Since 2007, there have been nine elections for seats on the Madison School Board. Only two have been contested. Thus, in seven instances, a candidate was elected or re-elected without having to persuade the community on the merits of his or her platform, without ever facing an opponent in a debate.

This year, two seats on the School Board are hotly contested, a political dynamic that engages the community and that most members of the board welcome.

"What an active campaign does is get the candidate out and engaged with the community, specifically on larger issues affecting the school district," says Lucy Mathiak, a School Board member who is vacating one of the seats that is on the April 3 ballot.

Competition may be healthy, but it can also be ugly. While the rhetoric in this year's School Board races seems harmless compared to the toxic dialogue we've grown accustomed to in national and state politics, there is a palpable tension that underpins the contests.

Teachers and their union worry that Gov. Scott Walker's attacks on collective bargaining rights and support for school vouchers could gain more traction if candidates who favor "flexibilities" and "tools" get elected to the board. Meanwhile, many in the black community feel their children are being neglected because policy-makers are not willing to challenge the unions or the status quo. District officials must contend with a rising poverty level among enrolled students and concerns about "white flight."

In addition to massive cuts to education funding from the state, the current anxiety about the future of Madison's schools was fueled by last year's debate over the proposed Madison Preparatory Academy, a charter school plan devised by Kaleem Caire, the head of the Urban League of Greater Madison, to help minority students who are falling behind their white peers in academic achievement. Minority students in the Madison district have only a 48 percent four-year graduation rate and score much lower on standardized tests than do white students.

Objections to Madison Prep varied. Some thought creating a school focused on certain racial groups would be a step backward toward segregation. Others disliked the plan for its same-sex classrooms.

However, what ultimately killed the plan was the Urban League's decision to have the school operate as a "non-instrumentality" of the Madison Metropolitan School District, meaning it would not have to hire union-represented district teachers and staff. In particular, Caire wanted to be able to hire non-white social workers and psychologists, few of whom are on the district's current staff.

To Caire, the lack of cultural diversity among school staff is one of the reasons so many black children feel alienated and misunderstood. It is why, he says, more than 40 percent of black students in the district are diagnosed with learning disabilities.

To hire a psychologist from outside the district, however, would have been a violation of the union contract. So Caire gave up on trying to work within the district and asked the board to approve a charter that would allow Madison Prep to hire its own teachers and staff.

The board rejected the plan, 5-2, in December.

Nevertheless, the legacy of the debate has shaped the races for School Board. Caire has framed the board's decision as a slap in the face to the black community, and has vowed to help unseat members who voted against Madison Prep.

"The black community is dying," he says. "But (the decision-makers) don't suffer the consequences. It's frustrating and it's not fair."

Meanwhile, others in the community are reacting strongly against what they see as a campaign to demonize the existing public school system and its teachers, who are already feeling browbeaten in light of Walker's curbs on collective bargaining rights.

"(Caire) wants to come in and be our partner — and trashes our school system," says Maya Cole, a School Board member who opposed Madison Prep. "I think it's immoral to criticize people who want to dedicate their lives to helping kids."

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The biggest vindication for Caire would come in the form of a defeat of Arlene Silveira, the incumbent School Board member that his colleague at the Urban League, Nichelle Nichols, is challenging. Silveira says she could not support Madison Prep for a variety of reasons, from its non-instrumentality status to the administrative fees the Urban League had requested to operate the school (totaling $900,000 over five years).

In a typical year, Silveira would likely face an easy re-election. Articulate and personable, she enjoys a broad base of support that includes endorsements from prominent political figures such as Mayor Paul Soglin, half of the members of the Madison City Council and nearly half of the members of the Dane County Board. Significantly, she is also backed by Madison Teachers Inc, the union that represents Madison teachers.

Silveira wants to make sure people remember there are other questions the School Board must address besides charter school proposals.

"There are many, many issues facing this district and we're not doing justice to the community (by focusing on Madison Prep)," she says.

A significant question facing the School Board is how the district will proceed after its collective bargaining agreement with MTI expires in June 2013. Assuming Walker's collective bargaining changes remain in place, teachers will no longer be able to bargain over most of what the current 157-page contract covers, from benefits to planning time to methods of teacher evaluation.

In the questionnaire that MTI asked all board candidates to fill out, Silveira indicated she would support implementing the current contract as district policy even after it expires. That may have earned her the endorsement of MTI. Yet, she says she is hopeful that the district will be able to work with teachers to develop some new policies, possibly including some that Madison Prep proposed, such as longer school days.

She believes MTI can be a partner in developing compromises, as it was when the board sought to hire additional 4-year-old kindergarten teachers from outside the district. In that instance, MTI approved a "memorandum of understanding" that allowed some non-MTI members to teach in city schools.

But fellow board member Ed Hughes sees Silveira's commitment to MTI as an absurd giveaway to the union at the expense of students.

