We need some conservatives in Madison – Isthmus

We need some conservatives around here. 

I don’t mean the Trumpy, white Christian nationalist nut job variety. I mean the good old smaller government, lower taxes sort of conservatives. Because, even if I’m not exactly one of them, I recognize the value they once brought to local government. 

When I was getting my feet wet in local politics in the early 1990s Scott Klug, a moderate Republican, was our congressman. Jonathan Barry, another moderate Republican, was the Dane County executive. The sheriff was a Republican. And half of the county board, on which I served, was made up of conservatives. The liberal caucus, of which I was a member, held on to power only by the grace of a few moderates who voted with us on organizational matters. 

And the school board had a few outspoken conservatives, led by an abrasive firebrand named Nancy Mistele. She was a pistol. To be honest, at the time, I couldn’t stand her. Now I wish there was at least one person with her point of view (if not her persona) on the Madison school board. 

Today there is no loyal opposition, no one left to object to liberal hegemony. First they came for Scott Klug and I was not Scott Klug, so I did not object. Then they came for Jonathan Barry and I was not Jonathan Barry so I did not object. Then they came for Nancy Mistele and I sure as hell wasn’t Nancy Mistele so I did not object. And now…

We’re down to one lonely conservative on the county board and that’s pretty much it. For a community that celebrates diversity it sure doesn’t apply to politics, does it?

I bring this up now because that homogeneously liberal Madison school board is proposing the most expensive referendums in Madison history. They did it last month without a single dissenting vote and with hardly anybody in the audience to raise an issue. One question would provide funding to build new middle and elementary schools and to renovate existing ones. The other would allow the district to exceed spending limits on operations. 

There’s no reason to think that the two questions won’t both pass in November with a tax increase on the average home in Madison culminating in a whopping $1,300 and some change by 2028. 

It seems to me that, at a time when affordable housing is the top issue in the community, a tax increase of that size should get some robust discussion. 

And yet right now I’m not aware of any organized opposition to the referendums. While I worry about the political implications of such a movement (and suggested the school board should put off the referendums for that very reason), it would be a good civic exercise nonetheless. Because even if you’re for this, don’t you think it would be a good thing to make public officials justify a tax increase of this magnitude? Don’t you think a little dissent, even against a liberal orthodoxy to which you subscribe, is a good thing for democracy? Wouldn’t it, in the big picture, hold public officials’ feet to the fire and result in better public policy in the long run? 

You would have to go back two decades to find the last time Madison voters rejected a school referendum and the most recent referendums have passed by three-to-one margins. My guess is that these questions will pass with something around 60%, maybe more. 

But they won’t pass with my vote. In the absence of any real conservatives around here, let me play the role. Here’s why I’ll vote ‘no.’

The district is performing terribly. Whether it’s test scores, attendance rates or basic school safety, this district is performing abysmally. Earlier this year the New York Times published a story enabling readers to compare their local district with others around the country for math tests scores in grades 3 through 8. Madison lagged both the national and state averages significantly. 

This spring the Times published another story allowing readers to compare their district on absenteeism. Rates were higher in Madison than the national average — a little higher before COVID and much higher afterwards. Also this spring, a student at La Follette High School brought a gun and ammunition to school. When Madison police showed up to arrest him, staff there harassed the cops, which seems to reflect a disregard for school safety in favor of social activism from the board itself. And, while the district has been harping on the racial achievement gap for decades, it has shown little progress in narrowing it. In fact, in a district that says it wants to make schools more welcoming places for students of color, the absenteeism rate for Black students is more than twice that of white students. So here’s my question: Why should we reward failure? 

The district mismanaged its pandemic funds. According to a fresh Wisconsin Public Policy Forum report, the district used one-time federal money to add 111 ongoing positions that they knew they couldn’t afford once the COVID money was gone. That’s just bad budgeting. Did they do it with the idea that it would force taxpayers to accept higher taxes or lay off teachers? 

The district is over-building. Four of the five middle schools slated for upgrades are being used at 60% capacity, the Policy Forum said. The district typically targets a 90% use rate. Why aren’t we closing some schools? 

The district is over-staffing. Again according to the Policy Forum, if the operating referendum passes, the district will have just under 4,200 full-time equivalent staff positions, the most it has had since 2013. But the district has lost students every year since then, until this year when the population stabilized, and the district is projected to lose more students going forward. Even if the referendum fails there will be 107 new full-time positions. So, why are we increasing staff even more when we’re losing students? 

Affordable housing may be a higher priority. Even if I thought the district was well-managed, I’d still balk at a property tax increase of this size. There’s a lot of debate right now about how government can get the private sector to build more affordable units. Yet we’re ignoring the cost of government itself, which contributes mightily to the price of housing. 

The district is simply asking for too much. Despite all of my concerns, had the district come in with a question that added, say, $200 to my tax bill, I probably would have gone along with it. But when you get over $1,300 I think taxpayers deserve to get answers to much tougher questions. 

They could try again. In the unlikely event that these questions go down the district can make do next year by using reserves and then come back with new, more reasonable proposals later. Rejection would be a welcome wake up call for a district that badly needs it. 

Don’t get me wrong. I like public education. But I also like well-run public institutions that are accountable. This school district just isn’t performing up to standards. It hasn’t earned my vote. And even so, it’s not as if I’ll never vote for another school referendum. But I want to send this leadership group back to the drawing board. 

Madison will never be a conservative place. But some strong conservative voices, even a few in local offices, would challenge us and what challenges us makes us better. 

Dave Cieslewicz is a Madison- and Upper Peninsula-based writer who served as mayor of Madison from 2003 to 2011. You can read more of his work at Yellow Stripes & Dead Armadillos.

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