James Howard, Greg Packnett
Five candidates are competing for three seats on the Madison school board, with the general election on April 2, 2013.
The political context for the races is explosive, given Gov. Scott Walker's revolutionary proposals for education in Wisconsin: cuts to public school funding, an expansion of the voucher program, and a revamping of teachers' evaluations and bargaining rights.
In Madison, the issues are particularly complex, with the intense disagreements over the district's achievement gap between white and minority students.
In this competitive series of elections, there are numerous candidate forums and listening sessions under way, and we thought we'd pose our own questions to candidates.
This week, we ask the candidates about where they think incoming superintendent Jennifer Cheatham should direct her attention. We also ask about the changes in collective bargaining wrought by Act 10: How have they affected the district, and how should it respond to this new policy?
What should the priorities be for new Madison schools superintendent Jennifer Cheatham?
One of the more encouraging things I heard from Superintendent Cheatham at the community forum before she was hired was that she intended to take the opposite approach toward public leadership from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. That is, instead of settling on a program and then taking it to the community to try to sell them on it, she would instead listen to the community's input and synthesize their ideas into policy.
I believe her first priority should be to continue to reach out to the community and listen to what people have to say, and give people an opportunity to hear from her. The turnaround between her name being announced as a finalist and her hiring was so short, and the circumstances surrounding it so unusual, that many in the community are not yet invested in her, and still have questions. The images conjured by the phrases "Chicago politics" and "Madison politics" could hardly be more different, so if she is going to be an effective leader for the district, she'll need to understand exactly what makes us unique.
The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) is a high achieving district. It has many high achieving students, as demonstrated by the high number of identified National Merit scholars each year. When considering the wide range of student achievement within the district, I believe one of the new superintendent's priorities will be to keep the district achieving at our high level while raising the academic achievement of those students at the lower end of the achievement spectrum.
How has Gov. Scott Walker's collective bargaining law affected the district, and how should its policies proceed in this new environment?
For all the talk from Republicans about how "policy uncertainty" was holding back the economy, it's ironic that one of the main effects of Gov. Walker's signature legislation has been to dramatically increase uncertainty in Wisconsin's workers. And I'm not just referring to the legal uncertainty that surrounds Judge Colas' decision to suspend Act 10 and whether it will be upheld by higher courts, though that is obviously a factor. If Act 10 is ultimately upheld, workers will no longer have the peace of mind and economic security that comes from working under a mutually agreed-upon contract, once the current collective bargaining agreement expires. The sense I get from my conversations with teachers is one of continually waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I also feel that Act 10 has made labor negotiations in Wisconsin more divisive. When collective bargaining is mandatory, both sides at the table can negotiate on an equal footing, because once a contract is signed, both sides will be equally bound by it. Without collective bargaining rights, the best workers can hope for is to negotiate an employee handbook that protects their interests. Unlike a contract negotiation, however, the administration would always have the option of walking away from negotiations and writing the handbook unilaterally, so the only leverage workers have is public opinion. This means that disputes that would have ordinarily been resolved at the bargaining table become fodder for divisive public debate.
Without the ability to sign a legally binding contract, the only way for the district to proceed in this new environment is to demonstrate that we will negotiate in good faith for an employee handbook, and that we would rather give in on our priorities in a dispute in order to reach a mutually satisfying agreement than try to get what we want unilaterally.
Scott Walker's collective bargaining law has impacted the district very negatively. When the law was passed, many experienced teachers retired causing a significant talent and brain drain. The law also resulted in falling levels of morale with district staff because of the resulting feelings of not being appreciated. So, while there are many negative impacts resulting from the passage of the law, the most significant impact was to our staff.
Success in a district as diverse as MMSD requires the dedication of a very diverse and talented staff. Although MMSD still has one of the most educated and qualified staffs in the nation, we are left with rebuilding morale and replacing much of the institutional knowledge lost through retirements when the law was passed. If we expect our teachers and staff to remain highly productive -- which is the key to student achievement -- we must understand and appreciate their value, especially at the state level. Laws that diminish our public institutions and those that work within them diminish us all.