After a round of "meet and greets" with the three finalists for the job of Madison schools superintendent, insiders were divided on two favorites. Leaders who've pushed for greater educational reforms spoke highly of Miami's Steve Gallon, while key institutional players favored Green Bay's Dan Nerad.
Nerad, 56, the most battle-tested of the finalists, delivered a solid introductory speech that struck the right notes. He stressed his consensus-building record, cautioned against embracing reform for its own sake, and drew applause by blasting state revenue controls.
In contrast, Gallon seemed bolder but less experienced. He ventured into dangerous territory by saying inadequate funding shouldn't be used as an excuse for educational failures. A 38-year-old black single father, Gallon attended the same Miami public school system where he now runs alternative programs, and many saw his potential as a visionary leader.
In the end, picking a replacement for Art Rainwater, who is retiring in June after eight years in the top job, was not hard to do. The night before school board deliberations, Gallon dropped out after finding a job on the East Coast. The Madison board unanimously made an offer to Nerad, Green Bay's school superintendent since 2001.
Those who lobbied for Gallon behind the scenes say privately they're over any disappointment they initially felt. And school board members say they're excited - if not relieved - to find someone like Nerad. "It feels right. It feels good," says board president Arlene Silveira.
As an added bonus, Silveira says the search process has also done wonders for the relationships among her colleagues: "We're in sync. We still have different ideas about some things, but we're really working together."
Dan Nerad comes to the Madison job with significant prior experience, having managed a large state school system with some distinction. (In 2006, he was state superintendent of the year.) A lifelong Wisconsinite, Nerad has a bachelor's and master's degree in social work from UW-Madison, and his son is a legislative aide at the state Capitol.
Nerad's biggest challenge will be to unite divergent stakeholders, maintain optimism in the city's schools without glossing over the challenges, and advance new initiatives despite fiscal constraints.
It's a big task, but Nerad thinks he's up to it.
"I'm going to be a very good listener during my first few months," Nerad tells Isthmus. "I have a reputation for finding ways to connect with people in different ways. My job will be to find the Madison heartbeat as fast as I can and then find the next places where we can go."
One of Nerad's top first-year priorities will be reassessing Madison's strategies for boosting student achievement. He's already asked board members to reconsider their governance role so they can pay more attention to big-picture issues related to student achievement.
"We're open to this," Silveira says. "Maybe we'd be less involved in things like approving how many cell phones are in the district, and some of the operational things would be handled differently."
Since Rainwater's hire eight years ago, the school board has measured district success largely by looking at three areas: graduation rates, third-grade reading scores and completion rates in high school algebra and geometry courses.
In recent years, some board members have worried these goals may not be robust enough to drive improvement gains, and Nerad's hire presents an opportune time to rethink them. So too does the rookie status of the school board, given the impending departures of 18-year veteran Carol Carstensen and vice president Lawrie Kobza. That will leave Johnny Winston Jr. as the only board member who's served more than one term.
The district's demographics are rapidly shifting toward more low-income and minority populations, and its efforts are limited by revenue controls put in place by the state. This is something Nerad has experienced firsthand in Green Bay, whose demographic changes have been similar to Madison's.
"In a lot of ways, we have similar stories," Nerad says of Green Bay and Madison. Last year, Green Bay cut $10 million from its cost-to-continue budget, mostly through a $4 million savings from health insurance changes and by putting off strategic planning priorities. "We've been able to avoid deep cuts in services," says Nerad, "but we're at the edge now."
Madison has been at the edge for some time. Inflammatory rhetoric and demoralizing budget debates have often derailed new ideas and have left the impression that the Madison district is perpetually in crisis.
Nerad's challenge will be to not just stay the course, but to make progress in areas where Rainwater and the board have failed.
For instance, developing a 4-year-old kindergarten program, seen as a critical component in combating the early effects of poverty on school readiness. Expanding after-school programs, something the board has not prioritized enough, is another place for Nerad to look. He seems to know this already.
"My belief is both of these programs are significant to the achievement-gap problem," says Nerad, whose Green Bay district is embarking on a 4K plan this year. "You want elevated standards for all kids, but some kids aren't meeting them. What do you do? You don't lower the standards. You provide more time. That's what 4-year-old kindergarten and after-school programs do."
Nerad says he's open to other reforms, including charter schools, which the Madison district has historically not embraced. "I'm not opposed to looking at any type of innovative idea," he says. "I have nothing that's off my list."
But Nerad is hardly a radical experimenter: "I'm not a big believer that you grab onto something just because it's new."
Nerad says he's "skeptical" of virtual schooling, largely because a computer can't replicate all the positive interactions that occur inside a school. But as Green Bay has watched districts use virtual schooling to stop enrollment declines, Nerad has agreed to "more formally" explore the possibilities of online learning.
"You have your sets of beliefs as an educator, but you have to be in the marketplace, too."
Nerad starts July 1, and Green Bay is apparently saddened by his loss. "You couldn't find a negative comment anywhere," WISC-TV's Linda Eggert reported after a visit to Green Bay, where she interviewed teachers, principals and parents.
Carol Carstensen, who's worked with six superintendents during her years as a parent and board member, sees Nerad as being just what the district needs.
"I don't think there will any great surprises with Dan," she says. "I see him and the future board as being very collaborative. There are things about Madison that you need to know in order be effective, and Dan seems to know those things. He really struck responsive chords with everyone."