Mama Madison: School board blues

Many reasons it is important to finish what you start

Although I had made up my mind regarding which candidate I would support in the three-way contest for Madison School Board seat 5, I resisted writing about the races during primary season. Based on what I'd read, whom my friends (Facebook and otherwise) were supporting, and what I'd heard about performances at candidate forums, it seemed like there were three qualified individuals running. I thought I'd just see how the election would play out.

By the time I went to bed on February 19, it was clear Sarah Manski would win the primary with almost half the vote. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. Manski had been endorsed by a number of prominent local politicians (including Paul Soglin and Mark Pocan); hers was the only campaign literature that had arrived on my doorstep in the weeks preceding the election. Perhaps when turnout is extremely low, a few strategically dropped pamphlets might be all one needs to capture frontrunner status.

When I awoke the next morning, I read that words were already flying between Manski and the next highest vote getter, TJ Mertz. This is politics, I thought -- I shouldn't expect it to be pretty.

I have to say though, perhaps naively, I still expected it to be fair. And something just didn't sit right when I learned Wednesday afternoon that Manski would be dropping out of the race. As the ultimate non-conspiracy theorist, I assumed this was supremely poor planning on her part (I always tell my kids don't start what you don't intend to finish), but hardly something nefarious.

But when the news broke this past Saturday that Manski claims current school board member Marj Passman encouraged her to run despite her likely inability to serve out her full term, the story, regardless of its validity, moved Manski's dropout status from an unfortunate incident to a genuine embarrassment.

I agree with many that Manski's actions have cost the community a real choice in this election. Instead of a meaningful debate between two qualified candidates, we'll either have a default winner or an uphill write-in campaign for third place finisher Ananda Mirilli.

But a potential lack of choice on April 2 is not my only issue.

Here we are with public schools under attack. Those espousing to be its greatest defenders -- school board candidates and board members -- are engaging in what feels like a political circus (and you know how I feel about the circus). And their actions reflect, justified or not, on the district as a whole.

Perception, I know, is not reality. There are numerous MMSD families, teachers, and staff members who know that while not perfect, many excellent things are happening in our schools every day. But perception is important, and here we have two back-to-back public missteps -- first, last month's screwed-up superintendent search and now this seat 5 controversy -- that are making district leadership appear unprofessional and clumsy.

There are likely far bigger dangers. But it's not just things like underfunding, vouchers and privatization that can potentially destroy public schools. Over time, public-confidence-eroding incidents like the ones that have taken place over the past few weeks can do damage, as well.

Manski doesn't just owe Mirilli an apology for failing to keep her name off the ballot. I think she owes the district an apology, too.

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