Madison School Board member Mary Burke spent more than $128,000 on her spring campaign — all of it her own — surpassing by far the most spent in recent city school board elections, according to available data.
Since 2001, the earliest online city clerk records are available, the most spent on a Madison School Board campaign was $28,349 by Marj Passman in 2007, when she lost to Maya Cole. That amount also was surpassed this year by incumbent Arlene Silveira, who reported spending $36,530.
Burke, a former state Commerce secretary and Trek Bicycle executive, said she made most of the expenditures, mostly for marketing and advertising, after the local teachers union, Madison Teachers Inc., backed her opponent, firefighter Michael Flores.
"I had certainly not expected to spend so much, but then MTI came out very negatively and aggressively," Burke said. "I thought it was important that I was able to communicate who I was and how I could help move the community forward."
Burke spent nearly 12 times more than the $11,065 Flores spent, according to mid-year campaign finance reports filed with the city clerk's office. Silveira's opponent, Urban League of Greater Madison executive Nichelle Nichols, reported spending $12,108.
In winning the open seat with 60 percent of the vote, Burke became the fifth candidate in 15 contested races over the past decade to win without the union's endorsement.
MTI executive director John Matthews, who criticized Burke during the campaign as a "1 percenter" who couldn't relate to low-income students in the same way as Flores, said the union contributed to Flores but otherwise didn't run a negative campaign against Burke. He said there were teachers who supported both candidates.
MTI spent about $7,000 in radio and print ads supporting Flores, according to campaign finance records.
"I don't think she needed to spend that much," Matthews said. "She had a credible campaign and if you look at what she's doing, she's a good school board member."
Carol Carstensen, a Flores supporter who served on the board from 1990 to 2008, called Burke's spending amount "astounding." She said it was a new record, surpassing the $45,000 Deb Lawson spent to defend her seat in 1997.
"I find it troubling," Carstensen said. "When you self-finance, it creates a different kind of relationship or non-relationship with the community."
Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign spending on statewide races, said it's "very rare to see school board elections anywhere go into six figures."
McCabe's group doesn't track city, county and school board campaign spending, but he said his organization has received an increasing number of reports from around the state of more money being spent to influence local elections.
"The campaign arms race is filtering down to the local level," McCabe said. "A decade ago I never heard from anybody talking about local elections getting out of control. It's just within the last three or four years that I'm hearing from people and it's intensifying."
Madison School Board candidates run citywide, but don't come anywhere close to spending as much as mayoral candidates. In 2011, Paul Soglin and Dave Cieslewicz spent between $200,000 to $250,000 each.
Burke spent more on her campaign than Silveira and the next four biggest spenders on Madison School Board campaigns since 2001 combined.
Burke contributed $99,000 to her campaign after March 20, which means it wasn't disclosed in her pre-election report before the April 3 vote. That report showed Burke had spent about $27,500, six times more than Flores.
Burke said she made the decision to spend so much after hearing from supportive teachers who didn't want to publicly support her because they didn't want to cross their union. She also said while many campaigns rely on volunteers, she could afford to pay her staff.
"I certainly hope that it's not a sign that if you don't get those endorsements that you need to do as much as I did to get the word out about who you really are," Burke said.
School Board members serve three-year terms and receive a $4,200 annual stipend.