After serving nearly nine years as superintendent of the Madison schools, Art Rainwater will retire on June 30, 2008. This means one of the school board's major tasks will be choosing Rainwater's replacement. In this second week of Take Home Test, Isthmus asks the school board candidates to evaluate Rainwater's performance and explain what they're looking for in his successor.
The Daily Page: What do you see as the strong and weak points of Art Rainwater's term as superintendent?
Art Rainwater came to the district at a difficult time and has done a good job creating budgets that have allowed our district to maintain its high quality of education. He appreciates the challenges faced by families, students and staff.
He effectively applied his experience from a community with racial and economic diversity to improve the education of all children, especially students of color, low-income students, and those with disabilities. His knowledge and application of research-based practices has meant more consistency across curriculum and teaching methods and has led to increased achievement levels for all students. He has strong ties with other urban districts nationally, learning from other districts as well as from the research.
Involvement of the community and staff in hiring building leadership has been a relative weakness. This has resulted in failed leadership in several of our schools. His management style has not emphasized diverse input at crucial junctures, and he has been less than fully committed to trying to integrate differing viewpoints. Madison is a community with a very active, well-educated population who demands excellence from our schools. The School Board's role of questioning decisions has been and will continue to be very important.
Whenever I review an employee's performance, I always start with the strong points of their work. I believe Mr. Rainwater did the best he could with the administrative culture at the Doyle building. He worked to ensure that cuts were made to nonessential service first whenever he could. He also worked hard to create a good working atmosphere with the teachers' union.
Mr. Rainwater also had some weak points in his work as superintendent. First, he did not change the culture at the Doyle building to a student-centered approach. He also did not eliminate administrative waste as well as he should have.
Second, he needs to work on fostering creativity in our schools. Top down administration stifles creativity and innovations from the teachers. It also creates poor morale.
Third, he has not created performance based evaluations of our school programs. We must know which programs are truly working and which are not, and we are not currently evaluating our programs with a critical eye on results. This is not totally his fault as even our past school boards didn't evaluate him for several years on his job performance until this year.
Lastly, I do not feel that the schools have done all they can to create an environment of safety and freedom from disruptive students. I look forward to helping choose our next superintendent and providing a long-term vision of where our schools are going.
I believe that Art Rainwater has served the school district admirably, as superintendent, over the last eight-plus years. His career in education as a teacher, principal and administrator made him an excellent candidate to head up an ever-changing public school district.
He has represented the Madison Metropolitan School District as a strong leader and powerful communicator. He has shown the ability to work with business and community leaders to promote the district as a topnotch educational institution.
He had a vision of what an excellent school district should look like and kept working towards that vision even as the community has become more diverse and with the continued fiscal instability year after year. He has shown his commitment to providing the best education for all children with the resources that are available.
What Mr. Rainwater could have done better, and should commit to doing better over the next 18 months, is to seek input about initiatives from students, parents, teachers, staff and all community stakeholders. He needs to keep listening to ideas that all of these committed groups have to offer about what they believe an urban school district should look like.
We have an unbelievable wealth of resources and experiences from community members that we must tap into. These individuals want to work with the district's personnel to bring their expertise to the table in order to assist in the continued development of excellent educational opportunities for all children. We owe it to our next generation of leaders, skilled laborers and taxpayers to provide them with opportunities to be successful in the real world.
What qualities do you want to see in the new superintendent?
The next Board has a critical job in hiring a new superintendent. He or she must have demonstrated success in a district with similar demographics and challenges as Madison. I would want the next superintendent to see Madison as a place to live and become invested in the community, not as a stepping-stone to another job. The new superintendent must understand the high expectations our community has for educating students and the importance of schools to the quality of life of our city. Experience with severe budgeting restrictions is a must.
This person must have an effective and open working relationship with the school board, the community, and the staff. He or she needs to have the respect of staff and teachers, be seen as a fair administrator, and be willing to look first at streamlining administration in difficult budgetary times.
Understanding the importance of relationship-building in school success and a commitment to inclusion of students who have been marginalized in the past, including those with special needs and English-language-learner students, are also very important. Creative ideas for raising achievement levels for all students will assure the district's continued improvement. An understanding of evidence-based best practices in education will ensure consistency in choosing curriculum and teaching methods.
The board does have a very important job ahead and must involve the community, students, and staff in making this decision.
There are several qualities I would like to see in our new superintendent.
