In a virtual public forum Tuesday night for the three Madison School Board seats up for grabs in April, four candidates fielded questions on school safety, the achievement gap and school post-COVID-19, among other topics.

Hosted by the Cap Times and moderated by K-12 education reporter Scott Girard and Simpson Street Free Press managing editor Taylor Kilgore, the forum featured Laura Simkin and Shepherd Janeway — who will appear as Shepherd Joyner on the April 5 ballot — as the two candidates running for Seat 3, the only contested seat. The two other candidates present were incumbent Ali Muldrow, the current School Board president, running for Seat 4 unopposed and Nichelle Nichols, running for Seat 5 unopposed.

David Blaska has been declared a write-in candidate for Seat 4 against Muldrow, but the Cap Times limited participation to candidates whose names are on the ballot. 

Questions for the evening centered around declining enrollment, staffing shortages and teacher retention in the Madison Metropolitan School District.

In the candidates’ opening statements, Simkin said she brings two important perspectives to the board: that of a parent of a senior at East High School and as someone who has worked in early childhood education for more than 30 years.

Janeway, meanwhile, said they understand how policy decisions affect not only the students but also school staff.

"As a disabled person and as a neurodivergent person, I understand how much equality and accessible education have a massive impact on students and their families," Janeway said. 

With few rebuttals throughout the evening, there was little debate on important topics like new literacy curriculum and student test scores. 

Asked if she's looked through the reading task force recommendations submitted to the School Board in December and her position regarding reading instruction, Nichols said her questions moving into the next academic year centered around how much professional learning time is available for curriculum adoption and implementation.

In response, Muldrow spoke to the difference between a child's ability and test scores.

“I think oftentimes, we are creating an environment where our young people are being reduced to a test score, to a number, and that doesn't actually tell you enough about our young people,” she said. “If we want to change outcomes, if we want to change the conversation about young people, we have to be cognizant of the fact that our kids' ability is far beyond what any test can represent.”

Nichols agreed, saying as the parent of four Black sons in Madison schools, test results can be a “hard reality.”

“There's a balancing act in us wanting to be mindful of where children are, how they are learning, how they are growing, and at the same time also leaving room open for their future selves to blossom and grow,” Nichols said.

In the pressing issue of teacher retention, Janeway said they would invest in a mentorship program so that teachers and school staff in the district have the opportunity to form close working relationships with incoming staff “right off the bat.”

“I want to also make it abundantly clear that I will never ask for more labor without providing more compensation because I understand that your compensation is a huge, huge contributor to the teacher (and) school staff retention issue in the nation, in general,” they said. “I would love to see focus and investment in improving the quality of life in the workplace for our school staff, including mental health support for our school staff.”

Janeway added that general investment of resources directly to school staff, with their autonomy in mind, is important so they can make decisions about what it is most needed to be successful.

When Simkin was asked how the potential elimination of standalone honors classes will fit with a 2016 agreement promising to increase access to advanced learning opportunities for students of color, she said she would advocate for increased outreach to all students who could benefit from quicker paced classes and that are interested in going deeper into content. 

Muldrow responded that ensuring classes offer rigor to everyone — that every student is recognized for their gifts — and disaggregating opportunities with our schools is critically important for the district and for her as a School Board member.

“I grew up at a time where you had a segregated special education (program), where students were in self-contained special education and students who learn differently were constantly separated from one another,” Muldrow, an MMSD graduate, explained. “That sent us really clear messages about who was intelligent and who was important and who wasn't and that has been racialized in our district throughout history, and it's something we have to confront and do something about.”

But while Simkin said that it is "incredibly important" MMSD maintains choice for students in the classes that are offered, she said she's received many calls from parents saying they are going to move out of the district because of lack of academic rigor.

In perhaps the most pointed debate of the evening on school safety, Muldrow said the current stance as a school board on safety should be a search for solutions that "do not harm or criminalize any students and that creates schools that give young people the opportunity to recover from their mistakes and repair harm.”

But Simkin contended it's critical the board deals with what's in front of them at the moment.

“What safety looks like to me is that we are responsive right now to the safety incidents that are happening in our schools, primarily in our high schools, and that we take whatever actions are necessary to be able to make sure our students are in safe environments," she said. "I am absolutely, positively in support of creating a better system, but we need to make sure that right now our students are in places where they are safe and where they feel safe.”

In a more personal session of lightning round questions, the four candidates shared their favorite books, subjects in school and most influential teachers.

Muldrow mentioned her English teacher, her arts teachers and all those who gave her a space to think for herself. Teachers who introduced her to poetry and philosophy broadened her horizons. 

Nichols said she was really active in DECA, Distributive Education Clubs of America, and also really enjoyed English, along with all the "opportunities for me to tap into the artistic side of myself as a student learner."

Janeway said their freshman and sophomore history teachers were the "first adults who I could see treated teenagers like whole people and not three-quarters of a person," and it generated a genuine interest in history and social studies.

Simkin said her son’s first- and second-grade teacher at Lapham Elementary was her favorite, as she was able to run five different curricula simultaneously and truly epitomized what makes Madison schools great. 

“The love that she provided to (students), the incredible education that she provided to them and the way that she nurtured their social and emotional skills still just touches me,” she said. 

All candidates will appear on the spring election ballot on April 5. In-person absentee voting and voter registration for Madison residents will take place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. from March 22 to April 1 (except weekends) across the city.

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