Candidates for the Madison Board of Education debated issues including honors courses and staffing shortages March 21 at Madison East High School ahead of the April 4 election.
The debate, hosted by the Cap Times, featured the three candidates vying for positions on the school board. Former Common Council candidate Badri Lankella and former Madison educator Blair Feltham are competing for seat 6, while incumbent Nicki Vander Meulen is running unopposed for seat 7.
Recent state testing results revealed disparities in performance between white students and BIPOC students. Discussing the topic of student reading and writing performance, Feltham said the board should allocate more funding toward efforts to close the gap.
“I would love to see the board, when deciding what [we’re] going to spend our money on, not just say, ‘Okay, yeah, we think this is gonna move the data,’” Feltham said.
She added that the school board should consider the effects of the programs on individual student learning experiences.
Vander Meulen emphasized community inclusion and providing clear learning principles to children.
“How you teach reading is essential,” Vander Meulen said. “We need it to be concise, we need it to be understandable.”
The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) is creating a new three year special education plan, including individualized education plans (IEPs). IEPs entail unique learning maps tailored to individual students.
Vander Meulen emphasized the importance of IEPs in helping students with disabilities.
“What we need to do with students with disabilities is this: We need full integration,” Vander Meulen said. “We need to make sure that IEPs are followed.”
Lankella advocated for funding towards special education programs and the importance of staff dedicated to aiding student learning.
“Some schools have allocated staff for it, some don’t,” Lankella said. “We have to make sure we have enough funding for special ed.”
Candidates also considered the potential elimination of standalone honors classes in the Madison school district, a proposal which has divided the school board. Instead of higher-level classes, students could complete individual honors requirements.
Lankella, opposing the removal of honors courses, said because universities are increasingly removing standardized test results as a requirement for applications, honors courses will be more important.
“I’m all for honors because, in a world where there [are] no standardized tests going forward for college applications, they will be looking at all of these honors programs and advanced classes that kids are taking,” Lankella said. “Those are critical for applications and jobs moving forward.”
More schools are adopting educational practices that focus on teaching phonics, or sounding out words, versus reading through context clues. Vander Meulen highlighted the merits of phonics programs.
“We need to make sure the kids know how to sound it out,” Vander Meulen said, explaining the school district should prioritize learning tailored to individual students’ needs.
“If we rely solely on statistics instead of talking to the students, instead of talking to the teachers, we are not going to get a robust education,” she said. “Instead, we are going to get students who are learning to test and nothing more.”
Feltham said she is open to implementing phonics programs, but individual students’ performance needs should be taken into account when implementing new programs.
“There is no science of children,” Feltham said. “These are individual people with individual passions and individual lives.”
Feltham also said the school board should provide more resources to MMSD staff to address the district’s staffing shortage.
“It is hard to overlook the moral injury [of being] told that you are an essential piece of this school, that you’re super valued, that you’re what makes the school run, and then to have to beg for cost of living objections every single year,” Feltham said. “What the board should do is demand and approve a school budget with full cost of living increases for staff every year.”
Lankella said he also supports better pay for teachers.
“Inflation is so high, we need to make sure our teachers are paid well,” Lankella said.
The school board election will be held April 4.