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The two men hoping to win a seat on the Madison School Board say they oppose changing school attendance areas to relieve crowded schools if it means students will have long bus rides to school.

Michael Flores and Wayne Strong, who are competing for Seat 6 on the School Board in the April 1 election, said Thursday in a meeting with the State Journal editorial board that they support the School District’s recently proposed $39.5 million referendum plan, part of which includes expanding eight schools that need more space.

But they’re skeptical of changing school boundaries as an alternative.

Some School Board members say the board needs to consider changing school boundaries before putting any referendum question to voters in November. Changes to school boundaries were not included in three

proposals the board received earlier this month.

“The boundary changes are what concern me most,” Strong said. “I’m leery of having to bus kids. I like the idea of a neighborhood school, where kids can walk to school.”

Mike Barry, assistant superintendent for business services, said the district’s attitude is that school boundary changes should be rare because they can disturb neighborhoods or attendance patterns.

Flores also said when students and parents walk to their schools, it fosters family connections and relationships between families and school faculty.

“If (any) boundary changes obstruct from that, then I’m against that,” said Flores, who also said he supports asking voters for money to expand crowded schools and improve aesthetics. “If we allowed that big of a gap to happen to our own houses, our community would look dilapidated.”

Strong said the neighborhood school concept could benefit the Allied Drive area, where students — predominantly from low-income families — do not attend the same schools.

“A neighborhood school in that area is something we should look at because you do have these kids that are being bused to all these different schools,” he said.

Both candidates are making their second attempt at winning election to the board.

They continue to press for raising the average academic achievement of minority and low-income students.

Both also favor expanding the school year or broadening the district’s summer school offerings to combat learning loss, especially for students whose families may not have the means to participate in summer camps or other programs. Strong said added learning time is crucial for closing the achievement gaps, while Flores said he would like to balance summer learning opportunities with the desires of families who wish to have the time off for family activities.

Flores said his upbringing as a bilingual, minority student in a poor household would bring a new voice to the School Board. He said a key difference between him and Strong is that he is a product of Madison schools.

“I grew up in poverty; I can understand many of the problems many of our kids are facing,” Flores said. “I experienced that frustration that many of our kids feel being different, being bilingual, being bicultural … there are struggles that I can identify with for our Latino community. I can be a voice for that portion of the community that is sometimes not heard.

Strong’s focus remains on reducing the disparate rate of suspensions among the district’s black students, which he ties to the dismal four-year graduation rate of the district’s black students — 55 percent compared to 87 percent of white students in that time. He said he would seek to make sure black students have access to programs in which they are underrepresented, such as the district’s dual-language immersion programs. He said his knowledge and involvement with the issue on various district and state committees set him apart from Flores.

“We’re looking at high-suspension, low-graduation rates and that’s a deep concern for me,” Strong said. “To really challenge some of the suspension disparities, we really have to look at the root causes of why I think we have such a large achievement gap, and that’s because many students are not in school for a large part of the time.”

Flores said the board’s work in restorative justice is important in that it will teach students their actions have an impact on their school — whether positive or negative.

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