Fact Check

John Nichols’ column today is yet another example of how little attention the media in our town pay to school matters and school politics. His thesis is that Maya Cole’s support for a referendum and Marj Passman’s caution was decisive. Nice theory, too bad the premises are wrong. Of all the candidates, Marj Passman was the only one who whole-heartedly supported Carol Carstensen’s proposal. Ms Cole gave answers about finding new partnerships and efficiencies and innovations and never expressed clear support for the proposal. She may have even said she did not support it (I’d have to look at videos of forums to be sure). Examples of the answers from each can be found here.

If you ask me, the decisive factor was the endorsement by Mr. Nichols’ own paper and if this is any indication of the thought and work that went into that endorsement…words fail me.

What makes this even worse is that days before the Capital Times gave Ms Cole a “strong” endorsement (which after the election they clarified by saying they would have been “perfectly satisfied” to see either candidate win — I hope I have the time to write something about that editorial, good and bad), Mr Nichols himself expressed support for Ms Carstensen’s proposal.

I really don’t know what to make of this. I do know that our community is ill served by irresponsible journalism.

I also know that the talk of partnerships and efficiencies and innovation (none of which are bad in and of themselves) has been used to distract from the very real needs for finance reform and the need for referendums under our current system. Marj Passman knew this and said it. Ms Cole benefited from the way these distractions attracted the votes of the “we already spend too much on schools” crowd and she never (in any public statement I can find or — to the best of my recollection — at any of the many forums I attended) made a clear statement in support of Ms Carstensen’s referendum proposal.

Wipe the egg off your face and apologize Mr Nichols.

Thomas J. Mertz


Filed under AMPS, Elections, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, Referenda

6 responses to “Fact Check

  1. Charnan Simon

    At the candidates’ forum at the Doyle Administration Building on March 22, Marj Passman was the only candidate to support Carol Carstenson’s referendum. Each of the other five candidates decisively said they would not support going to referendum. Ask them–they were there. So was I. Mr. Nichols was not.

  2. Jerry Eykholt

    I thought John Nichols had an interesting comment about the connection to school closings and isthmus area voters. Maya Cole was a strong candidate (as was Passman) – and the paper endorsements really helped Cole. What’s really needed from the papers is not some apology to Passman (who ran a great campaign and has a lot of integrity) – but some backing behind the ideas that Passman was championing.

    Here’s a news story worthy of a CapTimes editorial. The administation released its budget monday night, with Moss and Cole present as they were told in blank face all the upcoming cuts. Reality is setting in. Ms. Carstensen was (once again) a class act because she said nothing about “I told you so.” Suddenly, this whole idea behind a referendum doesn’t look so bad. You might see some slide towards it (while most are grim about it having any real chance). My prediction is that the question is never too far away given the budget realities and limited ways to work around them.

    Meanwhile, it looks like Madison will be spending $1M to replace the Lake Wingra dam – holding back 2 ft. of water which poses no real safety problem. Referendum needed? No. It will just be drawn from the water/stormwater funds and tacked onto utility bills. Same thing with well #3 replacement in the Isthmus. We have to acknowledge that schools are held under a much higher level of scrutiny and that these revenue caps are unfair public policy.

  3. Charnan Simon

    I sent this letter to John Nichols in response to his April 10 editorial:

    Dear John Nichols:

    Regarding your editorial in tonight’s Cap Times (“School closings critical in board race”): I’d like to know where you’re getting your information.

    At the March 22 candidates’ forum at the Doyle Administration Building, Marj Passman was the ONLY candidate who openly and unequivocally said that she supported Carol Carstensen’s proposed school referendum.

    Every single one of the other five candidates–Maya Cole included–openly and unequivocally said that they did NOT support the referendum.

    Ask the candidates–they were there. So was I. You were not. So who’s feeding you your information? Please don’t insult me by saying that this was what you meant by “As the race wore on, both candidates worked their way around the issues in more detail.” Baloney. Marj Passman consistently supported going to referendum. The fact that she said so publicly and emphatically probably lost her votes among Madisonians who think we already spend too much money on our schools and our children.

