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L-R: School Board candidates Nicki Vander Meulen, Kate Toews and Ali Muldrow participated in a forum at West High School in Madison on last month.

Three School Board candidates agreed that closing the achievement gap and working to better include marginalized students are priorities for the Madison Metropolitan School District. But how, and how quickly it should be done, was up for debate.

“We can’t change too much too fast when we have one of the largest achievement gaps in the country,” said candidate Ali Muldrow, who faces Kate Toews in the race for Seat 6 on the board. "My children don’t have 10 years for us to improve.”

On Thursday night at Madison West High School, Cap Times education reporter Amber C. Walker and Simpson Street Free Press editor Taylor Kilgore hosted a forum for the upcoming School Board election, asking questions about budgets, charter schools and recruiting teachers of color.

Muldrow and Toews appeared at the forum with Nicki Vander Meulen, who is running unopposed for Seat 7 after incumbent Ed Hughes ended his campaign due to the return of his wife's cancer.

Toews worked in Boston Public Schools as a mediation services coordinator and later gained businesses experience working at consulting firms. Muldrow has worked at multiple MMSD schools as a facilitator, janitor and security guard, and is currently director of youth programming for GSAFE, an organization of LGBTQ youth in schools. Vander Meulen is a juvenile defense attorney, and has defended students facing expulsion.

Much of the conversation between the three hovered around inclusivity and equity for students of color, LGBTQ students, those with disabilities, homeless children and undocumented students.

Muldrow and Vander Meulen addressed their own struggles with being included in their opening remarks, and Toews said one of her major priorities is closing the achievement gap.

“I’m running for the School Board to give a voice to the voiceless,” Vander Meulen said. “I know what it’s like to be treated differently.”

She said that if elected, she would be the first self-identified individual with autism on the Madison School Board.

Muldrow noted that as a woman of color, she wants to represent those looking for “a seat at the table.”

“Part of the reason I’m running is to hold the door open for other people,” Muldrow said.

Muldrow also said that LGBTQ students need to feel safe and celebrate, and pointed to her work with GSAFE to answer a question on how to achieve equitable representation in advanced placement classes, theater and study abroad programs.

“I think that’s kind of my area of expertise, creating inclusive programming is something I've spent my entire adult life doing,” Muldrow said.

Toews said that equitable representation problems start young and have to be addressed with early childhood care and education “to support a whole child from birth to 18.”

Vander Meulen said some of that work involves relying less on tests and more on parent and teacher recommendations to identify gifted kids.

Asked about Madison's controversial Pathways program, Vander Meulen also saw it as an issue of inclusion, as the program does not provide transportation to internships. She also questioned the ability of eighth graders to make decisions that will affect the next five years of their lives. Muldrow was also critical of some aspects of the program, saying students should be empowered to create their own pathways instead of following a tightly formatted program.

Toews said she understands the criticism, but thinks an opportunity for experiential learning means the pilot program should be tested and fine-tuned.

Asked what areas of the budget they would cut or partially cut to allow for spending in other areas, Muldrow pointed to police in schools, Vander Meulen said a top-heavy administration, giving the example of schools with multiple principals, and Toews named Isthmus Montessori Academy. IMA recently received charter status with MMSD and Toews said that move will cost the district $300,000 from the district this year.

Montessori schools, charter schools and voucher programs were issues of contention, as Muldrow argued they are an important alternative for kids who don’t feel at home in their public school environments.

Muldrow placed her daughter at IMA after she had a “harsh experience” in public school, being disciplined for things like getting in line too early. Muldrow clarified that while she does not believe in the privatization of education, she sees the value of Montessori and voucher programs.

“I respect the experience that people have in our schools that make them feel like they’re not a part of their schools,” she said. “Public charters are not a threat to public schools, they are public schools.”

Toews said charter schools should be used to innovate and better serve underserved populations, which the Montessori school, which serves predominantly white, well-off families, doesn’t do. She disapproves of voucher programs, which she said take money away from the district and could lead to the closing of conventional schools.

Vander Meulen said she would never support a voucher program unless it was fully accessible to individuals with disabilities, as she said the programs force children to give up their federal disability rights.

“It’s hard to advocate for a program when you’re not allowed to walk in the front door,” she said.

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Asked how they would better recruit and retain teachers of color, Toews argued competitive pay should be a priority. Muldrow suggested promoting from within schools, like people of color in food service and janitorial jobs, to “allow folks to have upward mobility within their profession.”

Vander Meulen said mentoring programs should be lengthened and the district should try new recruiting tactics like using social media and the internet.

There was also debate about how fast the district should try to change. Toews said that in her business experience, it’s hard to absorb multiple changes at once, and MMSD is currently juggling Pathways, curriculum updates and technology changes. Muldrow said a high rate of not just change, but transformation, is needed.

Toews responded saying that the district should focus on one big area, instead of gradual “drop in the bucket” approaches, and that area should be the racial achievement gap.

In her closing statement, Muldrow pointed again to the necessity of fast change.

“My biggest fear is that we will aim to get better, that we will be really excited to slowly and small-y move toward equity … I am terrified that we would embrace that," she said. “I’m asking for you to aim for the forefront of inclusion with me.”

Toews said she would stand up to the federal and state governments in the face of privatization, invest in teachers and address the achievement gap.

“(Success) depends on us making a choice to innovate within our schools, without resorting to private schools, to vouchers, or turning private schools into public ones,” she said.

Vander Meulen closed by stating that education is a right, not a privilege.

“Every child deserves an excellent public education, but we're not giving that to every child,” she said.

The general election is April 4.

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