Inclusion, school safety and student supports were big themes in Tuesday night’s South Side Madison School Board Forum.

The forum included School Board vice president and Seat 1 incumbent Anna Moffit, who is seeking a second term, and deputy mayor Gloria Reyes, who is challenging her. Seat 2 incumbent Mary Burke, who is running unopposed for her third term on the board, also participated. The three candidates are on the ballot for the spring election on April 3.

The event, co-hosted by the Cap Times, Simpson Street Free Press, the Madison Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and Mt. Zion Baptist Church, took place at the church on Fisher Street. The forum, moderated by SSFP’s assistant editor Taylor Kilgore and DST Madison Alumnae chapter president Terri Strong, opened with candidates emphasizing their connections to the community and passion for education.

Simpson Street Free Press assistant editor Taylor Kilgore poses a question during the school board forum. PHOTO BY BEN BREWER

Reyes, a Madison native, said she was able to transcend poverty and challenges at school and understands the perspective of students in those circumstances.

“Now, more than ever, we need someone that has the pulse of our community serving on the School Board to have a voice for all of our students,” Reyes said.

Moffit, who also grew up in Madison, said she has a lifelong commitment to education, teaching for seven years before joining the board in 2015.

“I truly believe that education is the greatest equalizer that we can have in society to transcend the many barriers that exist for students in our district,” Moffit said.

Burke touted her nearly two decade-long involvement on the south side, serving as a mentor and board chair of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County.

“Coming here takes me back, because it has been 18 years since I became acquainted with this neighborhood,” Burke said. “I look back on that and I see that the progress that I had hoped we would have made in the last 18 years would have been a lot more.

“I am running for School Board for a third term because I believe we have so much more work to do.”

Gloria Reyes, Anna Moffit, and Mary Burke, left to right, present their positions during the South Side Madison School Board public forum hosted by Mt. Zion Baptist Church. PHOTO BY BEN BREWER

Candidates fielded three questions about school safety, with a focus on their thoughts about educational resource officers in Madison’s high schools — a topic that is the subject of a Madison School Board ad-hoc committee — and preventing gun violence.

Moffit, who works as an advocate at Wisconsin Family Ties, wants gun violence prevention coupled with “wraparound” supports for students with a focus on mental health.

“A lot of times when we talk about gun violence, we talk about the more high-profile things like mass shootings, when actually much more tragedy is happening within suicide by gun. It is a tremendous issue we need to be addressing as well,” Moffit said. “The foundational thing is we have to ensure that we are meeting our students’ needs.”

Burke said safety is the “number one issue” facing schools, but the district needs to consider factors that inhibit student engagement.

“How do we engage students? How do we relate to their needs, aspirations and dreams and help them fulfill those?” Burke said. “What we see in regards to safety is the tip of the iceberg. What we have to address is below the surface.”

Reyes, a former Madison police officer, emphasized her public safety experience and said she would work with students and the community to develop solutions.

“We are in a sense of urgency. We have to protect our schools today and take all measures to ensure that our students are safe during the day,” Reyes said. “Our schools can’t do this alone. We need our community and students to come in and be a part of the solution.”

Burke and Reyes expressly advocated to retain EROs in schools, with some caveats.

Burke said EROs have worked to build positive bonds with students and she wants more concrete policy around the role of EROs in schools when it comes to those supports.

“I think it is absolutely critical to have them in our schools. I think that we have seen positive benefits,” she said. “The importance is having the framework… to support students and the safety of our schools.”

Reyes said even if EROs in schools are eliminated, it won’t address the root causes of the school-to-prison pipeline.

“The school-to-prison pipeline wasn’t just caused by officers in our schools. It was caused by the culture of what’s happening in our schools,” she said. “If we take EROs out of our schools today, all those underlying issues… will continue.”

Moffit, who helped start the Madison School Board’s ad-hoc committee on EROs in schools, said she agreed to keep an open mind about the issue as the committee works through May to craft recommendations for the board about the ERO contract.

Anna Moffit, who also grew up in Madison, said she has a lifelong commitment to education, teaching for seven years before joining the board in 2015. “I truly believe that education is the greatest equalizer that we can have in society to transcend the many barriers that exist for students in our district." PHOTO BY BEN BREWER

Next month, the board will decide whether or not to extend the ERO contract through the 2018-2019 school year.

“Definitively, I would not support (ending the contract in April),” Moffit said. “Looking at the climate that we are in, as well as the context and readiness at the school level as far as structures to remove EROs, I would not support that at this time. I think that is something that we can look at down the road if we actually feel that’s the direction we want to move in as a district."

Several questions focused on supports for African-American students and students with special needs, including the intersections and points of tension between the categories.

Moffit, who has a child with special needs in Madison schools, said the two are not mutually exclusive.

“About 40 percent of our students identified with a disability are African-American students. Disability cuts across all demographic groups. I really don’t think you can silo out disability from other features of our student body,” she said.

Burke said it is the board’s responsibility to set a vision backed with policies that support all students.

“We need to meet all students’ needs, period,” she said.

Reyes said she agreed with Moffit and Burke’s responses, but said African-American and Latino students have been underserved for too long by the district.

“I agree that we have to ensure all students needs are met, but that is not happening,” she said. “We need to do a racial equity analysis on the special education program… We have (African-American and Native American) students who are entering our criminal justice system and a large proportion are identified with an IEP status of special (education). What are we doing about that?”

The district’s new Personalized Pathways program, which integrates coursework under a unifying theme to help high school student graduates define career goals, was also a topic of debate at the forum.

The inaugural year of Personalized Pathways is underway. Health services is the topic. Pathways students’ biology, English, history and health science classes are integrated, meaning teachers in those subjects plan their lessons collaboratively around that theme. Other classes, like math, are not a part of the pathway.

Kilgore pointed to Moffit’s and Reyes’ prior responses at an earlier forum on their “mixed feelings” about Pathways and asked them to elaborate.

Moffit said she’s seen the “powerful supports” that exist for students in the pathway, but wants more clarity around flexibility for students to transfer between pathways, and a diverse representation of voices in deciding future tracks before the program expands further.

“The folks who are deciding what the pathways will be are not always representing the students that are facing the most challenges in our school district,” Moffit said.

“As we move forward with Pathways, we have to make sure that we are including all students’ and families’ voices, not just the handful that show up every week at the board meetings and take the surveys online,” she said.

School Board member Mary Burke responds to a question during Tuesday's School Board forum. PHOTO BY BEN BREWER

Burke said engagement and satisfaction is high among students participating in the pilot year of Pathways and the approach exposes students to different options after high school.

Reyes said the district needs to do more to support at-risk or “opportunity” youth, and students who do not want to pursue a undergraduate education.