Earlier this month, Madison schools superintendent Dan Nerad unveiled his preliminary plan to close the minority achievement gap. If the plan demonstrated anything, it's that the district is capable of thinking big.
"I love the dreaming that's going on in this plan," says school board vice president Marj Passman. "We don't dream in education anymore."
The reason is clear. With an estimated price tag of $105 million over five years, the plan's final version will be something far less than the 109-page document Nerad presented on Feb. 6, especially since next year's budget begins with a deficit of between $2 million and $12.4 million.
Nerad has proposed a variety of potential funding sources, including tapping the district's $10.5 million in unused tax levy authority for the plan's first year. Beyond that, the plan will likely become a perennial budget issue for the board. "I'll readily admit there will be investment challenges," he says.
The final plan will be built around the themes that emerge during a series of community input sessions, with the board vote coming sometime after April's school board elections.
All four candidates applaud the plan, with some agreeing that a scaled-back version is not only realistic, but might also better serve students.
"One of the problems the district has had is it tries to do too much, and then implementation does not go as well as anticipated," says incumbent Arlene Silveira.
Mary Burke, who seeks the seat Lucy Mathiak is vacating, agrees. "Let's prioritize based on which [programs] are most cost effective and have the best chance of succeeding," says Burke, who co-founded the district's acclaimed AVID/TOPS program.
Starting with a number of smaller programs would not only ease the financial burden, but also help in measuring their efficacy, she says.
Burke's opponent, Michael Flores, is apprehensive about raising taxes to help fund the plan, arguing that increasing student enrollment would be a cost-effective way to strengthen schools.
But, he adds, "If the community supports something, I might be okay with raising taxes."
Nichelle Nichols, who hopes to oust Silveira, says she'd normally oppose raising taxes, but adds that closing the achievement gap will require a community investment.
"I'm a firm believer that we're not going to eat away at the achievement gap without an infusion of resources," she says. "Some costs you just can't get away from."