Nine candidates for three Madison School Board seats discussed an array of topics at a forum Tuesday — including flexibility in district-wide lesson plans, diversity and inclusion, and transparency in decision-making.
The forum, hosted by Grandparents United for Madison Public Schools, or GRUMPS, brought the candidates together at Christ Presbyterian Church on Madison's Near East Side ahead of the Feb. 19 primary.
TJ Mertz, who holds seat 5 on the School Board, is the only incumbent running for another term. Challenging him are Ananda Mirilli, an equity consultant for the state Department of Public Instruction, and Amos Roe, a piano teacher and performer.
Kaleem Caire, founder of a preschool and 4K charter school run by One City Schools, and Cristiana Carusi, an associate communications director at the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, are running for seat 3. Skylar Croy's name will be on the primary ballot, but he withdrew from the race.
Four people are vying for seat 4: David Blaska, a conservative blogger and former Dane County Board supervisor; Laila Borokhim, a local restaurateur; Albert Rahr Bryan, a former physician; and Ali Muldrow, co-executive director of Madison-based GSAFE, or Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools.
Mertz told attendees that the school district's curriculum standardization is too rigid. While it is necessary to have some conformity for children who change schools, teachers should have more leeway, he said.
"It's clear that our class room teachers understand that their challenges come from a variety of different directions," Mertz said. "There has to be flexibility in the resources available for schools to address the needs of students because it's the schools and the teachers that know the students best."
Roe said he would be a representative for teachers. School principals and teachers should decide how to teach their own children and allow parents to have a choice in what school their child attends, he said.
"It's school choice," Roe said. "That's how you get the decision on what's really working and what isn't."
Mirilli said her experience focusing on racial equity at DPI would help her address the local racial achievement gap. She said equity means bringing everyone to the same level rather than giving every student the same lesson plan. Students face different challenges while learning, and an equitable classroom addresses that, she said.
"It's also naive to think that every program is the right program for each school given that our population is different from school to school and grade level to grade level," Mirilli said.
Caire said early childhood education and assessment is vital to improving the school district. Schools are facing new challenges because of rapid advances in technology, and the Madison School District needs to prepare students for workplaces of the future, he said.
"I believe we are falling behind like a lot of other places because things are changing so rapidly," Caire said.
Carusi said she wants to focus on equity among students and ensure that all students are receiving education that fits their needs and abilities.
"We want to make sure that kids are being challenged on the level that they need to be challenged at every day in their schools, and giving teachers the flexibility to do that is actually going to improve equity for our kids," Carusi said.
Blaska, who has been a vocal supporter of school-stationed police officers, decried the district's behavior plan, which he said does not discipline students. He noted an increase in behavioral incidents, despite a decrease of out-of-school suspensions. Keeping students who act out in the classroom in school is harmful for other students and impacts test scores, he said.
"You can't learn when classrooms are disruptive," Blaska said.
Muldrow said schools need to become places where children want to go and learn. That means letting them explore their interests and giving teachers flexibility in how they run their classrooms.
"There is no one-size-fits-all approach to learning. We have to be able to modify the curriculum to meet the needs of a diverse population of young people," Muldrow said.
Teachers and staff should reflect the diversity of the students, she said.
Borokhim, a Jewish woman of Persian descent, said she felt excluded years ago as a student in Middleton -- and sometimes sat in the hall -- when her class would color Christmas trees. More cultural inclusion is needed to be more welcoming to all students, she said.
"If you do not feel a sense of belonging, then you will struggle, unfortunately, and that's why we need to make sure we are putting that forefront," Borokhim said.
Bryan said he wants to focus on early-childhood education to bridge the racial achievement gap. He questioned the system of busing students to schools that aren't in their neighborhoods, particularly for children from preschool to fifth grade.
"You take a person who's had a poor preschool experience or practically none, and you put him on a bus and take him out of his neighborhood," Bryan said, "and he gets into class where the curriculum is strange, he's in a strange neighborhood, and he just doesn't feel like he belongs anywhere."