Two candidates locked in a race to represent Seat One on the Madison Metropolitan School Board had their final chance to give their pitch on Wednesday afternoon at a forum hosted at Operation Fresh Start, where there was much agreement on issues like school safety and bullying, but things got contentious over driver’s ed.
The forum was attended by more than three dozen high school age students who were given a chance to not only ask the candidates questions but also give feedback about what issues they would like to see come to the attention of the School Board.
Seat One incumbent Anna Moffit and her challenger, Deputy Mayor Gloria Reyes, joined Mary Burke, who is running unopposed for Seat 2, in connecting with youth comprised of many students who’d had a challenging time in school, almost all of whom were students of color.
School safety was the topic on everyone’s mind. With the opening question of the day candidates were asked about their stance on arming teachers, metal detectors and the continued presence of police officers, known as Educational Resource Officers (EROs), in schools.
“Arming teachers is the worst idea that I’ve ever heard being floated,” Moffit told the youths in attendance. “I also don’t support having metal detectors in schools. There are other ways to prevent students from bringing in weapons.”
Moffit said she doesn’t want to see schools turn into quazi-prisons and wants to focus on getting to the causes of issues instead of an overabundance of reactive measures. Moffit said that she wants to review the presence of EROs and make sure they’re serving the purpose they were placed in schools for.
Gloria Reyes, who was a Madison police officer for years and helped build community bridges like Operation Fresh Start, says there does need to be an infrastructure in schools to keep children like hers safe.
“We need to beef up on infrastructure security,” Reyes said. “As a mother, it is a concern. We have people coming into schools and hurting our children. EROs play a critical component. Now, having them respond to social issues in schools is something that has to change. But officers started this program. Officers started Operation Fresh Start. I am the type of police officer you youth would want in your school.”
Reyes is also opposed to arming teachers and said that teachers need to be focused on teaching, not handling firearms. Reyes said metal detectors could be a consideration but the biggest thing is that we need to ensure the safety of kids.
“My whole career has been public safety and we need someone on the School Board who understands those issues,” Reyes said.
Mary Burke, who does not have an opponent in her race, said that we need to really think hard about what the presence of metal detectors and armed teachers would do to the image of our schools. Burke said that having metal detectors gives the impression to everyone that our schools truly aren’t safe.
“First and foremost, I want our students to be safe and to feel safe when they come to school,” Burke said. “And sometimes those aren’t the same things. A line has been crossed between what EROs actually do and what they are supposed to be doing. And metal detectors create an environment that says to everyone that our schools aren’t safe.”
The youth present had their voices and feelings heard as well. Only two or three of the youth present raised their hands when asked if they would support arming teachers, while a handful raised their hands when asked if they supported metal detectors.
But over half responded in favor of having EROs present in their schools.
Things heated up on the topic of making sure things like Driver Education, which was a staple of high school life for decades, could return to being free for students as part of the school curriculum rather than only available only to families with the finances to pay for a program.
Moffit was not aware that Drivers Ed had stopped being part of school but said that she would love to have the conversation about it.
Reyes seized that moment and illustrated how important it is for the school board to both know what the issues are and be in touch with the pulse of what’s going on.
“I knew it was an issue, and when you have the pulse of the community, how do you not know that?” Reyes said. “You have to know what’s happening in our community. We have to commit to having students get a driver license and we should be able to have drivers ed for free in high school.”
For her part, Mary Burke spoke at length in response to a question about bullying and the use of safe rooms in schools.
“Bullying is a serious issue that has become more serious with social media, so we have to create more situations in our schools where students feel safe,” she said. “I don’t think just taking students right out of the classroom is the right thing. What I really want is to see interventions that change the behaviors not just punishments for them.”
Moffit agreed, adding that safe rooms are mostly just traumatic for the kids being put in them and that punishing our way out of problems is not the solution for school bullying.
Reyes said that in her experience bringing together the kids involved in bullying situations and having them talk things out has been the best solution.
Many of the youth present at the forum are kids who had difficulties in various stages of school, who are using Operation Fresh Start as a springboard to a second chance at life as well as academics.
But Moffit said we can’t wait until after kids have already failed to start thinking of solutions for them.
“Our kids can’t wait to fail to have other opportunities put in front of them,” she said. “I find Madison to be very elitist in how we measure intelligence. I work with kids who do circuitry and carpentry who are just as intelligent as kids who excel at math and science. We need to expand community opportunities for kids that are relevant and meaningful.”
Burke echoed those sentiments adding that Madison seems to have a very narrow concept of what learning is and what success is. She said measuring kids against those narrow types adds up to many falling through the cracks.
Reyes added that mentorships are key to allowing kids do fall through those cracks to see someone who looks like them and came through the same hardships make it.
Reyes said she was one of the kids who had tough times in school but was able to turn things around and make it. Now, if elected to the school board, she wants to give back as well.
“I am a product of this community, a product of our public schools. I’ve experienced the realities of living in poverty and I’ve overcome those,” she said. “Despite all those challenges I have been able to become a professional person in this city because this city invested in me. That’s why I’m running for school board. To give back to the community that invested in me. I am the candidate who personally and professionally understands that.”
For Moffit, having kids get on paths to success from the very beginning is paramount to having a school system that works. By the time the kid needs a second chance in high school, the school system has already failed that child.
“We can’t have kids come into high school and watch them fail before we look at options for them,” she said. “We need to talk earlier with kids in Middle School about what they want to do with their lives and what their goals are so that when they get to high school they have a path to that. I’ve dedicated my life to the field of education. I believe my voice is critical because I am in our schools every day with students who aren’t making it in our community.”
The school board election will take place this Tuesday, April 3.