    Marj Passman also consistently and emphatically said that she was opposed to school closings throughout her campaign.

    For you to misrepresent the facts in tonight’s editorial is shoddy journalism at best, bald-faced lying at worst.

    Ms. Cole might or might not be in favor of consolidating or closing schools. I’ve heard her waffle on this issue throughout the campaign–and who can blame her? It’s a thorny issue, and I never mind people changing their minds if it means they’ve given additional thought to a difficult question. But I don’t think Ms. Cole is a liar, and if you took the time to ask her I think you’d find that, on March 22 at any rate, she definitively stated that she was opposed to Carol Carstensen’s proposed referendum.

    For the record, I supported Marj Passman in the recent election. I thought Maya Cole brought a lot of good ideas to the school board race, but some of her campaign decisions were unfortunate. One result was that she attracted certain supporters who seemed to have no problem lying in order to discredit her opponent. It’s a shame to think you’re one of them.

    (But nice editorializing! Maya Cole is “a maverick progressive.” Marj Passman “had the powerhouses in School Board politics…behind her.” Gee. Who’s a right-minded Madison liberal to support? The maverick activist or the entrenched insider?)

    Below please read more of what the candidates themselves had to say about referendums and school consolidations/closings.

    Charnan Simon
    3830 Council Crest
    Madison 53711


    What do you think of Supt. Art Rainwater’s proposal to close the shortfall in the 2007-08 budget? Do you, for example, support his plan to consolidate east-side schools?

    Maya Cole

    … If the district has no better alternative, consolidating an existing pairing into one K-5 school may be the best option. Closing a school should be our last option…

    Marj Passman

    I am against the closing of schools. Schools nourish our neighborhoods, and vibrant neighborhoods are the strength of our city. Individual areas of our city are constantly recycling. Families with young children move in, these youngsters attend our schools, leave to begin their own lives, and their parents eventually sell their home and new families move in. Because of this, closing a school has a long-term effect on what may be a short-term problem.


    Would you support a referendum to authorize spending to avoid school consolidation on the east side and to fund smaller class sizes and such programs as elementary school strings and talented and gifted education?

    Maya Cole
    …I do support school referendums, but I will not get a budget cut list from the superintendent and think the next step is “go to referendum.” Rather, I will work hard with my colleagues on the board to develop a multi-year strategic budget plan that addresses both capital and operational needs of the district and is worked on and updated regularly, so that each budget year we are not surprised by what is on the cut list, and we have spent the year working on options we might have to pursue to ensure that our neediest children have adequate resources and all children are challenged academically…

    Marj Passman

    …Yes, I would support a referendum. My advocacy for this is based on the following: we could keep all schools open, retain small class size, elementary school strings and talented and gifted education. In addition, if passed, this referendum would provide us with a three-year cushion to execute and succeed at an intense community and statewide effort to end the revenue caps. This cushion would let us keep our school programs intact and give us the time needed to focus on putting together a powerful lobbying group that could “Say No to Revenue Caps!”

    I strongly believe that given the pride our community has in its schools, we could unify with only one goal in mind and that is to save our schools.

  4. I actually think there’s merit to John’s theory that school closings played a role. In a conversation on the topic, he pointed out that Marj actually won (and outperformed Arlene Silveira’s results from her win against Maya) the outlying areas. Based on the numbers, Maya really did win this race on the Isthmus.

    Typically, one would expect a well-qualified, progressive (Democrat and Progressive Dane endorsed), union endorsed candidate like Marj to win the Isthmus overwhelmingly, especially when that candidate used to teach on the Isthmus.

    Though Marj clearly does not favor closing neighborhood schools, Maya got the jump on her by coming out strongly against the closings and in favor of referendum early in the debate. Marj initially took a more cautious approach.

    From Cap Times (1/30/07):
    “School board candidate Maya Cole spoke as a member of the public during the meeting, saying budget cutting options that included cutting central city neighborhood schools were a mistake.

