Madisonians without kids need to give a shit about school-board elections
The cops-in-schools controversy should prompt all local voters to take a greater interest in public education.
I do not have children. I rarely go near a school (unless it’s my polling place). Schools smell like crayons and soggy winter boots. I don't know what goes on there. And in 18 years as a fiercely dutiful voter, I never cast a vote in a school-board race until 2018. No doubt other Madisonians without kids of their own remain largely unaware of the three competitive school-board races coming up in the February 19 primary and April 2 general election.
I’ve had a very particular (and comfortable) justification for not voting in school-board races, of course, because I obviously couldn’t allow myself to completely blow off a chunk of a ballot without good reason, right? Candidates for school board rarely have campaign materials or information about them written up, as far as I had gleaned from the no effort I put into looking into such things, even though I've otherwise scrupulously voted in local races. I figured all of the candidates were progressive anyway here in Madison, and that parents and teachers were better suited to electing educational leaders who were more known to them in their school circles (you know, the bake-sale/PTA/booster-club circuit). I had no business sticking my nose in, basically. Other people were filling in those ovals on the ballot.
This rationalization doesn't square with my other political habits. To a fault and the annoyance of many who love me, like me, follow me on social media, or have to share space with me somewhat regularly, I’ve had a lot of passion about my civic duties. I like to dress in special voting attire to celebrate my enthusiasm on election days. For the recent midterms I wore a shirt featuring dozens of tiny hand-stitched figures of women appearing to have their hands on their hips as a nod to intersectional feminism; other times I go with a subtle red/white/blue combo (minus bald eagles, flags or MAGA gear, however). I attend rallies, hearings, protests, and forums. I research candidates, scour interviews, check endorsements, and carefully consider sources of information and where campaign money is coming from. I contact my representatives. I canvass. I enjoy wine from my tent on the sidewalk at midnight outside the capitol while fellow progressive camping-folk stop by to offer vegan cupcakes, and call it activism (that only happened once but it was memorable). I never miss an election, even if for local candidacies only.
While living abroad and in a pinch to find another American to witness my absentee ballot in 2012, friends put me in touch with someone from Portland, Oregon I had never met who was arriving in a tourist town a two-hour bus ride from where I stayed. It all worked out, he had a banjo (of course), and we celebrated our great civic feat with bluegrass by the beach on the Malabar coast, joined in celebration by his uncle and mother.
This is all to illustrate that I, like many Madisonians, am an enthusiastic progressive who believes that I am part of the problem and it’s my responsibility to also be part of the solution. Elections are serious business (and something to celebrate with banjos sometimes). But I'm not alone in treating Madison Metropolitan School District board races as a blind spot. In the 2018 spring election, for instance, Madisonians cast fewer than 60,000 votes in a school board race between Gloria Reyes and Anna Moffit.
Fast forward to 2018, when a series of contentious Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) board meetings began putting the question of school police officers in the spotlight. Apparently a local (and unfortunately somewhat notorious) conservative gentleman, David Blaska, was getting his phone camera in the faces of youth of color as they expressed the ways in which the school system has been ignoring their needs and voices, so he could post videos of these young people and their families along with his special brand of bigoted commentary on his blog (he’s now running for school board, by the way). As I read the local news coverage, little did I know that a few months later I’d be leaving a school board meeting (the first of my life) and scolding him on the sidewalk as we crossed paths (not my proudest moment but I’m calling it a rite of passage and moving on).
I attended my first MMSD board meeting in October 2018 and it didn’t disappoint. Ultimately, the board shut it down early, citing the level of meeting disruption. It made headlines again the following day.
The experience was at once disheartening and encouraging. And it instilled in me the inability to bypass this population when I think I’m fulfilling my duty in future elections.
I witnessed kids and families who were mind-numbingly frustrated about being overlooked and abused by an extremely biased system—one “well-intentioned” white people seem ready to excuse and even promote further. Some of the speakers contained and expressed that frustration in ways that are considered suitable by white bureaucracy. Others did not restrain their expression for the comfort of white people in power in the room, which I applaud. In blog posts about this and other meetings, Blaska decried "the left's anti-cop thuggery," claimed that his wife didn't feel safe at school-board meetings, and demeaned a speaker who likened her experiences in school to that of prisoners, writing, "One supposes she speaks from experience." I saw Mary Burke (the school board president who challenged Scott Walker in a failed 2014 bid for the governorship) struggling with discomfort and fragility as she attempted to address the group. Two security guards were present and from what I saw, they never had to touch, block, or remove anyone. I don’t think they even asked anyone to abstain from anything. They just stood there calmly, being available if needed (but not needed).
