The mixed messages from Tuesday's Madison school board elections - Arlene Silveira beat Maya Cole and Lucy Mathiak ousted Juan Jose Lopez - left some insiders befuddled. But make no mistake: The effect will be a very different board.
Silveira's business experience and her articulate, understated style will likely add calm to discussions, and Mathiak's no-nonsense approach will strengthen calls for accountability and new ways of thinking.
Of secondary significance is the retirement of Bill Keys and loss of Lopez. Both have contributed to the divisiveness and self-congratulatory tone that left many disappointed, even disgusted, with the school board.
Madison voters have twice in two years ousted board incumbents supported by most local politicians and the local teachers union - an indication that voters are fed up. But no one can blame dirty politics: All four candidates ran clean campaigns and attended numerous forums focused on real issues.
"What voters said was business as usual is not good enough," says Lawrie Kobza. "This community wants more from the school board than what it's gotten."
Both Mathiak and Silveira would do well to study the path of Kobza, whose reputation for courtesy and attention to detail has earned praise from all sides. Silveira must avoid being seen as a lapdog of the majority; Mathiak's risk is being pegged as a bomb thrower.
As for Cole, who lost to Silveira by 86 votes out of 35,780 cast, her earnest enthusiasm and commitment to change has already sparked calls to run again next year.
On Monday, school board member Johnny Winston Jr. presented recommendations from a citizens' panel to allow advertising in district publications, Web sites, vehicles and athletic venues. Individuals and companies could also sponsor schools, publications and extracurricular programs.
The proposed policy would bar ads and sponsorships "directly targeted toward students," as well as those that promote drugs, alcohol, weapons, unhealthy food choices and "questionably ethical standards deemed unacceptable by the community." So much for the Bacardi Spelling Bee.
District administrators will now write a draft policy for board members to debate. But some are already skeptical.
Keys didn't know what would be "unacceptable" ethical standards to the community. Shwaw Vang wondered how the district could say sponsorships of schools or programs wouldn't be directed at students. And Lopez asked if the board would let the KKK sponsor an event. "I'd be totally against it," he felt compelled to say.
Keys also proposed barring ads that are "political in nature," to avoid the appearance of an "endorsement" by the district. Ironically, at the time, Keys was a walking advertisement, wearing campaign buttons for Silveira and Lopez.
That's a no-no, according to school board policy 1540: "Board members should avoid publicly endorsing or denouncing the candidacy of a person who is campaigning to be elected to the school board."
Keys is not alone. A few weeks ago, Winston was chastised for endorsing Lopez in a public board meeting. And all seven current board members have lent their names to candidates on endorsement lists.
"There have been degrees of violation," says board president Carol Carstensen, "but I would say every single one of us has violated this policy."
KKK all the rage
While the district may not allow the KKK to advertise in schools, at least one board member says students who attend KKK rallies during school time should be excused from class.
Who says the school board isn't dealing with the real issues of the day?
To be fair, Shwaw Vang's endorsement of letting kids attend KKK rallies on school time came in a passionate speech about giving parents the right to pull their kids out of school to attend next Monday's planned rally against changes in federal immigration policy.
Board members discussed a district policy that prohibits excused absences for students who attend political events. Many used the occasion to grandstand against sweeping immigration-law changes under review in Washington. Vang hurled the words "inhumane, unpatriotic." Carstensen used the term "un-American." Lopez called the changes "a violation of human rights." And Keys said, "We are a nation of immigrants or kidnapped people."
Superintendent Art Rainwater can make exceptions to the political-event restrictions, but has "uniformly denied" such requests in the past: "If I am going to use my discretion to overturn the board policy on things that I support, then that means I must use that same discretion to overturn the board policy on things that I abhor, and I will not do that."
The board has called for an emergency meeting, set for Thursday night, to discuss whether to change the policy to grant students an excused absence to attend political rallies.