Mandates and other Falsehoods

John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band – Gimme Some Truth

There has been some talk among the AMPS participants about doing retrospective analyses of the recent election and the press coverage of that election. Watch for those in the coming weeks. Retrospective analyses have their place, but there is something to be said for striking while the iron is hot. The Isthmus retrospective published Thursday is certainly hot, as in “liar, liar pants on fire.” This is long, but I think worth doing.

Titled “Mandate for New Thinking,” Jason Shepard’s latest stretches the truth well past the breaking point.

Let’s start at the top. The title refers to a mandate but even the Isthmus editors can’t bring themselves to identify what the supposed mandate was for and instead fall back on the meaningless phrase “new thinking.” The only candidate pictured or quoted is Maya Cole; this implies a connection between Ms Cole and the titular “mandate” (a connection made explicit in the final paragraph). Ms Cole deserves congratulations for her victory, however that victory can hardly be called a mandate. Among the victors, Ms Cole garnered 8,268 fewer votes than Johnny Winston Jr. and 8,257 fewer than Beth Moss. Ms Cole was not the big winner on Tuesday.

The quotes from Ms Cole in the first paragraphs are the usual half-truths about “ineffective governance,” “budget[ing] to crisis” and vague calls to “get away from that model.” I say half-truths because there is a crisis and there is ineffective governance but the vast majority of the ineffective governance is at the state level and the clear cause of the crisis is the broken state finance system.

The next paragraph asserts that Passman was better financed. This may be true; it may not. There is no way of knowing until the July campaign finance reports are in. This is sloppy reporting to say the least. It also portrays Passman as having run “mainly on the issue of inadequate state funding for public schools.” Passman certainly used her campaign to call attention to this truth, but the main message of her campaign was that her many years of experience as an educator would be an asset in the difficult decisions forced on the district by the broken state finance system.

More half-truths in the following paragraph:

Her victory marks three consecutive years in which voters have picked more reform-minded candidates over those backed by the teachers union and political establishment. And given the union’s failure to endorse Johnny Winston Jr., who handily won re-election, it’s the first time in a generation that a majority of board members are not endorsed by MTI.

First, in each of the last three elections the voters have picked as many or more candidates associated with the Board’s current majority as they have with those Shepard calls “reformers.” Johnny Winston Jr. did not enjoy the support of MTI this year, but I think it is a stretch to associate his victory with an anti-MTI vote.

The next paragraph misrepresents Beth Moss’s positions in order to paint her victory as one with Ms Cole’s.

Beth Moss’ big victory on Tuesday brings to three the number of MTI-endorsed candidates, although she took pains in the campaign to stress her independence, advocating for teacher health-insurance changes and new charter schools.

I don’t know about “taking pains to stress her independence,” but certainly Ms Moss did try to counter the almost unrelenting portrayal by Mr. Shepard and others — of MTI endorsed candidates and Board members as puppets of John Matthews. A review of recent votes and statements of current board members who have been endorsed by MTI should make it clear that none are marionettes. It also needs to be noted that at every opportunity Ms Moss expressed her pride in having the support of Madison’s organized teachers. Her opponent did little but tout his “independence.” On health insurance and charter schools I think a review of Ms Moss’s statements is in order.

Health Insurance:

On the Daily Page
Running for seat 3, Beth Moss, endorsed by MTI, says she favors winning changes through negotiations.

From the MTI Questionaire
Do you agree that the health insurance provided to District employees should be mutually selected through the collective bargaining process?

These are almost exactly the positions of the current Board majority and at every point Ms Moss made it clear that under the QEO any relief from budget cuts via teacher health insurance savings would be extremely minimal. This is a reality that the Isthmus, some Board members and candidates have done their best to obscure.

From the Campaign Web Site

Charter Schools

I think that it’s very important for the Board to be open to new ideas, and I believe that the expansion of charter schools might have a place in our district. We have to be sure that they fit within a long-range plan for the whole district and that the innovation will benefit the entire district. I will make decisions based on what is best for the district and all of our students. Nuestro Mundo is a great success and shows that our district can support a program that offers an alternative style of teaching and learning.

