Kaleem Caire speaks to the Madison School Board Monday, Dec. 19, 2011, as the board was taking public comment before voting on Madison Preparatory Academy.

Two Madison School Board races are shaping up as the city's most high-profile election contests this spring, with the board's vote last month against a controversial charter school proposal front and center.

All four candidates who filed paperwork by Tuesday's 5 p.m. deadline say the election is about more than Madison Preparatory Academy, the proposed single-sex charter school that was voted down by the board last month. 

But they agree the issue that drove the charter school debate — raising achievement levels of low-income, minority students — will be a key issue over the next three months.

Madison last had multiple contested School Board races in 2007. In the past four years, only two of nine races were contested. 

The election will be a referendum on both the district's handling of Madison Prep and the achievement gap, said former School Board member Ray Allen, a Madison Prep supporter.

"The community has a unique opportunity," Allen said. "They've got choices and they can voice their opinions."

The achievement gap has been a critical issue for the district for the past 20 years, said former School Board member Carol Carstensen, a Madison Prep opponent. The Madison Prep debate elevated the conversation about the issue, but there are "a host of issues that you have to deal with as a School Board member."

"You want people coming in who don't have a set agenda, but who have principles that are important to them," Carstensen said. "They are elected to represent the entire district ultimately."

Other major issues include the future of the teachers union contract after it expires in 2013, school building maintenance needs, limited state funding and how to reverse the increasing number of families opting to leave the district.

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Madison Prep divide

But the clearest divide among the candidates is Madison Prep.

In one race, Nichelle Nichols, vice president of education and learning at the Urban League of Greater Madison, the organization that proposed the charter school, is challenging two-term incumbent Arlene Silveira, who voted against Madison Prep.

In the past, Silveira has received support from Madison Teachers Inc., the teachers union, which opposed Madison Prep.

The other race, to replace retiring Lucy Mathiak, pits Madison firefighter Michael Flores, who has children in Madison schools and has expressed concern over Madison Prep, against former Commerce secretary and Trek Bicycle executive Mary Burke, who pledged $2.5 million to the school.

Madison Prep is a factor in the election "and it's big," even though candidates "softly deny" that's the case, said T.J. Mertz, an Edgewood College history professor and local education blogger.

School District accountability — addressing problems with innovation and showing measurable results — will also be a key issue, said Don Severson, president of a conservative district watchdog group.

"The Madison Prep issue, as important as it is, it's a symptom of much more serious concerns and consequences," such as the achievement gap, Severson said. "The question now is what are they going to do about it?"

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