Tom Farley (l) and James Howard (r) speak at a candidates' forum for the Madison school board.
"I won't stand here and tell you I know the best way. But we do have to make sure we protect learning," said Howard, 56, a contender for Madison school board, at a candidate forum on Sunday. "$30 million is a heck of a deficit. Have you written you r congress people? We really need to come up with a different funding source."
James Howard are vying for school board Seat 4, being vacated by Johnny Winston. It is the only contested seat of three on the April 6 ballot.
Following a brief presentation from uncontested candidates Maya Cole and Beth Moss, Howard and Farley answered questions posed by forum organizers from Progressive Dane and submitted questions from an audience of about 50 at Wright Middle School. One key area of inquiry was how the candidates would go about solving an anticipated $30 million budget hole next year.
Answered Farley, "We need to end the reactionary stop-gap manner of doing this [budget planning] and we need to be more proactive, forward thinking, and make strategic decisions." He noted that changing flaws in the school funding system are necessary to affect change, and said the board should push the state to shift sales tax toward schools.
Farley, 48, who worked in marketing and communication and now runs the Chris Farley Foundation, talked about visionary thinking and forward-looking strategy, and stressed the importance of building partnerships across the board and telling about the achievements of Madison's schools much better.
Dressed in an open collar shirt with a dark suit jacket and tan pants, Farley joked that the only endorsement he's received so far is from his mom. He has one daughter and a son attending West High, and his older daughter is a West graduate. His wife, Laura, works as a nurse at East High School and Lapham Elementary School.
Howard, who has a son attending Sherman Middle School and a daughter at Emerson Elementary, as well as an older daughter who graduated from East High School, has been endorsed by Madison Teachers Inc., the South Central Federation of Labor and Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard, among others.
Howard, an economist with the U.S.D.A. Forest Service in Madison, touched on the importance of engaging parents and communities to close Madison's achievement gap, and the need to be more proactive in planning to avoid the pains of school overcrowding and redistricting.
In facing the budget hole, Farley said he wouldn't cut programs that "speaks to our brand," such as the arts, the talented and gifted classes and special education. Howard stressed the need to find other solutions: "I really wouldn't want to cut anything. We've been cutting for how many years now?"
The candidates agreed Madison has good schools and on the importance issues including building school funding sources, limiting advertising in schools, retaining the yet-to-come 4K program, and working to educate all students including those without resident U.S. status and who speak English as a second language.
On retaining high-achieving students, Farley said, "We need to adjust to our culture base and engage them where they're engaged from their perspective, not ours." He stressed that the concept of pooling all students together is flawed.
But Howard hesitated to say the district has a student flight issue. "The net loss doesn't tell the whole story," he said. "We're not losing a lot of kids and have been fairly consistent at 24,000 to 25,000."
Regarding redistricting and shifting school boundaries due to overcrowding, Howard believes proactive planning is key and notes that closing a school should only be done as a "last resort."
Farley said closing schools because they're not performing well is wrong and that the district should seek innovations, letting opening satellite locations to ease overcrowding. He also said providing students incentives could help ease the burden of switching schools.