Charters are one important way that districts can address persistent problems or refine approaches that may benefit the entire district, but they aren’t the only way. Magnet schools and embedded programs can serve the same purposes and have the advantage of being fully integrated in the district and not positioned as competing institutions. Appleton and other districts offer a variety of charter schools, magnet schools and embedded programs. If elected, I will use these to study potential innovations in Madison.

I applaud those parent and community groups who have worked to bring their vision to Madison in the form of charter proposals. I hope they continue to apply their dedication to working to improve education in our community.

From the MTI Questionaire
Do you oppose:
The use of public funds (vouchers) to enable parents to pay tuition with tax payers’ money for religious and private schools?
The expansion of Charter schools within the Madison Metropolitan School District?
Only if sustainable, long-term funding sources are used for a charter school so that it does not cost more per pupil for operating costs, and if the charter addresses persistent needs in the district or holds great promise as a source for piloting programs that would benefit the entire district would I be supportive.

The only place I could find Ms Moss “advocating” charter schools is another paraphrase by Mr Shepard

How anyone can call the above statements “advocating” is beyond me.

The next paragraph praises Ms Cole’s “new approaches” as a “a welcome change from the springtime ritual of torturous budget hearings.” The closest thing I’ve heard from Ms Cole to a change from the yearly budget stresses is a call for drafting a five or ten year plan. As best as I can see, this wouldn’t replace the yearly budget fights, but supplement it with another venue for “parents, children, teachers and support staff [to] wait patiently for hours to yell, beg and cry about budget cuts.” I can see some good coming out of this in the form of a discussion about our priorities as a community and in the light it would shine on the draconian cuts needed to address the structural deficits built into the current state finance system. Still, the law dictates and annual budget process and for the foreseeable future (absent reform at the state level) that process will be tortuous. I’m not opposed to new ways of looking at five and ten year budgeting, but I am realistic about what they have to offer.

This whole “new approaches” and “innovation” discourse brings to mind a political truism: The unnamed candidate almost always polls better than any named candidate. In this case it is the unexamined “new approach” or “innovation” that polls better than confronting real choices.

This slipperiness continues in the next paragraph, which identifies the choices before the Board with “feed[ing] impressions that Madison schools are facing a fiscal crisis, eroding educational quality.” Shepard doesn’t quite say that we aren’t facing a fiscal crisis, that educational quality isn’t in danger of eroding, but there is an implication that those who believe this are crying wolf.

This is followed by the first quote from a sitting Board member, Lawrie Kobza. As Cole was the only candidate quoted, the only Board members quoted (Kobza, Lucy Mathiak and Ruth Robarts) were Cole supporters. I believe Fox News calls this “fair and balanced.”

Skipping ahead (aren’t you glad), three paragraphs later the cause of budget problems is identified as “district’s estimated 4.7% salary and benefits increase for employees.” As usual Shepard fails to place this in the context of the QEO or mention the salary increases earned due to seniority or educational attainments. Blame the teachers, blame the union…half-truths.

Now we come to the portion on Carol Carstensen’s referendum proposal. Ms Kobza is quoted as saying it was “incredibly destructive,” Ms Mathiak portrays it as election ploy designed to garner support for certain candidates and “not a plan. It’s a Band-Aid.” There are no quotes from the many parents and community members who have expressed appreciation for Ms Carstensen’s effort to present a choice to the voters. I’m not sure what this proposal destroyed, but I am sure that at least in the case of the Beth Moss campaign the proposal was not seen as a gift. I worked closely with Beth Moss throughout the campaign, but I don’t speak for her. However, from my observations Ms Moss, like the parents and community members, understood that Ms Carstensen sincerely desired to give our community the means to avoid some of the most difficult budget cuts and offer a vision for not only conserving what is good in our schools, but expanding and restoring the good the schools do. I believe Ms Moss also found it personally difficult to say — whatever merits the proposal might have — the timing was wrong and she could not support it. Did she benefit from this? I have no idea. Did Ms Passman benefit from her support for the proposal? I have no idea. Ms Mathiak’s labeling it a “Band-Aid” is another half-truth. Any solution that doesn’t address the serious problems with the state system is a Band Aid, however Ms Carstensen’s proposal was structured in a way that by authorizing progressive and recurring authority to exceed the revenue caps would have provided long term relief for our district. Ms Mathiak should know that.

