This story has been updated to reflect that Board Member TJ Mertz raised the issue of Gloria Reyes’s potential conflict of interest hours prior to the meeting, not at the meeting.
On Monday, December 17, the Madison School Board will vote on whether or not to expand the Personalized Pathways Program in the Madison Metropolitan School District, a vote that will impact the futures of hundreds of high school students.
The vote is a test of the strength of the MMSD’s Strategic Framework, which has sought to modernize and individualize student life, and deliver a more opportunistic and realistic outcome for all of Madison’s students.
And, despite efforts to the contrary, it is a vote that School Board member Gloria Reyes, six months into her first term on the school board, will be fully participating in. Reyes, who believes in the Pathways Program and would like to see it continue, has faced targeted attacks on her objectivity by board members seeking to dismantle Pathways.
Ahead of the last School Board meeting, board member TJ Mertz, who just yesterday that he is running for re-election, made an effort to disqualify Reyes from participating in a vote to continue Pathways. Mertz communicated to school district counsel Matt Bell regarding Reyes’ position as Deputy Mayor of the City of Madison as causing her to have a conflict of interest due to the City’s involvement in the program. Mertz, who is not in favor of Pathways, sought to gain an advantageous voting position by having Reyes on the sidelines when the issue of Pathways comes before the Board Monday.
Mertz’ efforts were thwarted when the Board decided not to vote concerning Pathways but to delay that vote until the December 17 meeting on Monday. In the meantime, Reyes consulted with Bell, who did not make a recommendation as to whether she should recuse herself or not.
“This board has set very high ethical standards for itself,” Bell said at the meeting. Still, it is up to each board member when to recuse themselves from a vote due to conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Reyes has since consulted outside counsel and determined that she had no conflict of interest at all. The City of Madison is a partner with Personalized Pathways, but Reyes herself does not benefit at all from the existence of the program. Children benefit from the existence of the program.
“I was prepared to go in and vote but I got a call from legal counsel telling me that TJ was saying I had a conflict of interest because of the city’s partnership and whatnot,” Reyes told Madison365. “Essentially TJ Mertz had brought it to the District’s legal counsel in the afternoon. I did not think I had a conflict of interest and I wasn’t even thinking about it. After reviewing it with legal counsel and other people, I made the decision that I don’t have a conflict of interest and I will vote on the extension of Pathways. What was frustrating is that everybody knew I was in support of Pathways. I clearly showed that during my campaign.”
Reyes said it became apparent that there was some political movement on the part of Mertz counting votes and trying to get Reyes to recuse herself. He waited until the afternoon of the meeting to call legal counsel.
Mertz did not respond to messages seeking comment.
“Oftentimes, it is an individual’s decision on whether they have an ethical obligation to recuse themselves,” Reyes said. “I just find it ironic that Mertz has done this a couple of times and it seems like he’s trying to silence my voice. But based on the Wisconsin Association of School Board legal counsel and other professionals I relied on, I felt confident in making the decision that I don’t have a conflict of interest. I made this decision based on being an elected official, a mother of children in Madison schools and someone who cares about this community. That’s why I’m voting to support the extension of Pathways.”
The November board meeting was indeed a toxic, contentious, intense affair. The School Board’s divisions on the issue of Pathways was clear and, to anyone watching, the frustration of Pathways administrators and MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham was palpable.
For Reyes, being blindsided at the last minute with calls to legal counsel or other ploys is something she finds unacceptable for future board meetings.
“I don’t have any personal or professional benefit I’m receiving by voting this way,” Reyes said. “There’s no financial gain. It is merely a partnership to expose students to professions. And so [Mertz] was using my role as Deputy Mayor as a potential conflict of interest. I feel like I’m being ethically policed. It’s more than a few times where he has gone to legal counsel and asked these questions. I am a professional woman who understands and has access to information. I am an elected board member. It feels demeaning for him to continue to undermine or try to make it an issue.”
Reyes’ treatment and the issues before the school board were not lost on people in the community watching. In the wake of November’s board meeting, several prominent community leaders have stepped forward to run for Madison’s School Board in 2019.
Ali Muldrow, Ananda Mirilli and Kaleem Caire have announced they will be running for positions on the School Board in an attempt to make the board more reflective of the community it serves — Mirilli for Mertz’s seat, Muldrow for the seat currently held by former board president James Howard, who has hinted that this is his last term, and Caire for the seat currently held by Dean Loumos, who has announced he will not seek re-election. Muldrow will face conservative blogger and former Dane County Supervisor David Blaska, and Caire will run against Cris Carusi.
In the Fall of 2017 MMSD launched the Personalized Pathways pilot with nearly 500 9th graders across 4 high schools.
In a Personalized Pathway, kids go through core high school courses in a smaller setting. The smaller setting allows kids to have more contact with teachers and other students participating in the same thing. It also helps teachers work with and share individual students, which makes it easier for teachers to know students better and be able to help them reach their goals.
If the School Board approves continuing Pathways on December 17, students will have a Health Services Pathway and an Information Technology and Communications Pathway, for example. Health Services trains students for things like therapeutic services, patient care, health care administration, biotechnology.
Information Tech and Communications offers students a path to things like multimedia journalism, strategic communications, software development and computer science.
Critics say the program hinders students’ opportunities to take Honors and Advanced Placement courses, as well as elective courses outside of their Pathway, which administrators say is not the case.
That was a contentious part of the previous Board Meeting, with administrators of Pathways and Jennifer Cheatham repeatedly trying to explain that Pathways does not in any way hinder a students ability to pursue honors courses or electives.
UW-Madison is a partner with Pathways and helps prepare Pathways students for post-secondary education, including admission to the University of Wisconsin.
The University of Wisconsin hosts 9th grade MMSD Pathways students on campus for tours of Health Sciences, which allows the kids to have an opportunity to build familiarity with the UW campus as well as meet UW officials from the Offices of Admissions and Recruitment, Student Financial Aid, and people who run programs like neuroscience, nursing, physical therapy and veterinary medicine. Madison365 reporter Edgar Sanchez joined a group of students on one of those campus visits.
Wisconsin also provides a UW Leap Forward summer internship with 11th graders. LEAP Forward is offered for up to 25 juniors who participate for two hours each week for six weeks. Students receive an hourly wage in addition to one college credit.
Right now, students at Madison West, La Follette, Memorial and East are able to participate in Pathways. Extending and expanding the program would do nothing but help more students gain career-building skills and perform better in the classroom, district administrators say.