History instructor and education blogger T.J. Mertz won election Tuesday to the Madison School Board as it turns the page with a new superintendent and tackles a host of challenges. Incumbent James Howard also won re-election.
But the race between Dean Loumos, executive director of Housing Initiatives Inc., and retired Madison Police lieutenant Wayne Strong remained too close to call.
Loumos held a 279-vote margin with all wards reporting, but Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell said there were potentially hundreds of absentee ballots yet to be counted. Those won't all be counted by the canvassing board until next Tuesday, due to a recent change in state law, McDonell said.
Strong said he would wait to make a decision about whether to seek a recount. Loumos said he respected Strong's position and he didn't declare victory.
Howard won a second three-year term after fending off a challenge from Democratic legislative aide Greg Packnett, whose campaign failed to gain traction after Howard received most of the union endorsements.
Mertz, an Edgewood College history instructor, easily won the other open seat after Sarah Manski, the first-place finisher in the Feb. 19 primary, dropped out. Manski still received more than 30 percent of the vote. Ananda Mirilli, the third-place primary finisher, decided not to mount a write-in campaign, but the write-in option received about 4 percent of the vote.
The School Board faces a possible reduction in state and federal funding, a proposal to expand private school vouchers to Madison and the continuation of the district's plan to improve student achievement. They'll be working with first-time superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, a former Chicago Public Schools administrator who started work Monday.
The election exposed raw wounds in the community about race and the influence of the local liberal political establishment. Some questioned why Mirilli was falsely accused of supporting vouchers rather than embraced as a liberal Latina candidate. It was also the first time a majority of candidates in competitive races were minorities.
For the most part, the candidates, who spent relatively little money on the campaign, shared similar views about strong public schools, raising student achievement and support for the local teachers union.
"There's not really any candidates of rampant change here," said former mayor Dave Cieslewicz. "There may be some grumbling about the School Board, but I don't see a revolution here."
Both Strong and Loumos opposed a controversial charter school proposal the School Board rejected in 2011. But Strong hurt his chances of gaining the union's support when he said in a candidate questionnaire that he supported vouchers. He later told the union he answered the question incorrectly.
John Roach, an Urban League of Greater Madison board member and Strong supporter, said a Loumos victory would signify the influence of MTI and other unions. A Strong victory would mean "we can get some traction on some issues that have haunted the Madison School District for years," he said.
MTI president Kerry Motoviloff said all of the candidates made it clear that the community wants to see more done to help struggling students.
"The School Board is going to be changed by the conversation that happened during the campaign," Motoviloff said. "It's really clear the community thinks there are voices that aren't represented."