What a difference a few months have made for the four Madison school board candidates, each of whom gave polished A-game performances during Monday night's game show-style forum that drew around 100 spectators.
Isthmus and Sustain Dane sponsored the four round, 90-minute event, held at the First Unitarian Society, and featuring a three-person panel that asked a variety of questions centering on the role sustainability principles might play in district decision-making.
Panelists included Isthmus editor Dean Robbins, Sustain Dane executive director Kristen Joiner and East High School Junior Erin Barry.
Sustain Dane communications director and Isthmus contributor Phil Busse moderated the event, which featured four rounds of questions in five categories: curriculum, facilities management, community collaboration, leadership development and student health.
During Round 1, candidates made their introductory statements, followed by a 20-question Round 2.
For the most part the candidates offered thoughtful responses to some tricky questions, but fell back on their pivot points when they struggled to find an answer.
Panelists had the option of displaying a big, bold question mark if they felt a candidate was sidestepping a question -- which each of them did at times -- but the panelists never invoked that power.
Seat 2 challengers Michael Flores, a Madison firefighter and parademic, and Mary Burke, a philanthropist and poverty fighter, spelled out a vision for Madison schools where children grow vegetables, have longer lunches and graduate with a deep appreciation for the natural environment.
The policy differences between the Seat 1 candidates were starker, with business executive Arlene Silveira attempting to assert herself over Nichelle Nichols, a nonprofit sector employee who has pegged the two-term incumbent as a do-nothing board member.
With two weeks before the April 3, election, candidates fielded a variety of questions ranging from what role school grounds can play as a teaching tool to how they might bring more locally grown foods into district cafeterias.
Mary Burke spoke of building partnerships to leverage community resources, while Michael Flores foresaw the district "producing the next scientists who have ideas for saving the environment."
Silveira leveraged her knowledge of the district's inner-workings, talking up the new director of food services and noting a shortage of refrigerator space in school cafeterias.
Nichols stressed the importance of sustainability literacy for low-income students. "When you're a renter, you don't get to garden," she said.
During Round 3, candidates gave 30-second answers to audience questions. Flores was asked to define 'sustainability,' while Burke was asked how she'd combat bullying. Nichols, who has been highly critical of schools superintendent Dan Nerad, was asked if there is anything he does well.
"He really is a leader that believes in the power of community engagement," she said.
When asked about cutting administration jobs, Silveira noted that the district is now slow to receive data due to positions the board cut a few years back. "Be careful what you wish for," she said.
In Round 4, panelists offered an idea, to which the candidates could only give a Red Light/Green Light answer.
All gave Red Lights to Act 10. Flores was the only one to Red Light the elimination of soda machines. All supported longer lunch times for students and funding for school gardens.
Burke was the only dissenter on longer school days, but all supported a longer school year.
The format of this round confused some audience members who rose up to ask the panelists for additional context. But by then it was time for the candidates' closing arguments.