Madison Superintendent Dan Nerad’s impending departure raises questions about the future of this year’s biggest budget initiative: the School District’s $49 million achievement gap plan.

“It’s a big question mark” whether a new superintendent will want to adopt the plan or make changes, said Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County.

“I don’t think (the School Board) should adopt the whole plan and hand it over to the new superintendent,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t take a job if a board of directors said, ‘Here’s the plan we came up with and want you to execute.’”

Nerad said Friday he plans to accept a superintendent job offer in Birmingham, Mich., and leave Madison by September.

Nerad’s current contract runs through June 2013 and requires he give five months’ notice before leaving, but School Board President James Howard said Friday there could be willingness to help Nerad leave and have an interim superintendent in place by July 1.

Howard said he doesn’t believe Nerad’s departure will affect implementation of the achievement gap plan. “I don’t think we’re in a bad position,” he said. “The thing that people have to realize is that the district staff was very instrumental in creating the plan.”

Kaleem Caire, president of the Urban League of Greater Madison, said the School Board’s priority should be to hire a full-time superintendent, rather than focusing on implementation of the achievement gap plan. Though it’s unlikely a permanent replacement for Nerad will be in place by Sept. 1, Caire said the board should press to have someone start as early as Jan. 1.

“We can’t do much and know what direction we’re moving in until we do that,” Caire said.

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Almost two years ago, Caire stirred the conversation about the district’s persistent achievement gap by proposing a charter school geared toward low-income, minority students. The School Board rejected the proposal in December, but at the height of the debate, Nerad said he would propose a plan to raise student achievement.

In February, he floated a $106 million five-year plan, but after a two-month public hearing process, he cut the cost in half. He trimmed the plan again to $49 million in his final budget recommendation to the board.

The School Board will consider further cuts to the plan tonight before taking a final vote on Nerad’s $375 million budget proposal. Board member Ed Hughes proposed cutting $787,000 of the $4.4 million proposed for the first year of the plan.

Hughes said he wanted to reduce to $2.5 million the amount of reserve funds being used to balance the budget. Nerad’s proposal calls for using $7.9 million.

Hughes proposes reductions in the achievement gap plan, such as reading specialists at four of the district’s highest achieving elementary schools, cutting new maintenance spending from $3.5 million to $3 million and raising property taxes by 5.7 percent, rather than Nerad’s 4.1 percent.

Other board members recommended reinstating parts of the original achievement gap plan, such as full expansion of the AVID/TOPS college preparatory program to all eight middle schools. Nerad recommended fully expanding it to three middle schools next year, and the others over time to reduce the immediate cost.

“The reality of it is there is a sense of urgency in our community around these issues,” Nerad said. “There should be action to, as soon as possible, create more capacity around eliminating these gaps.”

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