Once again, Madison is blessed with good candidates who are willing to serve the community on our School Board.
The decision by veteran board member Ed Hughes to end his campaign a month before the April 4 election came a surprise, but was completely understandable after the news that his wife, Ann, has suffered a recurrence of cancer.
Hughes has been an exemplary board member, a budget watchdog while at the same time serving as a huge advocate for public education and fairness for the district's teachers. While he will remain on the ballot for the Seat 7 position, by dropping out he has cleared the way for newcomer Nicki Vander Meulen to join the board. She will have enormous shoes to fill.
We're confident that Vander Meulen, granddaughter of an iconic Madison educator and School Board member, the late Augie Vander Meulen, will be able to do just that.
Vander Meulen's life story gives her a unique perspective that we think will be of great value on the board. She has lived with two disabilities, Asperger's syndrome and cerebral palsy, and with her own self-advocacy and the support of her family, she fought the social stigma and cruel stereotyping that could have stood in the way of her goals.
Against the odds, she earned a law degree, opened her own law office, and has spent the past several years as a juvenile rights attorney, advocating for and representing troubled young people. Many of her clients are youth who have been suspended or expelled from school. Vander Meulen is a big believer in doing everything possible to keep students in the classroom, noting that the achievement gap will otherwise never be conquered. To that end, she supports the expansion of restorative justice programs and peer courts. She also favors further work on MMSD's Behavior Education Plan to make the criteria for consequences of unacceptable behavior more objective. She thinks clearer understanding of what's expected will help break the cycle of constant punishment and help keep youth out of trouble and in school.
Many of the kids in the legal system, she points out, also have disabilities. She'll be able to use her firsthand knowledge of the struggles students with disabilities face to promote another of her priorities: better training of staff on how to work with these students to improve their educational experience and keep them in school and out of the legal system. Bullying is also an issue she cares about deeply and hopes to contribute to solving.
Vander Meulen would like the School Board make it easier for working parents to attend School Board meetings and hopes to convince her colleagues on the board to schedule some of their meetings at more convenient times for parents. That sounds like a good idea.
Our decision in the contest for the District 6 seat was more complicated than our Vander Meulen endorsement. Both candidates, Ali Muldrow and Kate Toews (pronounced "Taves") are solid candidates. It's too bad that voters must pick between them, because we think they would both be assets to the School Board.
Toews, who is relatively new to the district, worked in Boston schools in peer mediation, and also has excellent credentials in the business world. As the mother of three children, the oldest of whom is now in school, Toews wants to apply her business acumen to help make Madison's schools as good as they can be for all students. She also thinks it's important to find ways to reward excellent teachers, whom she believes form the backbone of the local schools.
But though we like Toews very much, we decided to give our endorsement to Muldrow, an African-American mother of two young girls who came up through the Madison school district and has had firsthand experience with the difficulties students of color often encounter. She came from a background of poverty, and tells how she was labeled learning disabled early on — which she says is still all too common for children of color. Several memorable teachers were what made the difference for Muldrow. They encouraged her, helping her gain self-confidence and develop her talents.
Muldrow, an East High grad, is striving to do for today's young people what her influential teachers did for her. She has been heavily involved in the Madison schools, running a spoken word poetry program first at East High and then at the other high schools as well. She's offered a writing program for incarcerated youth at the Dane County Jail, and teaches a weekly class at UW-Madison for high school students called Foundations of Leadership. She's currently the director of the Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools.
The impressive impact Muldrow has had on some of her students is reflected in a couple of letters to the editor about her that we've received. One former student wrote: "The way Ali valued my stories helped me learn to value myself." Another said that Ali was a transformative power in her life.
We think Muldrow's experience in Madison schools as a low-income student of color and her current involvement with Madison students, many of them children of color, could be a real asset as the School Board continues to try to narrow the achievement gap and serve all of Madison's students.
We're also impressed that Muldrow wants to be a team player on the board. She emphasizes that the board is composed of diverse people who have diverse perspectives — and she thinks that's a good thing. She would seek to have the community more involved in School Board decisions.
The School Board contests are just two of the races on the Tuesday, April 4, ballot. There are also contests for state superintendent of schools, a Dane County judgeship, and Madison City Council seats. The results of these elections will affect our lives directly, so this is the time to let our voices be heard. We encourage everyone to go vote.
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