The closing paragraphs return to the false promises of solutions via “a better way” and “out of the box thinking.” I’m not holding my breath.

What I am doing is continuing to work for reform at the state level, beginning work on a operating budget referendum campaign, making my voice heard on which cuts hurt the least and which do irreparable damage…I’m continuing to work inside the box, within the system we have, to make our schools the best they can be.

Thomas J. Mertz


Filed under AMPS, Budget, Elections, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, School Finance

7 responses to “Mandates and other Falsehoods

  1. Ed Blume

    The media is not to blame. The media cannot logically shoulder the “blame” for two opposite results: one MTI candidate won, one MTI candidate lost.

    Voters made a choice between two very clear messages. Marj opened every forum and started nearly every answer with “I’m a teacher with 28 years of experience. You need me on the board.” Maya opened every forum and started nearly every answer with “I’ll think outside the box. We need innovation, not business as usual.”

    Ironically, failing to learn any lesson from the voters’ choice amounts to more business as usual.

  2. tmertz


    I do like it when you prove my points.

    I’ll leave aside the absurd notion that the media did not influence the outcome of the elections.

    “One MTI candidate”: You and others tried to make this about MTI, anti-MTI. There was a whole lot more going on, but this spin worked for Ms Cole, so we heard it a lot. You were part of this as was the Isthmus.

    “Clear messages”:

    The message you identify with Marj is exactly the one I identified (thank you) and far different from how Jason Shepard portrayed her message.

    Ms Cole’s message was anything but clear. “I’ll think outside the box. We need innovation, not business as usual” are buzz words without substance.

    The lesson from the voters was that they liked Johnny Winston Jr. and Beth Moss much more than they liked Maya Cole (and Maya Cole more than Marj Passman). Lots of ways to interpret that, but a mandate for Ms Cole or “new thinking” is not one of the more logical ones.

    Thanks again Ed.


  3. Barb S

    Folks tend to “agree” with a paper’s perpective when articles and opinions speak “truth” to their beliefs and characterization of “facts.” I think the election and aftermath can be parsed in a number of ways, but I don’t believe that will help what I think is important for us to do, which is figure out how to work together even if we do not agree on all points. The “facts” are not black and white with the exception that many, if not all, of us can probably agree that state funding of public education is not working.

  4. Bill R

    TJ, you can’t assume that the voters liked Winston and Moss more than they liked Cole. Of the three losing candidates, Passman ran by far the best, most aggressive campaign. Winston beat essentially a non-candidate; Cole would probably have won that race by a similar margain.

    I agree there’s a lot of vagueness in the statements by the candidates and in the press, but I think the voters understood the basic approaches of both Cole and Passman and opted for Cole’s.

    And when you hear Matthews saying after the election that Cole “has connections to Karl Rove,” it’s becoming more clear that in future elections, association with Matthews may be detrimental to a candidate.

  5. J. Morrow

    I hope people read this and a few actually get it. I was listening to Vicki McKenna on Friday, April 6th (I know I am a glutton for punishment) and she said at 4:23, “and what about Maya Cole? If we didn’t get Maya Cole (whistles) disaster would have ensued in this city.” McKenna went on to praise Maya further–but then had to quickly point out that Maya was no conservative. John Nichol’s confirmed her “progressive pedigree”. Maya was a liberal, a lefty but she was a “REFORMER”. This is the second campaign that McKenna has praised the “reformers”. In the primary race she bemoaned, along with Don Severson, the defeat of many reform candidates. McKenna and Severson asked Madisonians what they were afraid of?? REFORMER is the new buzz word conservatives are using to describe candidates who are progressive on other issues but conservative on–you guessed it–spending and education. NO NEW TAXES seems to be the reformers’ battle cry. Fixing (reforming) the broken state finance system (the position of us non-reformers) is unpopular with voters because it is being framed (by conservatives) as requiring MORE MONEY from them. And the conservatives go on to say, that of course throwing more money at a problem won’t solve anything unless there is “accountability”, “budget transparency”, “innovation”, “community partnerships and buy-in” and “choices”–these are all things the REFORMERS promise to bring to the board room table. We all know none of these things are going to save our public schools! REFORM has to occur at the state level NOT THE BOARD ROOM LEVEL but voters don’t have the big picture and the board room reformers (i.e. closet conservatives) are working diligently to keep it that way! It is fine to be fiscally responsible but fiscal responsibility is a misplaced priority when it comes to saving our public schools.