"The pledge of the MTI-endorsed candidates isn't to exercise good judgment, it's a pledge to renounce the exercise of any judgment at all," he says.

•    •    •    •

Nichelle Nichols is also skeptical of approving the collective bargaining agreement as district policy. "I'm committed to teachers having the support and basic work rights they deserve to be effective, but at the same time, we have an achievement gap that is going to require us to do things differently," says Nichols, who is the Urban League's vice president of learning.

"I think we need a commitment from all parties to have the flexibilities to run our schools," she continues.

In the era of Scott Walker, words like "flexibilities" and "tools" make many progressives nervous, a dynamic that Nichols and her supporters are keenly aware of.

"There's a lot of misunderstanding," she sighs. "That I have the Koch brothers running my campaign, or that because I supported Madison Prep I'm anti-teacher or anti-union."

"I wouldn't be running if I didn't think this school district (has) all the potential to succeed."

Indeed, Nichols proudly points out that all four of her sons attend or graduated from Madison public schools.

"My whole reason for running has always been to give voice to families, particularly minority families who need representation at the top," she says.

At a recent campaign get-together at Cargo Coffee on Madison's south side, the candidate described her experience in the 1980s as a biracial student at Madison West High School to two retired black women, both of whom worry the schools do not have the resources to deal with the needs of a burgeoning population of low-income students.

"I don't know where these teachers get the answers but somebody's got to help these teachers help these students," says Joan Brooks, a retired state employee who moved to Madison in 1961. "I think they feel overwhelmed."

Nichols agrees. "There are many teachers I know who are giving up prep time and lunch and are staying until 7-8 and busting their butts. But I think there are lots of teachers who are struggling; they do not know what to do."

However, she also believes too many decision-makers only want to focus on the hardships that teachers face in trying to educate impoverished children, rather than address the struggles the students themselves face. Like Caire, she believes hiring more minority teachers is key.

"The pool of diverse (teacher) candidates isn't large enough in Madison," she says. "But based on the way vacant positions are handled in the (union) contract … we don't have provisions that allow us to make external hires."

Kong Vang, a Hmong special education teacher in the district, agrees more minority teachers are needed, saying the disconnect between Hmong students and school staff is even more acute.

"One of the struggles Hmong students face is their identity in America. Their history and culture is not recognized throughout the community," Vang says. "We need to retrain adults to realize that their first language is an asset, not a detriment."

Although Nichols says she would have preferred Madison Prep to be an instrumentality of the school district, she says much of the suspicion of the Urban League proposal was the result of Madison's racial insecurity.

"I think we're uncomfortable with a segment of the community mobilizing and saying 'we've got a solution and we can do it ourselves,'" she says. "We have this notion of being inclusive and committed to multiculturalism, but when you really hear a section of the community saying we have issues, I think people don't know what to do with that."

She insists that she had little to do with the Madison Prep proposal in her position at the Urban League.

"Even though I had this title, I was not a part of the conversations between the administration, (the teachers union) and the Urban League," she says.

How could the organization's lead woman on education not be involved in one of the group's most prominent education endeavors?

Nichols says her position focuses on providing oversight for the existing partnerships the Urban League has with schools in Madison, Oregon, Sun Prairie and Middleton, such as an ACT prep program the group runs for first generation college-bound students and a court diversion program for students with criminal records.

Nevertheless, the link between Nichols and Caire isn't likely to be severed in voters' minds. In fact, his wife, Lisa, is her campaign manager.

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In the other School Board race, Mary Burke, a philanthropist who pledged $2.5 million to Madison Prep, is running against Michael Flores for the seat Mathiak is vacating.

For Burke, the decision to run was simply her latest endeavor to improve the Madison public schools. Over the past decade, the former Trek Bicycle executive has devoted much of her time and money to education projects in the area, from the Boys and Girls Club to AVID/TOPS, a college preparation program she co-founded for first generation college-bound students.

Burke cites her involvement in such programs, which operate within the Madison School District, as evidence that she is not part of the school reform movement, which favors vouchers and other programs outside of the traditional public schools. She says she has spent much more money promoting programs within public schools, and is hopeful that Superintendent Dan Nerad's recently released plan to address the achievement gap will accomplish even more than Madison Prep set out to do.

"Madison Prep was one proposal being put on the table when nothing else was put on the table," she says. "Everybody agrees that it would be much better to address the achievement gap within our schools, rather than pulling a set number of kids out."

Furthermore, she says her support for Madison Prep was contingent on it being an instrumentality of the district, meaning it would be staffed by existing district teachers and staff, all of whom are union-represented.

Nevertheless, some on the left say she did not publicly renounce the school after Madison Prep's talks with the teachers union fell through and it applied to be a non-instrumentality.

