After three years on the school board – the last two as president – the final Madison School Board meeting for School Board President Gloria Reyes on Monday, March 22, was full of many emotions.
“For me, it’s bittersweet. I’m excited about what my future holds and the opportunity with Briarpatch but also realizing that there is so much work to do on the school board,” Reyes tells Madison365. “Leaving that will be really hard. So, it’s really bittersweet for me right now.”
Reyes recently accepted and started the job as the CEO and executive director of Briarpatch Youth Services, a private, non-profit organization serving youth and families in Dane County celebrating their 50th Anniversary this year.
“The opportunity with Briarpatch really factored big into the decision. It’s an amazing opportunity and it’s working in an area and serving our most vulnerable youth in our community that I’m so passionate about,” Reyes says. “I really wanted to put all of my energy into that work and I recognized that if I stayed on the school board it would take my time away and that I wouldn’t be able to be fully immersed in the work of Briarpatch that it deserves.
“But also, it’s been a rough term. It’s been a rough three years on the school board. Not that I’d run away from anything that was hard and challenging, but it’s been a rough three years,” she adds. “It demands the full attention that a school board member will have to commit to.”
As president, Reyes has been the face and often the spokesperson of the Madison School Board during some very trying and challenging times including the COVID-19 pandemic and the canceling of in-person classes, the hiring of new MMSD superintendent twice (Dr. Matthew Gutierrez rescinded his acceptance of the job before MMSD started over from scratch to hire now-Superintendent Dr. Carl Jenkins), the temporary firing last year of a Madison West High School security guard that drew international attention, and a facilities and operation referendum process. Those are to just name a few.
“It all started when Dr. Jen Cheatham announced that she was leaving for another opportunity and I knew right then that this would spark a transition and an opportunity for our school district,” Reyes says. “It’s a loss, but also an opportunity to explore who our new leader could be. We launched a really transparent, engaged process to hear what the community wanted to see in their next leader.”
MMSD hired Dr. Matthew Gutierrez who was leading the school district in Seguin, Texas, but the COVID-19 pandemic began and Guitierrez rescinded his acceptance and decided that he could not leave his school district during such a challenging time.
“I feel like he was going to be an amazing leader for us, but COVID hit and we found ourselves without a superintendent while going through the pandemic and closing schools and moving to virtual learning,” Reyes says. “That was also a very challenging time for us and our students, our teachers, our school administrators and our staff to go through a whole year in virtual learning. It’s been challenging for everyone including our parents and our families.
“We saw through COVID how it highlighted and elevated all of the racial disparities in education and health care and employment and opportunities in our city,” she adds. “But what I also saw was a community that came together and recognized the importance of education and public schools for our students. They came through and filled many gaps that we had in our community by providing food access, technology, support and more for our families. I think what we learned from that process was that education and public schools need to move forward by looking at the family unit in education and not just the education in the classroom. It’s much more than that.”
MMSD started from scratch and went through another superintendent process where they would eventually hire Dr. Carl Jenkins as superintendent.
“He really came to us with some strong leadership skills to help us lead us through this. It was a blessing for him to come on board and lead our district,” Reyes says.
“Now that he’s been on board, he’s been making some changes and reorganizing. He has focused on centering himself and his leaders on what’s best for our children, particularly our youth of color and our youth who are most impacted by the disparities that exist,” she adds. “I’m very optimistic of what is going to come with his leadership in the future. I think he is going to be the one to help us do the hard reset and to reimagine what our schools could really look like.”
Back in 2019, Marlon Anderson, a Black security guard at Madison West was terminated after using a racial slur while telling a student not to use the same slur. The incident made national news.
“That was an experience that I felt our school district had to face. We heard from students who really respected the security guard who really rallied and protested at the Doyle building for him. We heard their voices and took them seriously,” Reyes says. “They led us through that time of turmoil. It was our students’ voices who were leading us and that’s important.
“We learned that we have to listen to our students and keep them at the center of the many decisions and the impact that we make,” she adds.
In 2020, George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis at the hands of police sparked worldwide protests against police brutality and a national reckoning with racial issues.
“That incident elevated the huge tension between our Black community and law enforcement and the impact that law enforcement has on our Black community,” Reyes says. “Throughout my whole time on the school board, officers in the schools have been a debate. We had protests here in Madison and young people standing up against police brutality forcing our systems to build accountability for officers’ actions. George Floyd’s murder was an awakening for many in our community.
“I still feel like law enforcement, particularly our Madison police department and surrounding jurisdictions, plays a critical role in ensuring the safety of our residents, but we have a lot of work to do in all aspects,” she adds. “They need to be held accountable and to do the work to ensure that they are culturally competent and commit to anti-racism within their own structure and culture within policing.”
In June 2020, the MMSD has unanimously voted in support of ending the school board’s contract with the Madison Police Department to have School Resource Officers (SROs) stationed in Madison schools. The decision to remove SROs was difficult for Reyes, a former Madison police officer and detective and the founder of Amigos en Azul, an outreach program that created better relationships between Madison Latinx police officers and the Madison-area Latino community.
“It was at a point where I knew that we had board majority vote to remove the officers. I recognized myself as somebody who has supported officers in schools over the years and felt that while the officers we had in our schools were phenomenal, that they were a critical piece in the school-to-prison pipeline … although they weren’t the only piece,” Reyes says. “I recognized the school district is going to have to do a lot of work to tackle and to confront the racism that still currently exists within our schools. They have to do that without law enforcement.
“When it comes to behavior issues and incidents that happen, we have to do whatever we can to protect our children and not moving them through a criminal justice process,” she adds. “We need to examine all options before having to call law enforcement to respond.”
