This opinion column represents the views of its author and not necessarily those of 365 Media Foundation, its staff, board of directors or funders.
At a March 20 meeting of Downtown Rotary, Madison school superintendent Jen Cheatham told a powerful story about her journey toward leading for equity. She also made some news by observing that the upcoming school board election “will demonstrate the extent to which our community wants to follow through on” a commitment to better serving black students.
What’s up with that? I haven’t talked to Jen about it but it’s pretty clear to me.
There are three School Board candidates who share Jen’s view – and mine – that improving academic outcomes for our students of color is by far the school district’s highest priority because it is clearly our biggest shortcoming. They are Kaleem Caire, Ali Muldrow and Ananda Mirilli. They are all smart, capable candidates with whom I don’t always agree, though we’re definitely on the same page on this issue. They are also the three candidates of color, and that matters, but it is their shared values and commitment to collaboration that would make them particularly welcome additions to the Board.
Their opponents look at things differently. David Blaska, who is running against Muldrow, doesn’t really know much about the schools. He just knows that a healthy dose of old-school discipline would be good for what ails us. Blaska seems to perceive no significant difference between the experiences of whites and African-Americans in Madison and believe that everything would be okay if we just abandon “identity politics” and all agree to act white. I disagree with his views, as, I suspect, will most of the voters.
TJ Mertz, who is running against Mirilli, would be appalled to be lumped into the same category as Blaska, but that’s kind of where he is. Those who vote for Blaska are also likely to vote for him.
It may be that I am selling short the nuances of TJ’s views, but I find him emblematic of a certain kind of self-satisfied Madison liberal. These are the kind who so reflexively identify themselves as being on the right side of social justice issues that they haven’t bothered to engage in the difficult soul-searching and critical self-examination of racism and our complicity in it that many of us white Madisonians have been prompted to undertake.
TJ simply doesn’t seem to prioritize in the same way as me what the school district needs to do to help students of color and particularly African-American students succeed in school. To me, a passage in TJ’s answers to an MTI questionnaire kind of gives away the game. In response to a question about the achievement gap, he writes that he “prefer[s] ‘Gaps,’ plural, because the differences in challenges and outcomes are related to, race, language, gender and gender identities, economics, parental education, and more.”
If you believe that gaps in achievement attributable to differences in the education levels of students’ parents excite the same level of concern as the disparities between white and African-American students, then you lack the sense of urgency about addressing the racial achievement gap that I and many others feel.
Consistent with his more laid-back attitude toward the school district’s racial challenges, TJ advocates policies that proceed from the premise that the school district is basically doing okay, we just need to make things easier for our teachers. And so his primary policy prescriptions are reducing class sizes (though Madison already has more teachers and staff per student than comparable districts in the state) and providing teachers with more autonomy in their classrooms.
TJ can also be counted on to be critical of just about any new initiative proposed to address the district’s challenges. As a result, he effectively functions as a fierce champion of the status quo. Which, again, may be defensible if you start from the premise that everything’s basically hunky-dory.
Partly as a result of this approach, he and Jen Cheatham are just not on the same wavelength. During the four years that I served with TJ, other Board members and I would meet one-on-one with Jen monthly to get a preview of upcoming meeting agendas, talk over issues, and raise concerns. Well, all of us except TJ. He refused to meet with Jen.
During the current campaign, he has consistently soft-pedaled the extent to which he is hostile to the superintendent, though he has allowed that he believes the Board hasn’t “exercised our authority sufficiently” over her. It is no wonder that some of the harshest critics of the superintendent have gathered themselves around TJ’s campaign.
I believe that the ways in which TJ’s hostility to the superintendent and her staff have been manifest in his Board performance have been damaging to the work of the school district. So, to my mind, it’s pretty simple. If you like the job Jen Cheatham is doing and would like to support her approach, then you should vote for Ananda Mirilli rather than TJ Mertz.
The remaining candidate is Cristiana Carusi, who is running against Kaleem Caire. Over the years, I have frequently disagreed with Cris’ approach to the issues, which usually seems to be indistinguishable from TJ’s. But my support for Kaleem is much more attributable to my positive feelings toward him and the important role he can fulfill on the Board than negative feelings about Cris.
We have had our differences over the years, but I have come to like and greatly respect Kaleem. With his decision not to seek partisan endorsements, Kaleem could be a unifying force on the Board, with credibility among those city residents who view themselves as out-of-step with the dominant Madison liberalism. That would be a good thing.
There is a lot at stake in the School Board elections. I believe the school district will be best equipped to address our most daunting challenges if we have a superintendent and School Board working together as a cohesive team with a shared vision. That’s why I am voting for Kaleem Caire, Ali Muldrow and Ananda Mirilli. You should, too.