Kaleem Caire has only been back in Madison for less than two years, but he sure has grabbed our attention.
Caire didn't waste any time after coming home from a successful private sector career on the East Coast to be the new president for the Urban League of Greater Madison, starting to shake up the local establishment more or less immediately upon arrival. He has been pushing a bold proposal to attack the long-standing issue of minority underachievement in the Madison public schools. His idea for the Madison Preparatory Academy was vetted well in Nathan Comp's cover story for Isthmus last week.
For well over a year now, Caire has been shuttling between the district administration, Madison Teachers, Inc. (MTI) union leaders, school board members, parents, editorial boards and community meetings fighting for this idea.
In response to union and district administration concerns, he changed the proposal to make the school an "instrumentality" of the district, meaning it would be under school board control and be staffed by MTI member teachers. But that proposal came in at a cost for the district of $13 million over five years. Superintendent Dan Nerad, for whom I have a lot of respect, told the League that he couldn't support anything over $5 million.
So, Caire retooled the proposal again, this time coming in with a request for public funds of only $2.7 million over five years, but without the union teachers or board oversight. Understandably, Nerad and some of the board members, as well as MTI, have problems with that.
But this puts Caire and his proposal between a rock and hard place. On the one hand, the school district is telling him to cut his costs, and on the other, they're insisting he use union teachers and live under all of the Madison school district rules, which will result in costs that the district deems unacceptable. Catch-22.
While it's tempting to see this as a run-around intended to make the idea fail, I'm not faulting anyone here. The union and the district have a legitimate concern that even if they were willing to reopen the union contract to allow non-union teachers to teach at the academy, any changes would invalidate the entire contract for all teachers under the perverse provisions of Governor Walker's public employee union-busting law. And school board members make a fair point when they say that handing over public tax dollars without direct accountability to those elected to spend them is a problem.
This Sunday, the Madison community is going to remember and celebrate the life and contributions of LaMarr Billups. I wish LaMarr were alive and living in Madison now, because I think he'd help us find a way to resolve this.
LaMarr put a high premium on not just being a leader himself, but on mentoring a whole new generation of African-American leaders, and Kaleem is among the best of that group.
I have to believe there's a solution here, and the point of this commentary isn't so much about the proposal itself, but about the man who made it. Right or wrong about Madison Prep, Kaleem Caire has forced discussion of an issue that is important far beyond the achievement of young African-American men.
There is no more important ingredient in the health of a city than the quality of its public school system. I grew up in Milwaukee where freeways, suburbanization, and racism resulted in a cascading middle class flight and left a public school system overwhelmed by kids who weren't ready to learn. If we don't deal with this issue head-on in Madison -- though I don't ever see us mirroring Milwaukee to quite the same extent -- our city will be in peril.
Through his proposal, Kaleem Caire has made us confront a central issue that relates not just to people of color but also to the health of our entire community. I know that some in the establishment are offended because they believe that we have addressed this issue through good programs like Schools of Hope. But Kaleem Caire is saying that as positive and well meaning as those efforts are, they're not enough. We need to do more. We cannot afford to be self-satisfied. We need to try new ideas.
For all of its progressive pretence, Madison is actually a very cautious community, which is why we need boldness from our leaders. So credit Kaleem Caire for taking on one of the most important issues in our community, for compromising and compromising again and for refusing to give up in the face of daunting opposition, sometimes warranted and sometimes just from entrenched interests.
Whether or not he succeeds with Madison Prep, Caire has shown himself to be a person of courage and character and a leader for our community -- perhaps, someday soon, in roles beyond the Urban League.