First, the person selected should have a long-term vision of where the schools should be headed and have a plan to accomplish this vision.
Second, the person should be a consensus builder who is willing to work on creating a better administrative environment in our schools. I strongly believe in bottom-up administration and feel some of our greatest areas of waste and resistance to new ideas comes from our bloated bureaucracy.
Third, the person needs to be committed to safety in our schools from violence to bullying to disruptive behavior in our classrooms. All students need to be treated in a fair and equitable manner, but bad behavior should not be tolerated.
Fourth, true student achievement should be a top priority with the new superintendent. We have many programs in this district that are just not working for the majority of the students. We need an innovative thinker who is willing to admit a program isn't working and move on to something that is.
Finally, we need a superintendent who is willing to listen to the parents/students and make the decisions that are best for them, and not necessarily what is best for special interest groups. They are the consumers of education, and we must serve them. By being the 'independent' candidate for school board, not beholden to special interest groups, I am the best candidate to choose the next superintendent.
The process of hiring a new superintendent for the district will be one of the most important issues the new school board will have to tackle after the spring election. The process and the ultimate selection must be done right; we cannot afford to make a mistake. The very foundation of our community's public school education is at stake.
The board should seek candidates with high integrity, outstanding leadership qualities and a strong focus on academic achievement for all students. Other important qualities to seek in the new superintendent are the ability to be a consensus-builder and a strong communicator. The new hire must be able to work in cooperation with the board, students, parents, unions, business leaders and the community.
The board should also seek input from the community as to what credentials they would like to see in the new superintendent. Our community's stakeholders have important experiences and excellent ideas to share about the character, qualities, credentials and skills of their new leader.
The new superintendent must be familiar with the issues and up for the challenges that face an urban school district. This individual must have an extraordinary vision. He/she must empower the district staff to think outside of the box to work at making the school district a place where we are raising up all students, regardless of race or socioeconomic status. And to prepare to send them out into the world with the ability to be successful, contributing members of society.
Extra Credit: What was your favorite movie of 2006 and why?
Since I don't have the opportunity to go to many movies, when I do go, I want to laugh out loud. If there's a movie that our entire family will enjoy equally, that's a real bonus. My kids are 13 and 14, so we do have more of a choice than when they were small.
My favorite movie of 2006 was Talladega Nights. It made everyone laugh. As I've gotten older, the kind of silly humor in this movie appeals more to me, and having married a British man, I've come to appreciate different types of humor. I also really appreciated this movie because NASCAR is a huge sport in the Southeast, where I've spent much of my life. Recently I heard an interview with one of the founders of NASCAR, who said that one of the reasons NASCAR is so popular is that it is crazy and over the top, and people love that. Personally, I'm not a big fan, but I have plenty of friends who spend a lot of time at Bristol and Talladega, and my son loves it.
Talladega Nights is also one of those movies that make you laugh for days after. "Shake and Bake" is no longer just breaded chicken in a bag; its something you say to a friend to get fired up. It's an opportunity for a shared laugh. We're all so serious now with the political and economic situation and the war. It's healthy and necessary to have a good laugh.
My favorite movie of 2006 was March of the Penguins. I truly enjoy nature and all of its wonders. I also enjoy movies and television where you can learn something while being entertained. This movie combined all of these things. We can learn so much by just observing wildlife. Humans are not the only species that is intelligent and has adapted to its environment. If you haven't already seen March of the Penguins, rent it today.
I must admit, although I enjoy viewing movies as a form of entertainment and to gain historical knowledge, I rarely go to the theater. I usually watch the Academy Awards yearly and make a list of the nominated movies and try to watch as many of them, as possible, on DVD.
I did have an opportunity to see a movie in the theater toward the end of 2006. In what has become a family tradition, we have made a point of going to a movie over the Thanksgiving weekend. Suggestions are sought from the adults, college and high school aged cousins as to what provocative movie maybe of interest to the group.
This past Thanksgiving, the movie Bobby got the vote. It is a fictional account of the lives of several people present during the final hours in the life of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
What I enjoyed most about the movie is that it gave my family the opportunity to have an important and thought-provoking discussion about significant issues of the sixties, i.e., racism, inequality, poverty. It was a time when the citizens of our nation wanted to come together to make our country a better place for everyone. With the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., we are left to only imagine what our country might have accomplished, in regards to these issues, had these powerful men been given the opportunity to lead.