Last week, approximately 200 madison residents were introduced to the six individuals vying for the two open seats on the Madison Metropolitan School District school board at a forum hosted by Grandparents United for Madison Public Schools.
This school board election cycle has three individuals up for seat six and seat seven –– only Ed Hughes is running for re-election. The primary election will be Feb. 21, however early voting is available at various locations across Madison before the official primary.
Each candidate answered multiple questions relating to many of the issues the school board will tackle over the next couple years including earlier middle school start times, the Personalize Pathways program and teacher shortages.
The two highest vote recipients will move on to the general spring election April 4.
Cris Carusi, a parent with children at Jefferson Middle School and Memorial High School, said if elected she will primarily focus on smaller class sizes, healthy farm to table cuisine and pay increases for all members of MMSD staff.
For Carusi, food is her life’s work. She said if she were to be elected, she would be strong advocate for farm to school because by connecting with local farmers for healthy foods, the school lunch programs could succeed. She said farm to school means more students will be eating healthier foods, which will help them think and behavior better.
Last year, Carusi said she saw sexual harassment at her child’s middle school, which led her to become engaged with the school board. She said she has not gotten far in working on this issue, but plans to continue no matter what the results of the election might be.
“Bullying and harassment need to stop in our schools,” Carusi said. “Our schools need to be nurturing and loving places for everybody.
Ali Muldrow, the racial justice youth organizer and youth programing director at GSAFE, has primarily worked with LGBTQ+ youth of color. She said the amount of harassment her students face daily is unacceptable.
Muldrow, a parent, long-time Madison resident and MMSD alum, said schools are places that can help provide access to everyone in the community and where they can invest in children.
“The way we treat our children says a lot about who we are, and the way we treat children who are not like our own also says a lot about who we are,” Muldrow said.
Muldrow thinks there is nothing that matters more than education. As someone who has worked in the schools, she said she’s seen young people in the community become passionate about justice and equality.
Kate Toews, the founder of Toews consulting and community board member on the City of Madison’s Early Childhood Care and Education Committee, said she is dedicated to investing in early education.
Toews, a mother three younger children, said she looks to support teacher’s wages by ensuring they are paid fairly. In Madison, Toews said the teachers’ starting salaries are the lowest in the state, possibly the country. After talking to students in the UW–Madison teacher training program, she found many will not even apply to work at the district.
To Toews, public schools are one of the only places where people can come together despite different classes, religions or language backgrounds.
“When I think about public schools, I want my kids to be there,” Toews said. “I want them to be there with every single other kid in our community.”
Despite having a well-funded district, Toews said there are a lot things the community needs to address like the racial achievement gap and teacher morale.
Matthew Andrzejewski, a psychology instructor at UW-Whitewater, identified himself as a parent, educator and scientist. He believed his expertise and ability to evaluate academic evidence could help break the status quo.
Andrzejewski believed for middle school children, it is important to develop interpersonal connections upon their transition from childhood to adulthood. Therefore, middle schools should become communities involving extracurricular activities, sports programs and opened up infrastructures to achieve that end.
Andrzejewski valued the importance of recruiting the best teachers available and ensuring a living wage for Special Education Assistants. He also believed some new programs have been unnecessarily taking up the resources for teachers and other schools, which is creating a "initiative fatigue," as he recollected Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham's comment. He proposed to seriously examine the long term outcomes for those programs.
"What I would demand is: What does the evidence suggest about these various things for our schools," Andrzejewski said. "It turns out that if you wanna teach reading, you use phonics...What we need are good teachers. We need to pay them well and make them competitive."
For Andrzejewski, democracy is the primary value of public education. Parents can decide how children are educated.
Having served on the school board for nine years, Ed Hughes is running for his fourth term.
Hughes emphasized the role of public education in modern society as the "primary social service agency" that can nourish students in need and comfort students in fear. Kids can also learn essential social skills in public schools, a generator of social capital.
"This underscores a really terrible aspect of this attack on public schools that we have, because the approach to privatization that we are seeing in the state now and the federal level is based on a really pernicious notion that our schools are individual consumption choice rather than a public good," he said.
Hughes believed the Madison school district has created a collaborative and appealing environment for teachers. Eighty five percent of the budget, or about $310 million a year, is dedicated to teacher salary and benefit. Also, he said the school district should consider to better allocate the money in collaboration with teachers.
Hughes believed, when planning the budget, the school district should prioritize third graders' reading proficiency and ninth grader's smooth transition into high school.
Nicki Vander Meulen
As a juvenile attorney in Madison, Nicki Vander Meulen has encountered and supported children who were abused, abandoned and bullied. She believes schools should reduce suspension and expulsion in order to help every children learn their potential.
"Our job is not to criminalize childhood. Our job is to provide excellent learning opportunities for every student," Vander Meulen said.
Though Vander Meulen does not oppose Educational Resource Officers for the sake of students' safety, she said the officers should go through proper training to avoid misjudging kids with special needs.
In order to attract and retain teachers, Vander Meulen believed the school district should offer teachers a pay raise and benefits, including health insurance and mental health access. She also said teachers who bike to work, work overtime or run an after-school program should receive stipends.
If elected, Vander Meulen will be the only autistic individual serving on the Madison school board.