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Mirilli and Mertz

Madison School Board Seat 5 candidate Ananda Mirilli and incumbent TJ Mertz

It’s the Madison School Board contest that might have been.

Six years ago TJ Mertz and Ananda Mirilli appeared on a primary ballot that resulted in Mirilli placing third behind another candidate who dropped out after the primary, all-but ensuring Mertz’s victory. Now the two are finally going head-to-head April 2 for Seat 5.

After two terms on the board, Mertz touts a grasp of the “wonky, inside baseball stuff” which is “really important to get anything done,” saying he knows the district’s budget and policies as well as anyone.

“I have a deep knowledge of educational policy. I have a knowledge of our district and how our district works and doesn’t work,” Mertz said. “I have the trust and confidence of many of our staff and many of our community members.”

Mirilli said she wants to represent and be the voice of immigrant families, having moved to the United States from Brazil in 1999.

“We’re still looking at programs to address the issues that we have, or people to address the issues we have, versus really looking deeply at the system in which we operate things and how we do that,” said Mirilli, a consultant for the state Department of Public Instruction.

Mertz, an adjunct instructor at Edgewood College, lists his priorities as transparency, open governance and shared decision-making, saying he’s been a “lonely if not lone voice” on the board when advocating for those topics. Mirilli is looking to prioritize student mental health, increase the number of social workers and address teacher burnout, such as through mindfulness practices.

In a three-way February primary, Mirilli received a majority of votes with 52 percent and Mertz received 36 percent.

Mertz said he is undecided on whether to continue a school-based police officer program. Mirilli said she would vote against the contract if it returns to the board, but would offer an amendment to remove an officer from one high school as a pilot if it appears there are enough members supporting the contract.

Mertz said as a precondition to a phase out, he would want a “wider intergovernmental agreement around the presence and role of police in schools.”

To accelerate progress on reducing the racial achievement gap, Mirilli called for “bold decisions for change” and increasing community trust of the district.

“I’m not trying to reduce racial gaps a little bit, I’m trying to eliminate racial gaps, and in order to do that we have to look at the system comprehensively,” Mirilli said.

Mertz said the district should rely more on school-based educators when seeking solutions for the achievement gap.

“Open discussion starting from them, not us giving them a checklist and saying, ‘Here are your choices, which one do you think is most effective?’ But rather, let them initiate the conversation, open-ended,” he said.

With 48 percent of Madison students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches, Mirilli said the district needs to collaborate more with city and county officials in areas such as housing and food stability, job preparation, and college readiness.

Mertz said an early warning system that tracks risk factors, such as failing grades and attendance records, should be used across all the schools instead of only high schools to provide better educational support to children living in homelessness or poverty.

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