Kaleem Caire and Dan Nerad

Kaleem Caire and Dan Nerad

It's a two-part ritual. First, the mayor, school superintendent, county executive or some other community leader makes an announcement that is reported by local media.

Next comes the public relations drill in the form of appointments with editorial boards to provide rationales, answer questions, offer context and solicit support.

So it was that Dan Nerad, Madison's school superintendent, recently walked the editorial board of The Capital Times through his plan to confront the achievement gap between white and minority students.

For nearly an hour, he described six over-arching chapters, 22 specific proposals that could cost $10.4 million in the first year, or $120 in property taxes on a $250,000 home. The five-year total cost grows to $105.6 million.

Nerad detailed his plan in careful language (higher taxes are "investments") and with the vaguely beleaguered earnestness that has typified his three-plus years here since arriving from Green Bay.

We've certainly been bombarded by metrics of Madison's increasingly two-tier school system. In his handout, Nerad said: "Ours is a community of Presidential Scholars, a city with 20 times the average number of National Merit Finalists, a city with large numbers of students scoring perfect ACT and SAT scores."

It is also a city where, in 2010, 52 percent of African-American males failed to finish high school in four years. In the same year, reading tests showed a 34-point gap between white and black students.

Beyond the achievement gap is another gap, the relationship divide between Nerad, a buttoned-down and low-key administrator, and Kaleem Caire, the outspoken president of the Urban League of Greater Madison.

Caire and others have been unsuccessful thus far in getting the School Board to approve the Madison Preparatory Academy charter school, which they say is part of the solution to the achievement gap.

Caire's much-debated Madison Prep would be a rigorous, single-sex pair of charter schools where students would wear uniforms, have longer class days and school years and be taught by teachers who act as coaches and mentors. The School Board, citing the school's lack of accountability to taxpayers among other factors, rejected the proposal in December.

Nerad talks of the need for a comprehensive district-wide approach beyond Madison Prep, though Caire's charter proposal seems to remain top-of-mind. In describing the first two chapters of his plan, Nerad mentioned, unprompted, their similarity to the Madison Prep vision.

On top of that, Madison's two contested School Board races this spring, to the chagrin of some, will likely be dominated by debate over Madison Prep. And it's probably not a stretch to say the issue will figure into the upcoming board decision about Nerad's contract.

Since the board rejected the Madison Prep proposal, there have been well-intentioned efforts by local leaders to bridge the substantive and stylistic gap between Nerad and Caire.

I was at lunch recently with Jennifer Alexander, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, when we were joined by Steve Goldberg, executive director of the CUNA Mutual Foundation and a Madison Prep backer. They spoke in some detail about efforts to bring the two men closer as Nerad was completing his proposal.

Any hopes that this 2012 effort would be arm-in-arm look far-fetched.

In an interview Friday, Caire said he and Nerad met three times before Nerad's announcement. Caire described the first meeting as "me going over to extend an olive branch to him."

In sum, Caire sounded unimpressed, saying school officials "need a lot of help. I felt like I have had to dumb myself down since being in Madison because people don't want to hear the truth ... or the solutions that are out there."

Caire said Nerad's plan contains some of his ideas, such as hiring a diversity officer, but he added that the district didn't seek his advice on it and that it is inadequate.

"It is not a plan yet. It is concepts and ideas ... that don't rise to the level of being a systemic reform initiative, and that's what's needed. They need to reform the entire school system."

Underlying all of this is the perception by Madison Prep advocates that the School Board and Madison's left are overly influenced by the city's teachers union and that they are leery of a perceived threat posed by Caire's nontraditional ideas. Some even argue that Madison Prep foes appear more concerned about those union educators than struggling minority children.

On the other side are complaints that Madison Prep would not help the students who need it most and that it would lack taxpayer accountability. And skeptics are also wary of Caire's ties to conservative institutional funders who typically oppose public education.

So the lines are drawn, and Caire said he is not only seeking another vote on Madison Prep in March, but is proceeding full throttle on his own track: "We are actually writing our own plan on how to execute systemic reform in Madison."

He complained that Madison Prep backers "jumped through a gazillion hoops" only to still be rejected by the School Board. The Nerad plan, he added, is not being well-received by his charter school allies.

The plan "just doesn't feel right, it doesn't look right, and that is how it's playing in the public who support" Madison Prep, Caire said. "It looks disingenuous."

Nerad and Caire seem not only to be on different pages, but reading different books.

Listening to both, here's my question: What about the non-combatants, Madison residents looking on from outside this figurative arena? Most are likely sincere in their support of improving outcomes for minority children. This is Madison, after all.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of Nerad's plan versus Madison Prep and Caire's conflicting vision, is there danger that higher school taxes could fuel a perception that the school system is so mindful of the achievement gap that other students will suffer? Given that the city is filled with public employees enduring de facto pay cuts, some may be skeptical of a plan not aimed directly at their families.

I asked Nerad. He mused that he loses sleep over that issue on nights he is not losing sleep over the achievement gap. "That is very much on my mind," he told our editorial board. "It is a very difficult thing to balance, and we frankly have said we need to be about two things -- that all kids advance from where they are while we eliminate achievement gaps."

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Nerad says that issue "got put on the table squarely" in strategic planning soon after he arrived, calling it a tension in the community. The prospect of white flight from the city was discussed, he said.

Posing that question may resonate with some, but it most certainly does not for those who think Madison has dragged its heels in helping struggling African-American children and who feel that the playing field has always been slanted to the benefit of the better-off.

Take Lucy Mathiak, a School Board supporter of Madison Prep who is not seeking re-election. In an email exchange, she suggested my broaching that issue is "offensive at best."

"How long must this community live with its head in the sand when it comes to racial justice?" she asked. "And how long must families of color hear words of concern followed with ‘but we are worried about our white middle class families leaving?' "

She continued: "The real problem is not white flight. It is the failure to take achievement seriously, particularly when it comes to students of color.

"I am sorry to say this, but I find it repulsive that, particularly during black history month (which February is), you are interested in writing a pity piece for the people who are always at the forefront of our concerns, while ignoring the very real, raw, and painful experience of the people who cannot get any acknowledgment of their conditions."

Caire said he understands Mathiak's sentiment. But he says the two major challenges must be resolved simultaneously, that the right reforms for low-performing students would make the district more stable and attractive to all families.

"We have been trying to appease middle-class families, white families in particular," to try to assure they don't leave, Caire said. He said a goal has been "to not put too much pressure on those home-owning, taxpaying families who have loud voices."

He continued: "Those families that we really needed to focus on didn't get the required attention and now we have a major problem on our hands.

"Unless the district does deep reform ... develops a new district for a new type of student, they are not going to succeed, they can window dress it," Caire said, "In Madison, it is about program, program, program. When I was on the East Coast (he recently returned to Madison from Washington, D.C.) it was about reform, reform, reform.

"And we are well behind the eight ball on this."

Nerad concurred, saying the goal of serving all student populations is "the challenge of the urban school district in our time."

Perhaps on that point alone, they agree.