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Madison School Board candidates express mixed feelings on unusual election system

February 3, 2019

Before any votes were cast last April, one of the three candidates running for two seats on the Madison School Board was a shoo-in to win even though — like the other two contenders on the ballot that day — she was running for a districtwide seat.

Over the last 20 school board elections, the same thing has happened at least four other times, and will again next month.

The reason? A school board election system that may well be unique in Wisconsin.

While Madison School Board hopefuls must run for one of seven numbered seats on the board, the numbers don’t refer to distinct districts, as in City Council elections. Instead, candidates are elected across the entire 65-square-mile district and can live anywhere within its boundaries.

The upside of this arrangement is that challengers can target specific incumbents or other candidates to create head-to-head matchups. The downside is that voters can be shut out of voting for the candidates they most prefer if two of them are running for the same seat.

“Our current system of seven at-large seats isn’t perfect,” said Cris Carusi, who, in part due to the current system, is a lock to appear on the April 2 general election ballot after one of her two primary challengers dropped out of the race for Seat 3.

But she said “there are issues with the alternatives, too,” such as the danger that geographically defined districts “might result in board members advocating for the schools where they live, rather than doing what’s best for all of our public schools.”

The April 3, 2018, election featured races for Seats 1 and 2. Incumbent Mary Burke drew no challenger for Seat 2, while then-incumbent Anna Moffit drew a challenge from eventual winner Gloria Reyes for Seat 1. Voters who preferred both Moffit and Reyes over Burke had no way to express that preference at the ballot box.

The same dynamic occurred in 2001, 2009, 2010 and 2014, with competition for only one of the two or three seats on the ballot. In 2013 and 2017, a candidate who had made it through the primary dropped out of the race before the general election, leaving their races uncontested but the other races on the ballot with competition.

School boards with at-large elections but no numbered seats — including Monona Grove, Stoughton and Sun Prairie — don’t experience that same absence of competition because voters choose their top candidates from a list of everyone on the ballot.

Madison’s current system dates to the 1980s, when state lawmakers stepped in to implement a City Council-sponsored plan to move from at-large elections to the current system. The council’s plan had been overwhelmingly rejected in 1978 by the School Board and in a citywide referendum.

Today, state law mandates that any Wisconsin school district with a city whose population is between 150,000 and 500,000 — meaning only Madison — must elect board members to at-large, numbered seats. It is likely unique among school board election systems in Wisconsin, although it appears to be in place in at least a handful of districts in Texas and perhaps elsewhere.

“Most people couldn’t wrap their heads around voting for two candidates,” said Sheryl Moore, superintendent of the Sealy (Texas) Independent School District, explaining why her board moved from at-large to numbered-seat elections.

Bob Butler, staff counsel for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said state law allows other Wisconsin school districts to design election systems “where some members are elected at-large and some are elected to represent certain geographical regions within the district” or in which board members must live in certain areas of the district but are elected at large, as a way to ensure a geographically representative board accountable to the entire district.

For board diversity

Part of the reason proponents in Madison 40 years ago wanted the current system was they thought it would be a way to increase minority representation on the board. Ironically, decades later, the system was partly to blame for keeping two minority candidates in this year’s election — Ananda Mirilli and Ali Muldrow — from winning past bids for seats on the board.

Mirilli didn’t make it past a 2013 primary for Seat 5, only to see one of the people who beat her drop out of the race too late for her name to be removed from the ballot. That left TJ Mertz as the only active candidate on the general election ballot for the seat, and he’s been in office since.

In 2017, Muldrow lost to Kate Toews in the race for Seat 6, while Nicki Vander Meulen was all but assured of winning Seat 7 because her opponent had dropped out. With two districtwide seats on the ballot but limited to voting separately for each one, backers of both Muldrow and Toews were out of luck.

Burke spent $128,631 of her own money to first win election in 2012 and has not drawn a challenger in two elections since. By contrast, Reyes and Moffit reported spending about a combined $14,000 on their 2018 campaigns.

Moffit said she thought Burke’s “wealth does make her less likely to have an opponent,” but Reyes said that wasn’t a factor in her decision to challenge Moffit, who she claimed “didn’t represent or give voice to our communities of color.”

Burke noted there there have been plenty of uncontested school board races and said “my election in 2018 and 2015 both came after I ran for governor and I would imagine that the strong name recognition and following I have in Madison since 2014 might be a factor in whether I am challenged or not.”

Next month, Carusi and Kaleem Caire are all but assured of moving onto the general election because the third person on the ballot for Seat 3, Skylar Croy, has made clear he’s no longer running. The two other seats on the primary ballot have four and three candidates, respectively.

Some support for change

School board members and candidates who responded to a Wisconsin State Journal request for comment had mixed feelings about the current election system.

Mertz said a “top finishers” election system gives voters more flexibility, but he shared Carusi’s concern that electing board members to represent specific areas of the district could pit certain schools and neighborhoods against each other.

Mirilli, though, said there could be upsides to having board members who are distinctly aware of problems in specific schools because those schools are in the areas they represent.

“So yes, I do believe that having seats assigned representing specific areas are important, however not the only solution,” she said.

She and Mertz suggested a hybrid system with some geographically specific and some at-large seats, with Mertz advocating for a move to a nine-seat board.

Burke said she would “support a change in order to attract and elect the most qualified and representative school board officials,” but since it’s a “complex issue, I would want time taken to carefully evaluate different options and gather community input.”

Caire said he favored the current system but doesn’t like to see seats go uncontested.

Muldrow, who is running for Seat 4 against David Blaska, Albert Bryan and Laila Borokhim, said she appreciated that “everyone who lives in the (school district) attendance area has the opportunity to vote for all seven school board seats,” noting that the current system ensures that everyone elected wins with more than 50 percent of the vote.

“It’s an odd system and no one seems to understand it,” Blaska said, but “I don’t particularly care either way.”