The debate over whether the Madison School Board should give the final OK to the Madison Preparatory Academy is getting a bit nasty.
And that should not be.
While the passion on the part of the advocates for the school, led by the energetic Urban League CEO Kaleem Caire, is perfectly understandable given our schools' dismal record on minority achievement, so is the questioning from those who aren't convinced the prep idea will solve that problem.
Now, on the eve of a vote on that final approval, is not the time to point fingers and make accusations, but to come together and reasonably find ways to overcome the obstacles and reassure those who fret about giving up duly elected officials' oversight of the school and the impact it will have on the entire district's union contracts if not done correctly.
The union problem is not the fault of the union, but stems from Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature's action to dramatically change public employee collective bargaining in Wisconsin. If the union or the School Board makes concessions for Madison Prep, the collective bargaining agreement for the entire district, which is to expire in June 2013, could be negated.
I attended the Urban League of Greater Madison's annual meeting last week at the Edgewater. Clearly, the crowd there was very much in favor of giving the league the opportunity to launch the school and, with its plans for single-gender education, uniforms, longer school days, a longer school year and greater parent involvement, hopefully to begin erasing the learning gap between whites and kids of color.
Caire was particularly critical of the School Board's vice president, Marj Passman, and board member Maya Cole, who the day before the meeting told our education reporter, Susan Troller, that they are likely to vote against authorizing the school, but would suggest alternatives, which Cole described as the "Madison way."
The "Madison way" is the wrong way, Caire said, adding that what's needed is a "new way." He encouraged the audience to contact the two board members and urge them to drop their opposition.
"They keep throwing stuff at us, but the Urban League of Greater Madison has a lot of prize fighters and we're going to fight," he said. "These are passionate people who love their kids and we don't want others messing with them."
In a letter to the board the next day, Caire told the board that "comments in the media by your members over the last few days have created a powder keg of racial tension that is poised to explode in Madison."
There's no question that these are clearly folks who have been waiting for results for a long time, and they're tired of waiting.
On the other hand, School Board members have legitimate concerns about the school being a "non-instrumentality," which means it won't be under direct day-to-day control of the district, despite the infusion of millions of taxpayer dollars. The Urban League would hire the staff, which presumably would be non-union to keep total costs down. Some also question whether the school will reach enough students to make an impact any greater than some of the Madison school system's new programs are already accomplishing.
Plus, the board, in a time when financial resources are shrinking, has to be concerned with the thousands of other students - minority and majority - who need to be served.
For many, it's a conundrum. I personally would like to see Madison Prep become a reality. At the very least, we need to explore new ways of battling a problem that hasn't found a solution despite the good intentions of the educators who have guided our schools over the years.
But we should guard against this becoming yet another issue to further divide the community and not only hurt the students, but others who have a stake in the education community. Surely, on an issue that is as crucial as this is for our most precious resource - our kids - we can come together.