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Madison teacher Kati Walsh, wearing a “Get the Fitz Out” button, promotes Madison School Board candidates at last weekend’s recall rally at the Capitol. Many teachers such as Walsh have become politically active in the past year after changes to the state’s collective bargaining law.

This article first appeared in Sunday's State Journal.


A Madison Teachers Inc. endorsement hasn't always guaranteed victory for Madison School Board candidates.

But this year, with union members mobilized by Gov. Scott Walker's collective bargaining changes, the upcoming recall elections, a divisive debate over a charter school proposal the union opposed and a looming rewrite of employee work rules, the endorsement could be influential.

"It will be very hard for someone not endorsed by the teachers union to win," said former School Board member Ruth Robarts, who won re-election in 2004 despite MTI labeling her "Public Enemy No. 1."

Robarts is one of four candidates in 13 contested races over the past decade who defeated MTI-backed candidates.

This year the union endorsed incumbent Arlene Silveira over Nichelle Nichols, an executive at the Urban League of Greater Madison, which proposed the charter school plan.

The union also endorsed Michael Flores, who gained attention during Capitol protests last year, over Mary Burke for an open seat being vacated by Lucy Mathiak.

Like past MTI spoilers, Burke and Nichols have liberal credentials, local community connections and are tapping into dissatisfaction with the status quo. Education observers consider Burke a frontrunner in her race because as a former Commerce Secretary and Boys & Girls Club board president she is widely known and used to being in public, while Flores is a political newcomer who admittedly is less polished than the other candidates.

But Robarts said the climate this year is different than when she ran because of the collective bargaining law and the response to it by teachers and union supporters.

"There's a fairly widespread unhappiness with blaming public employees in general and cutting public employee jobs," said Robarts, who is not endorsing candidates. "There will be a general sympathy for teachers — a willingness to listen to the message of the union."

Supporters of Madison Preparatory Academy also are mobilized for this election, though they may not be as organized in getting out the vote as MTI, said Derrell Connor, a local radio host and Madison Prep supporter who is not endorsing candidates.

"While folks say, 'I can sympathize with what the union has gone through … a lot of these kids who are dropping out of school are ending up on the streets, in prison or worse,'" Connor said. "To a lot of folks, that takes priority to what's going on at the Capitol."

'Doors make a difference'

Kati Walsh, an art teacher at Randall and Gompers Elementary, is one teacher who wasn't politically active during the 2010 gubernatorial election, but became involved after Walker introduced changes to public-sector collective bargaining last year. In recent weeks, a typical day for Walsh might include early morning playground duty, a full day teaching third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, an after-school program and then three hours of knocking on doors and distributing fliers for Flores and Silveira.

"I get a lot of, 'Oh, you're a teacher, I was hoping I could hear from you,'" Walsh said. "Doors make a difference."

This year's School Board election is particularly important to the union because the board will craft an employee handbook to replace the 157-page contract between MTI and the district, which expires in June 2013.

Teachers are concerned the district could make changes to retirement benefits, planning time, class sizes or how much input they have in the curriculum, among other things, said David Mandehr, a substitute teacher and member of MTI's political action committee.

"It's losing our professional voice," Mandehr said.

Silveira and Flores, a firefighter whose fellow union members encouraged him to run, are more supportive than their opponents of adopting the current contract as the new employee handbook, though Silveira has said she would support some changes.

Burke, who pledged $2.5 million to support Madison Prep, and Nichols, whose advocacy for Madison Prep led her to run, are more supportive than their opponents of the charter school, though they have distanced themselves from the proposal the School Board rejected in December.

MTI president Peggy Coyne said the union endorsed Silveira because her experience is critical as the district faces future budget cuts and addresses the achievement gap.

The union supports Flores because his background reflects the district's growing population of low-income, minority students, Coyne said.

No additional resources

MTI Executive Director John Matthews said members are more mobilized than he's seen in years.

"I had people asking me for campaign literature who I didn't even know existed a year ago," Matthews said.

At the same time, Matthews said the union is not pouring more resources into the School Board elections than it has in past years.

Instead, much of the additional political activism is being channeled into the recall election.

Jim Zellmer, a local education blogger, said the School Board generally is sympathetic to the union and the election likely won't change that no matter who wins.

The union still can organize job actions, as when schools had to be closed for four days last year during the Capitol protests, or influence board action by crowding School Board meetings, as when elementary teachers were unhappy with proposed changes to their planning time last spring.

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