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Chris Rickert: School Board can find its big problem in the mirror
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Chris Rickert: School Board can find its big problem in the mirror

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This is what we get when our schools superintendent is, as a headline in this Tuesday's newspaper put it, "barely 'proficient'":

An 82 percent graduation rate; the highest average ACT score and lowest student-to-teacher ratio among the state's 10 largest districts; a teachers union largely protected for at least two years from Gov. Scott Walker's attack on collective bargaining; and stable finances.

One shudders to think of what we'd have had the Madison School Board rated Superintendent Dan Nerad "basic" or "minimal." Perhaps one or two fewer National Merit finalists, meaning we'd have something like only five times the number of finalists as other districts.

OK, I know Madison schools are not perfect, and neither is Nerad. But given the relative health of the district, Nerad's evaluation probably has less to do with his performance than with the board's.

Nerad isn't responsible for high test scores and graduation rates. That has mostly to do with all the smarter- and more affluent-than-average parents in Madison. And that has mostly to do with having the seat of state government and a world-class university in town to employ them.

But give a guy some love for keeping those indicators up despite an uptick in the number of poor students — something traditionally correlated with struggling schools.

From the 2008-09 school year — Nerad's first — to this year, the number of students living in poverty has gone from 44.1 percent to 49 percent, but graduation rates and ACT and other test scores stayed the same or went up.

The other common indicator of the health of a school district — its finances — remain solid as well.

The district's levy went down slightly this year, and that's even after the district implemented 4-year-old kindergarten and agreed to extend its teachers union contract for two years without exacting all the financial concessions it could have.

Again, much of that has to do with factors Nerad is just lucky to inherit. This is a rich town that values education and unions and is willing to pay for them. But somebody's still got to balance the books, and it took Nerad to finally get 4K off the ground after most of the rest of the state had been doing it for years.

In looking at each of the seven board members' ratings, I couldn't help but wonder if they were evaluating the same person.

"What the results show is that there were two camps of three and one," Board President James Howard told me.

Indeed, three members gave him pretty good scores, three didn't and one rated him very poorly.

Board members mostly declined to comment on the evaluation, but it's easy to surmise from their disparate ratings they have some serious internal disagreements about district priorities — and thus, whether Nerad is addressing them.

That's fine, because that's democracy.

But with a vote on extending his contract likely this month, Nerad's biggest worry isn't the district's performance.

It's that the board will mistake him for their problem.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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