A bright spot that occurred during her board presidency amidst all of the challenges, she says, was the appointment of Savion Castro to the school board amongst a whole list of candidates who were interested in serving.
“He brought a critical perspective as a young, African-American male who went through our public school system and he has been the exact type of student that we talk about all the time,” Reyes says. “He represented everything that we value as a school district and his voice has been phenomenal on the board. I definitely see him as a future leader on the board and a future leader in our community.
“That was one of the best decisions the board has made,” she adds.
With the addition of Castro and the election of Ananda Mirilli and Ali Muldrow back in 2019, the usually-pretty-white MMSD School Board became the most racially diverse school board in its history. Reyes says that it helped them deal with its many controversies and crises over her term.
“It’s those crisis situations where there often is an opportunity for change and if we don’t take that opportunity for change then we go back to how it was. We go back to normal,” Reyes says. “The advantage of having a diverse board – racially, experience-wise, expertise-wise – is you’re able to manage that crisis really well because you understand firsthand what that crisis has on our most vulnerable populations.
“You can be somebody of a different race and maybe not have experienced all of those challenges and still have compassion, but you don’t really feel that sense of urgency and need during that crisis,” Reyes continues. “It’s hard to make these difficult decisions when you don’t feel it or haven’t felt it or you haven’t been there at some point in your life. What I saw in this board, as diverse as it was, was how much it benefited our community.
“We were able to have all of these differing perspectives at the table when we are making these decisions and although it wasn’t always pretty and we were not often aligned because we had so many diverse perspectives … it made us a strong team and we were a high-functioning team,” she adds. “And we needed to be during these crises.”
Reyes has always considered Madison Latino leader Juan Jose Lopez as a mentor and inspiration to her throughout her life in Madison as she not only followed his footsteps to the MMSD School Board but also as executive director of Briarpatch.
“This is why representation matters. He was this famous guy on the school board who looked like us and I had a connection with him because he knew my parents. He worked at Briarpatch at that time. Now I’m working at Briarpatch,” Reyes says. “I always tell him, “I’m following in your footsteps!’ It’s amazing. Representation matters for our young people.”
Briarpatch offers a broad array of services to approximately 3,000 runaway, homeless, and at-risk youth in Dane County each year. The agency works closely with local government agencies and non-profit organizations to provide unique programs that fill service gaps for youth and their families.
“Briarpatch has done some great work over the years and it has been a stable organization. My hope is to elevate Briarpatch even more and take us to the next level so we can be in a position to serve our young people during some challenging times,” Reyes says. “We will potentially have to change some of the ways we serve, increase capacity and we need to keep up with the changing environment and changing dynamics in our community, and Briarpatch is in a good place to do that.”
Briarpatch has a shelter for its homeless youth, parent support, an employment program, runaway homeless youth program, restorative justice, and an intensive supervision program where they work alongside the court system to support young people who find themselves in the juvenile justice system.
“We have some amazing staff at Briarpatch who are very compassionate and experts in this field,” Reyes says. “We have employees who have been here for years and new employees. We have a really good mix of people and diverse experiences. My vision for Briarpatch is to continue to grow and to keep up with the needs of our most vulnerable youth and promote racial equity and social justice within the organization and to increase the diversity of staff within Briarpatch.”
Reyes is moving forward with her new job full throttle, but she still thinks a lot about her colleagues on the school board she’s leaving behind … and they have been thinking about her.
“Gloria Reyes made history on the school board. When elected, she became the first Latina to ever serve on the Board of Education,” Ali Muldrow tells Madison365. “She was our board president when we hired the first African-American to serve this community as superintendent. She was a guiding force in education during a global pandemic. The strength of her leadership was instrumental in passing two historic referendums. The time Gloria spent on the Madison school board will shape the future for generations, and I am proud to have served on the Madison Metropolitan School Districts Board of Education with Gloria Reyes.”
“Gloria is someone whose service, common sense and values I look up to. Having gotten to know her over the last 20 months or so, I’ve learned a lot about how to think critically and creatively about addressing challenges. Her humbling leadership helped us overcome challenges no one saw coming,” Savion Castro tells Madison365. “We all in Madison benefited tremendously from her leadership. While her leadership on the board will be missed, I’m beyond thankful for the experience and lessons learned along the way and am looking forward to seeing what she does in the future.”
Ananda Mirilli tells Madison365 that while Reyes has had many “firsts” in her life, “her race to become a school board member was not different.”
“A public servant, a graduate and mother of children in Madison schools, daughter of immigrant parents, a union worker … Gloria had all the prerequisites to run a successful campaign for Board,” Mirilli tells Madison365. “Her race was deemed illegitimate, many unions didn’t support her, folks that worked alongside her told her she should wait. Gloria did not wait to become the first Latina school board member, did not wait to become Board president and has shown her courage to lead in public office and, most importantly, to grow in the office and share her vulnerability.
“Gloria is an example of humanity in political space. She is fierce and compassionate and she is unafraid to make mistakes. She has led this district through unprecedented times with grace and strength,” Mirilli adds. “While in office she led the first all-women school board, she navigated racialized public discourse and addressed racialized votes from colleagues. Gloria will get things done!”
Reyes, for her part, says she will “miss the board quite a bit.”
“It was comforting to know that I had the trust and support of my fellow board members and they trusted me in the direction we need to go and to lead the board at these difficult times,” she says. “We didn’t always agree, but they trusted that I was making decisions with good intentions. I think it would have been very difficult and challenging if that trust was not there amongst all of us.”