More than 100 friends, colleagues, family members and parents showed up at a farewell party Wednesday at Olbrich Gardens to say goodbye and thank you to Carol Carstensen, who served six terms on the Madison School Board and stepped down after the spring elections.
“There will never be another Carol Carstensen. I will predict that,” said School Board member Johnny Winston Jr. “There will never be another School Board member in this community that will serve 18 years. I miss her already.”
Winston called it a wonderful experience to work with Carstensen.
“She really not only knew the material and had a grasp of the issues going on, but she also had her pulse on the community as well,” he said.
Former board member Nan Brien, who served with Carstensen in the early 1990s, said that for 18 years Carstensen was the spokesperson on the board for all the kids in the district.
“She was particularly adamant that all kids, no matter their background, have an opportunity for the best education. That is the heart and soul of who Carol Carstensen is,” Brien said.
Carstensen always cared about the kids above anything else, she added. “That’s really why she fought all the budget battles and all the referendum battles — so the district would have the resources to give all the kids an equal opportunity,” Brien said.
The liberal Carstensen, who served four years as president of the seven-member board, aggravated conservatives by backing all 14 referendum questions during her tenure. Her critics viewed her as an advocate of higher school property taxes in Madison. Still, she never lost a School Board election.
Carstensen said she was delighted by the turnout at her party Wednesday. Old friends and new friends came out from the various areas of her life — the school district, her neighborhood, her book club, and the UW Law School, where her husband, Peter, is a professor.
She said she’s been ambivalent about stepping down.
“There are a lot of things I don’t miss and won’t miss at all, but there are other things — a number of things that have yet to be decided — that I will miss,” Carstensen said.
“The new superintendent will be working with the board in a new way, and I will miss that,” she said.
Well-wishers approached with their goodbyes: “Eighteen years is not nearly enough as far as I’m concerned,” one said. “Enjoy the freedom,” said another. “What are you going to do on Monday nights?” wondered a third.
Carstensen said she plans to do some volunteer work on the re-election campaign of Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and possibly the presidential campaign of Barack Obama.
David Cohen, a district parent, called Carstensen “one of the nicest, fairest School Board members that any parent would ever have to engage, and I’ve engaged with her a lot — good and bad.”
Many people at the gathering said they admired Carstensen’s dedication. “I do think that’s why she served as long as she did,” said Carole Trone, who has three children in the district.
“She believes in our schools. I think sometimes it was a thankless position with tough choices to make,” Trone added. “I think she symbolizes what makes this community strong — that we have people like her who are willing to give so many years of service.”
Mary Ellen LaChance, a district Reading Recovery teacher leader, called Carstensen a thoughtful decision-maker and someone who is willing to listen and learn about all the different facets of school programs.
“Obviously, the fact that she’s worked for so many years as a School Board member reflects her extreme dedication to education and Madison,” LaChance said.
Parent Jerry Eykholt called Carstensen an analytical thinker, who is strategic and effective.
“She’s just a fantastic community member, first and foremost. Everyone knows where her heart is — it’s really with the kids and how they are progressing. It’s hard not to join her.”
I had the pleasure of being part of this tribute to Carol. Not mentioned in the story is that the event was appropriately a fund raiser for the Foundation for Madison Public Schools. Here is a form to make a donation in Carol’s name.
It is difficult to give Carol Carstensen enough thanks for all the good she has done our schools and community. I think the best way is to follow her example and work to keep our schools strong; Volunteer in your school, serve on a district task force or committee, work to change the state school finance system, help with a referendum campaign…
Thomas J. Mertz