    She noted that downtown neighborhood groups and city planners were making a priority of encouraging young families to live in the central city, and that neighborhood schools were key to those efforts.

    Following Calvert’s comments, Cole said in a short interview that she would support a referendum rather than closing schools to save money.

    “I would hope that for the long term the state Legislature would figure out something to address the budget problems that most districts are facing,” she added.

    Her opponent for Seat 5, Marj Passman, agreed that the district’s budget woes required attention at the state or federal level.

    “People finally may be ready to face the revenue caps and the problems they are causing,” Passman said. But she said she was leery of proposing a referendum just months after a request for $27.5 million for a new school was overwhelmingly approved throughout the city.”

    Later in the race, Marj made stronger statements against closing the schools in question, but it may well have been too little and too late. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and there may have been other contributing factors (I’m not ruling out TJ’s implication that the Cap Times endorsement of Maya also hurt Marj on the Isthmus). Generally, proceeding with caution is a good thing and a quality I prefer in a school board member. But if my child’s school was at risk of closing, I’m sure I’d be looking for a candidate who is decisively against the closing from the start.

    I think the clear message is that Marj was a terrific candidate and would have done an excellent job on the school board. She ran against an opponent who had nearly all of the advantages of incumbency. Based on the analysis in the Nichols column, the results actually bode quite well for another Passman run in the future should Marj be so inclined.

  5. tmertz

    I’m going to take a closer look at the returns soon and probably will have more to say about that, but there are a number of things raised here I want to address now.

    First to clarify (for Jerry and others), the apology I asked for was to the readers of the Cap Times, although including the candidates might also be appropriate.

    I also read the piece Lisa posted (before I wrote mine) and was at portions of that meeting. Ms Coles’s public statement (from the newspaper report, I was out of the room at the time she spoke) appears to have been another set of vague promises related to new approaches that would relieve budget pressures. The statement paraphrased by Susan Troller in support of a then nonexistent referendum (to use Mr. Nichols’ language) “evolved” into non-support or opposition for the actual referendum proposal put forth by Ms Carstensen. Marj Passman strongly supported this proposal. You can make a distinction and say one was only about school closings and the other was broader and that was why Ms Cole’s views evolved. Perhaps this is true, whatever the reason a referendum targeted exclusively at one geographic area is almost certainly doomed. Ms Carstensen knows that, I hope Ms Cole and Mr. Nichols do to.

    I also believe that if Ms Cole had actually been strongly identified with a referendum aimed at keeping specific schools open she would have lost much of her support in other areas, unless the likes of Nancy Harper and Tom Ragatz have no principles at all.

    All the candidates except Johnny Winston Jr. opposed closing schools (one of the things I want to look at is his Isthmus numbers). Maybe Maya did get a jump and some on the Isthmus thought she was strongest against school closings (absent exit polls we will never know). If this was the case, then the campaigns – both Ms Cole’s and Ms Passman’s — should share the blame with media. If this issue was the linchpin of the election (I have my doubts) then the voters should have had a clear sense of where the candidates stood.


  6. Troy D

    I hope that people who run for school board in the future read the above posts. The amount of the yearly cuts caused by the revenue caps has created an impossible situation for the education of our children. Marj, to her credit, used the campaign trail to educate the public about the revenue caps. Look above the examples of how each candidate answered the questions of closing schools and going for another referendum. Marj used the question to educate the public about the underlying reason as to why a school district would ever consider closing a neighborhood school every time. Maya rarely used the stage that was offered to her during the campaign to educate the public. Compare their websites. To lobby to end state revenue caps.
    This is what Marj had under the issues section of her campaign website:


    “We must join together in a concerted effort to end this egregious law which creates yearly deficits and we must find another way, other than property taxes, to finance our schools.”

    If you can find what Maya said about the revenue caps on her issues webpage please feel free to fact check. It may be buried somewhere in her website.

    As I have stated before, I have all confidence that Maya will be a partner in changing how schools are funded. Maya does have one important link that she has on her website.


    I also have saved my Marj yard sign. I hope to put it out again before long.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s