"She did not include among the conditions of her gift that Madison Preparatory Academy be an instrumentality," says Michael Johnson, who chairs Progressive Dane's elections committee. "This raises concerns about how well she will serve the students and protect the taxpayers."

And then of course, there are the allegations that her wealth makes her out of touch with the needs of the poor and middle class she hopes to help.

"She's a one-percenter," says John Matthews, executive director of MTI. "She's a very nice person, a very well-intentioned person but you want somebody who understands what it's like to be a parent and understands the needs of parents to be involved," he says of Burke, who has no children.

Beth Moss, a current School Board member who is not endorsing in either race, calls Matthews' comment inappropriate. "There's no need for that ... you need to be a little more professional," she says.

Mathiak, the board member who will be vacating the seat Burke and Flores are running for, says such divisive rhetoric typically comes from surrogates in the race, rather than the candidates themselves.

"John did not do this to me but others did," she says, recalling her successful 2006 race against incumbent Juan Jose Lopez. "There was a smear campaign that I was a neo-con."

Nevertheless, Burke's wealth and connections give her plenty of political advantages. For one, they allowed her an early retirement from business to dedicate time to civic initiatives, from AVID/TOPS to a stint in Gov. Jim Doyle's administration as Commerce secretary. She counts Doyle and former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz among her many supporters.

Perhaps more significantly, the time she has spent working in education is apparent in her ability to explain school policy with precision and passion.

•    •    •    •

If Burke is a "one-percenter," her opponent, Michael Flores, is the perfect antithesis. A Madison firefighter who became politically active during the anti-Walker union protests, Flores grew up in a poor Hispanic family on the east side of Madison. He believes his experience helps him understand the value of schools for the kids most in need of help.

"School was a nurturing environment for me. My home life wasn't all that stable," he says. "My teachers really encouraged me to continue and chase whatever I wanted to do with my life."

Caire and several others, however, say personal experience as a student and parent is not enough to justify a position on the School Board. "Flores has no background in education," he says. "We can't have people who are thinking through this thing (when they're on the board)."

So how did Flores get the idea to run for School Board?

"I was pretty outspoken during the protests and people took notice," he says of his decision to run. "They encouraged me and I saw it as a good opportunity to help our teachers help our kids."

As a result, Flores' labor ties are front-and-center of his image. His fliers tout endorsements from his own union, Firefighters Local 311, as well as from MTI and the South Central Federation of Labor. Unsurprisingly, he has also committed to implementing the MTI contract as district policy next year.

For a candidate to have a strong allegiance to the teachers union is nothing new. According to Maya Cole, getting the blessing of MTI president Matthews used to be a key step in mounting a successful School Board candidacy.

Asked why MTI supports Flores, Matthews responds that Flores, as a parent of children in school, understands the role that parents must play in a child's education. He also pointed out that Flores "knows what it is like to work for a living."

Flores admits he may have less experience in education policy than the other candidates, but like Nichols he believes his personal experiences will make him an invaluable addition to the board.

"We need to broaden our cultural representation on the board," he said at a forum hosted by the Dane County Democrats.

But although his children attend the district's Nuestro Mundo dual language school, Flores' viewpoint does not embrace Madison Prep.

In particular, he believes his perspective as a former minority student allows him to see the flaws in the gender-specific and race-focused means of addressing the achievement gap that Madison Prep proposed. One of the main tenants of the proposal centered on hiring minority teachers and staff that could better relate to the predominantly minority student population, as well as requiring parents to be more active in their child's schooling.

"Just because you're not the same race as your student doesn't mean you can't be a good educator," he explains.

Furthermore, he believes such a school might not reach the intended targets.

"There are kids like me who wouldn't have been in Madison Prep because my family would have been clueless," he says. "There are a lot of parents who do care but they have to work two or three jobs, so the question is do (they) go to a meeting or do (they) pay for rent and food for (their) kid?"

•    •    •    •

Whether or not Nichols and Burke prevail, the frustration that Caire and many other Madison Prep supporters have voiced has clearly been heard.

Superintendant Nerad, who opposed Madison Prep, recently unveiled a plan to address the achievement gap through a variety of initiatives, from hiring a new district diversity officer to bolstering communication between schools and families.

If Nerad's plan, which carries a high price tag, is implemented, perhaps the discussion of Madison Prep will never resurface.

However, if it does, the results of the likely recall election against Gov. Walker may be just as important as the results of the School Board races. For instance, if Democratic candidate Kathleen Falk were elected governor and held true to her promise to restore collective bargaining rights to public employees, the School Board would again have to cope with the issues that led to Madison Prep's downfall.

If Walker triumphed, then many of the union's fears would likely be affirmed. Although every School Board member and candidate emphasizes their desire to work with teachers, there will inevitably be some changes that the union would have opposed.

But no matter who wins the School Board races, there is reason to be optimistic, says Cole.

"You don't run for School Board if you don't care about schools."