  6. Troy D

    Thanks TJ for the analysis of Jason Shepard’s opinion piece in the Isthmus. I really like the Isthmus a lot, but I wish they would actually separate their news and journalism with the opinion articles. Perhaps they could use a different font. They give the impression that Jason’s article was reporting and not opinion. Mainly I supported Marj because she understood the underlying issues in school finance reform. I only hope that once Ms. Cole is on the board and realizes that selling Doyle-a one time fix that only solves the problem for one year and liquidates district assets; and, making teachers/administrators/visitors to our district pay for parking at Doyle will not solve the underlying issue of school finance reform. Marj knew that before she ran that that is the central issue that the school district need to address, Maya will realize it quite soon when she has to sit through those long boring meetings where everyone tries to fight for an ever shrinking piece of the pie. I have been there to grovel myself. I cannot imagine that it is fun to be on either side of the podium either. We all must unite to repeal the yearly Unfunded State Mandates (Revenue Limits and QEO) and once again allow school boards and districts local control in educational spending.

  7. Jerry Eykholt

    Great job, TJ. Very interesting reading.

    I was particularly stunned reading Jason’s comment on Maya’s mandate. Fair to give credit to Maya Cole for her win, but it was a narrow margin.

    Maya and Beth alike can learn a lot from current and former board members, reformers or not. I hope they both come in bright ideas and new energy – but also with some deference for experience.

    I also like Troy D’s comment about the long, boring meetings. I’ve been thinking that some of our problem deals with direction and leadership. Boards of Education aren’t supposed to have to work so hard – otherwise, they’d have larger support staffs and salaries. Most of the work is supposed to be advisory with modest oversight. More rigorous oversight requires an internal system of checks of balances (administrative oversight, State Dept. of Education, Feds). However, like many other parts of government, we’ve taken effective oversight and internal analysis out as budget savings measures (the federal Dept. of Ed. is a disaster right now, in my opinion).

    One thing that I admire about Ruth Robarts is that she continually asked for better processes – the board shouldn’t have to deal with so many incomplete proposals. However, many of these incomplete proposals are formed at the request of the board, asking the administration to work under a tight schedule.

    This points to more support of the administration and asking less of the board.

    We’ve constrained the administration so much that they aren’t able to deliver all the clarity we need. MMSD does pretty well with offering information dynamically to the board. The problem may be that they are too willing to look at things different ways (“reworked Option 5d”) – when they have good ideas about best practices. We really need a highly effective administrator and administrative team to succeed Art Rainwater and Mary Gulbrandsen (who have done a great job in my opinion).

    Maybe, it would be more innovative to build up an administrative infrastructure with effective processes that truly elevate leadership and advocacy behind public education. The board proposals that will win will be well-formed proposals that build on best practices and build a large base of support. It’s about the idea as well as the advocacy behind it. The board should be looking at ways to empower the administration rather than to weigh it down.

    We’re dealing with shrinking resources. In order to make more creative and innovative changes to the way the budget is structured, we may have to actually make deeper cuts to the base budget and large-scale restructuring – things that will meet a lot of resistance. Any “reformer” is going to have a tough time at this. It will need effective administration.

    We should note that the whole board is well aware of a tight budget. None are so willing to waste resources – and all are looking for ways to save money internally for better supports for learning. So, all board members are “reformers” in my mind. There really is no opportunity to be “status quo”.

    So, as we look forward to the service of the new board members, let’s also advocate for better internal processes and administrative support so that they may be productive with the many hours they will be spending in meetings.

    Welcome to it, Maya and Beth!

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