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Madison School Board candidates

Candidates for Madison School board, clockwise from upper left, Cristiana Carusi and Kaleem Caire for Seat 3; David Blaska and Ali Muldrow for Seat 4; and TJ Mertz and Ananda Mirilli for Seat 5.

This year’s three Madison School Board races come as school climate and culture for students of color has become a focal point, and the outcome could set very different paths for how the district addresses those issues.

The six candidates running to join the seven-member board are all waging active campaigns, with most candidates stating racial equity and improving the learning environment for students of color as top priorities.

Kaleem Caire and Cristiana Carusi are seeking Seat 3 as it is being vacated by Dean Loumos after two terms. Caire founded a charter school through a new state office that didn’t require School Board approval after the board in 2011 rejected his proposed charter school that would have included single-sex education and uniforms. Carusi is a longtime district parent who has attended school board meetings for more than a decade.

With James Howard leaving Seat 4 after three terms on the board, David Blaska and Ali Muldrow bring completely different approaches to addressing school culture issues. Blaska is the only conservative running and has called for more school discipline, while Muldrow says the racial achievement gap “defines our community” and must be addressed.

And in the sole race involving an incumbent, Ananda Mirilli is challenging TJ Mertz for Seat 5. The two ran against each other in 2013, but Mirilli placed third in the primary and declined to run a write-in campaign after the primary winner dropped out.

If the top vote-getters from the February primary — Carusi, Muldrow and Mirilli — translate those results to a general election win, it would be the first time the seven-member Madison School Board is composed of all women, according to research by the secretary to the board.

There have previously been two instances in which six of the seven seats were held by women: 2007-08 and 1983-84.

Also, depending on how the match-ups shake out, the School Board could have between one person of color — Gloria Reyes who was elected last year — to as many as four, which would make it the most diverse board since 2001-02, according to the board secretary.

One priority shared by many candidates is finding ways to address the district’s persistent racial achievement gaps between white children and students of color when it comes to average academic proficiency and graduation rates.

At recent board meetings, community members have expressed concern and outrage related to a physical altercation last month between an 11-year-old black student and a white middle school staffer, who was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing and later resigned.

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It has been accompanied by calls for cultural competency and anti-racism training after six instances of teachers using the N-word in front of students this year. The teachers union said it is unaware of any of the uses being directed at a student or meant in a derogatory manner.

Those incidents prompted hundreds of parents to sign on to a letter demanding the board do more to improve the environment for students of color, such as diversifying the district’s staff, requiring equity and social justice training, and creating new ways for community members to engage with board members face-to-face.

On Monday, School Board members held a discussion around the request inside a room closed to the public as protesters against police officers in schools disrupted the board for a second meeting in a row.

The election comes at a pivotal time for the fate of the district’s program of stationing one uniformed and armed police officer in each of the four comprehensive high schools — East, La Follette, Memorial and West.

This school year is the last in a three-year contract between the School District and the Madison Police Department.

Negotiations on a new contract between the sides is stalled, primarily over a provision sought by the board that would allow the district to remove an officer if a dispute cannot be resolved. The contract could return to the board for another vote if the language of the agreement is changed from what the board approved at its December meeting. Candidate views on the program run the gamut from opposition to enthusiastic support.

The three-year terms for School Board members also mean those elected next month would decide whether to pursue a possible facilities referendum in 2020 focusing on the high schools and how much money might be asked from taxpayers to pay for renovations and deferred maintenance.

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