This year's School Board election has exposed raw wounds and tension between Madison's white and minority communities.
When the top vote-getter in the Feb. 19 primary abruptly withdrew two days after the vote, she effectively boxed out of the April 2 general election a Latina candidate who also was falsely characterized as a voucher supporter.
That led minority leaders to complain about the perceived control white Madison liberals — including teachers union leaders — exert on elections and on efforts meant to raise minority student achievement. Some local leaders have undertaken soul-searching while others say more minorities need to seek elective office.
"You could not have constructed a scenario to cause more alienation and more mistrust than what Sarah Manski did," longtime local political observer Stuart Levitan said, referring to the primary winner for seat 5. "It exposed an underlying lack of connection between some of the progressive white community and the progressive African-American community that is very worrisome in the long run."
In the last few weeks:
• Urban League of Greater Madison president Kaleem Caire in a lengthy email described the failed negotiations involving him, district officials and Madison Teachers Inc. executive director John Matthews over Caire's proposed Madison Preparatory Academy geared toward low-income minority students.
• Ananda Mirilli, who placed third behind Manski for seat 5, released emails in which Sarah Manski's husband, Ben Manski, accused Caire of recruiting Mirilli to run for School Board and linking Caire to a conservative foundation. Caire confirmed the email exchange, but said he didn't recruit Mirilli. The Manskis did not respond to requests for comment.
• Two School Board members, Mary Burke and Ed Hughes, vigorously backed former police lieutenant Wayne Strong, who is black, to counter the influence of political groups supporting his opponent. In the seat 3 race, Strong faces Dean Loumos, a low-income housing provider supported by MTI, the Dane County Democratic Party, Progressive Dane and the local Green Party.
Three minority candidates
The School Board election for the first time features a majority of candidates who are minorities. In addition to Strong, board president James Howard and Dane County Democratic Party official Greg Packnett, who are vying for seat 4, are African-American.
In the seat 5 race, college history instructor T.J. Mertz is the only candidate campaigning. But some Mirilli supporters say they plan to write in her name anyway.
In a recent email to community members, Burke and Hughes announced a fundraiser "to counter the resources" of Loumos' supporters.
"We believe that the outcome of Wayne's School Board race is critical to the future of our Madison schools and to the efforts we must undertake to ensure that we have the kind of school district our community wants and expects," they wrote.
Hughes said Strong is more qualified because of his recent involvement in the schools. Hughes also believed Mirilli was more qualified than Manski but lost because she couldn't counter Manksi's political support, which Loumos also has.
MTI, which also endorsed Howard and Mertz, considered Strong and Loumos qualified, president Kerry Motoviloff said, but Loumos won endorsement for his work with poor and mentally ill people.
"One of the things that Dean has a real understanding of is alternative schools are important and there's a way to do them in the public schools," Motoviloff said.
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Former board member Juan Jose Lopez said he worries that because Strong is black, voters will associate him with Caire and Madison Prep even though Strong didn't take a position on the charter school.
Howard complained weeks before the primary that local liberals encouraged Packnett, a member of the Dane County Democratic Party board, to try to unseat him because of Howard's December 2011 vote in favor of Madison Prep.
Whether a candidate backed the charter school, Howard and other minorities said, was being used as a litmus test in the campaign until Manski's withdrawal.
After the primary, Caire released an email in which he described the 2011 negotiations over Madison Prep. Caire said Matthews had agreed to some employees not being unionized, but later pulled back.
Matthews didn't respond to requests for comment last week, but said in a March 6 email that MTI discussed the charter school proposal with Caire numerous times to "reach an amicable resolution."
"What that now has to do with the current campaign for Board of Education I fail to see," he said. "I know of no animosity among the candidates."
Mirilli announced her candidacy in November. Manski, who announced her bid a month later, has said she was recruited to run by Mayor Paul Soglin, who referred her to Matthews.
Lopez questioned why Mirilli was not embraced as a liberal minority candidate and later falsely characterized as supporting vouchers. Mirilli said she was recruited by liberal former board members Lopez, Bill Clingan and Bill Keys.
Having the answers
Soglin said he didn't know at the time which seat Manski was seeking or who she would run against. He said the complaints about minorities not being supported for elected office are off base.
"For close to 40 years now, the School Board has had a variety of members who were African-American, Asian and Latino," Soglin said. "I don't think any of them were ever elected because of their race or defeated because of their race. I would hope that we will always have a racially diverse board, solidly committed to public education."
But former mayor Dave Cieslewicz said the School Board races have revealed divisions among white and minority liberals.
"There's a tension between well-meaning people," Cieslewicz said. "The white, liberal establishment tends to believe they have the answers and they don't like being challenged by other progressives."
Michael Basford, chairman of the county Democrats, which has endorsed Loumos, Packnett and Mertz, said party diversity is "something that's been causing me to lose sleep at night."
Basford said Mirilli has a legitimate beef that she isn't on the ballot. But he said the blame lies with the Manskis, who used the Madison Prep debate to their political advantage, not with political leaders.