when parents and community members have to do open records requests to get basic information from the school district.”
Ananda Mirilli focused on her experience working for racial equity at DPI, the YWCA of Dane County and MMSD, saying her expertise will lead to a shift in how the School Board and district handle racial equity.
“That’s what we need in Madison,” Mirilli said. “We need a shift in how we do things.”
Mirilli explained the difference between equity and equality as important to understand when deciding how new programs should be introduced across many different schools across the district.
Amos Roe focused on the big themes of his campaign, namely school choice. Roe said he would represent good teachers and not engage in identity politics if elected.
Roe also lamented the need for numerous committees and outside evaluations for certain programs and issues the district deals with.
“When I go to get my car fixed, if it’s not fixed well, I don’t need a committee to tell me I should go to a different mechanic,” Roe said. “If I go to a restaurant and don’t like the restaurant, I don’t need a committee to tell me that I need to go to a different restaurant.”
Roe and Seat 4 candidate Blaska were the only candidates to say they supported the Wisconsin Parental Choice program, which allows students to receive a voucher to attend private schools. The two were also the only candidates to say they did not support itemizing voucher school costs on property tax bills.
Caire said he did not support the statewide parental choice program but did support Milwaukee’s. In addition to the statewide and Milwaukee programs, Racine also has one.
Blaska and Roe were also the only candidates to say they did not support restoring collective bargaining rights for teachers that were stripped in Act 10, a bill passed under the Gov. Scott Walker administration. Roe said he did not support having the state Legislature get rid of an emergency certification process passed in the last state budget that allows teachers to get their license through a 10-month online course.
Blaska blasted the district’s Behavior Education Plan, which was first introduced five years ago to address disparities in student suspension rates. The conservative blogger said that the recent uptick of crimes committed around the city by youth are tied to what’s happening in Madison schools.
“(The BEP) has directly led to the disorder in the classrooms,” Blaska said.
Bryan said MMSD has to focus on early childhood learning to avoid continuing to have a wide achievement gap between white and minority students.
“I think the most important thing is to bring all the preschool level experiences up to the maximum that every child can handle, because that’s when they learn the fastest,” Bryan said. “If they miss the critical period, you can’t make up for it later on.”
Borokhim said MMSD needs to improve its evaluation process for programming.
“I view the education system as a fluid entity. All the parts are constantly moving and constantly changing, so you need to continuously evaluate all the time,” Borokhim said. “I also am not for outside consultants coming in. We know ourselves best, and our students know themselves best.”
Muldrow pointed to her experience creating more inclusive curricula through GSAFE as important to making sure schools are addressing the needs of young people.
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to learning,” Muldrow said. “We have to be able to modify curriculum to meet the needs of a diverse population of young people.”
Caire said the district has a chance to take the lead on adapting to rapid changes in how students are learning in the 21st century.
“I think there’s an opportunity to create new schools. I think, for example, we should have a trades school that focuses on advanced manufacturing,” Caire said. "I think we should have a performing arts school, those types of things.”
Carusi said her years of grassroots organizing have helped inform and prepare her to help narrow the achievement gap.
“It’s one thing to speak broadly about public education. It’s another thing to understand and be able to articulate specific, concrete solutions to help turn around our schools and help close gaps,” Carusi said. “That’s what I bring to the table.”
The primary election is Feb. 19. The general election is April 2.