Children and parents of color, one mother speaking a language the board members could not understand for her full three-minute allowance, took turns to express their frustration with the board’s interest in keeping police officers (educational resource officers, or EROs) in Madison high schools (the board voted in December to continue this practice), painting personal depictions and sharing statistics that demonstrate how the presence of police in schools harms black and brown children and bolsters the school-to-prison pipeline. A team of young people held notebooks up in the front of the room to obfuscate Blaska's video recordings of the brave youth who chose to speak. Yes, there was swearing and yelling. Yes, several of the protesters addressed Mary Burke with deliberate mispronunciations of her name to demonstrate how demeaning it feels when she does it to them (when they corrected her pronunciation and asked her to repeat their names, she refused in awkward silence until they moved on). Yes, the students overtook the platform with their “No Cops in Schools” banner. No, it was not scary. Half the room was filled with about 30 high school students from a geography class. Many of them clapped in support of the vocal youth. Their teacher did not usher them out for their safety. Only the board members and Blaska were visibly uncomfortable.
I was at once proud of the youth and hopeful about their relentless energy, but shattered by the stiff response of the school board members. I knew that the candidate I voted for in the last school board election, Ali Muldrow, was not up there but if she had won, it would have been a game-changer for those kids and families in that very moment. In her seat instead was someone who I hope knew right then that she was in over her head.
It turns out, I have some pretty strong feelings about school boards these days, especially when I see such a broken heap before me, and only the tip of the iceberg of what I can only conservatively imagine is a daily oppressive struggle for so many children of all ages and their parents/caregivers who rightfully feel everything from hopelessly disempowered to out-right enraged—especially when surrounded by tone-deaf “progressives.” Dave Blaska is a mere nuisance; we know his rhetoric, where it comes from, who else is spewing it from their toilet throne at 4 a.m., and where it’s (not) going in liberal Madison in 2019. Our attention is most urgently required to carefully sift through “progressive” candidates, however, in order to gain a sense of who can actually hear, understand and validate underserved youth and families of color. To find out which candidates have the gusto to stand for and implement what they know is right by these children, rather than hide behind their fears and discomfort—an option current board members’ privilege affords them. What we must not continue to accept is leadership that quietly moves the bar around and gaslights our community’s children to the point of exhaustion in a failing, ugly charade of diplomacy.
I want a school board that understands precisely why these kids have to yell so loud for their rights (and that it’s more about them than the kids). I want a school board that listens to them rather than fears them. I want a school board that invites discomfort, examines its gnarly configurations within themselves, and knows that the only way to be better is to work through it.
I attempted to attend the second school board meeting of my life a few weeks later. I must have misread the calendar. This time I arrived to a room packed with teens, parents and grandparents dressed in their best. I was handed a program of shiny, gold cardstock which informed me that I was attending a scholarship recognition ceremony. I sat in the last row of the auditorium as Mary Burke took to the stage. Burke expressed how proud she was of the youth nominated for scholarships, and in elaborating further, she shared how it can be easy to lose sight of the importance of the work she dedicates herself to in her role as an educational leader, but that nights like that evening, and the academic achievements of the youth present, act as a reminder. In that moment, I contemplated standing up, shouting “No cops in schools!” and charging out, as the lone activist in the room. I did not. I calmed myself as I processed what she had just said. Mary expressed that she feels her role to be most important when she focuses on the highest achievers in the district, and in that moment she took it upon herself to measure her achievements accordingly. It breaks my heart, and I implore Mary to pat herself on the back only when she can do right by the most challenged youth, who struggle in the squalid quarters of the backward system she perpetuates with pride.
I acknowledge that schools are increasingly challenged by myriad complexities, and our educational system has taken some of its worst blows in recent years from Scott Walker and Republican legislators. But none of us, whether or not we have kids of our own, can shy away from grappling with these problems. Schools are microcosms of the larger world, and the foundation offered to students during their school-age years is something that will develop into the future society we all inhabit. It’s not something even my fruitless womb can afford to snooze on.
And so, I vote. For the kids and parents who can’t; alongside those who can but aren’t truly heard; for me and all of us and the kind of community we want to live in together. See you at the polls on February 19, pals (in the best school-board-themed voting attire my closet can manifest).