Recently, Mary Burke resigned from the Madison school board creating a vacancy. For years, I have turned down many request to serve on the school board, but at this time, I have decided that the with the departure of Jen Cheatham as Superintendent, there is a tremendous opportunity to engage in setting systems change goals for a new superintendent while the district is led by an interim superintendent for a year. Following the guidelines set out by the board, I just submitted my statement of interest to fill the vacancy on the board. The text of my submission is below.
Dear President Reyes and fellow school board members:
I hereby submit this statement of interest, describing my qualifications for serving on the Madison Metropolitan School District’s (MMSD) Board of Education to fill the current vacancy.
My experience includes 34 years of service as a civil rights attorney, the last 24 of which have focused on advocacy for students with disabilities, as well as my leadership in the non-profit world and local government. In representing children with disabilities in their struggle to receive a free appropriate public education, as guaranteed them by state and federal law, I learned that while individual representation of these students is critical to improve their lives, without connecting their struggles to the larger systemic issues that cause them to occur repeatedly, my assistance will only serve as a bandage for the handful of students whom I represent.
While working as the Managing Attorney for the Schools and Civil Rights team at Disability Rights Wisconsin (DRW) for 17 years, I led a 12 year battle to pass the law that regulates the use of seclusion and restraint of students in our schools because for too many years, I represented students one at a time who had suffered horrific abuse through these aversive techniques. Although the law is imperfect, I firmly believe that students are now safer and educators have learned non-aversive methods to manage challenging behavior, due to the passage of that law. I continue to work to improve that law, and its implementation. Working to reduce the use of seclusion and restraint by improving the training of staff to meet the needs of children with challenging behaviors is one of the issues that I bring special expertise to the MMSD board should I be chosen to fill the empty seat.
Upon leaving DRW, I named my law firm Systems Change Consulting, because my experience taught me that while individual representation informs the need for systems change, the problems my clients encounter will only repeat themselves if they are not connected to systemic change. During my career, I encountered too many examples of zero tolerance discipline policies ruining children’s lives and fueling the school to prison pipeline. Thus, I actively participated when MMSD crafted the Behavior Education Plan (BEP). Indeed, I was the person who suggested that it should carry that name instead of simply MMSD’s Discipline policy, because moving away from zero tolerance also requires MMSD to actively engage in teaching children with challenging behaviors how to behave properly. When the BEP was adopted, I advised the school board that in order to succeed, it would need: 1) adequate training for staff; 2) adequate staff support; and 3) and an ombudsman program to assist students and their parents caught up in the disciplinary process. Unfortunately, to date MMSD has not provided these three critical elements of support, which is why the implementation of the BEP continues to be challenging. I was heartened to see the recommendation for an ombudsman program from the Black Excellence Coalition. Improving the BEPby implementing these recommendations is another issue that I bring special expertise if chosen to fill the empty seat on the board.
Systems change requires analyzing data to quantify the problems I encounter while representing my clients. My data analysis reveals that MMSD has failed to make significant improvements in eliminating the racial disparities our students of color and those with disabilities experience academically, in discipline, and from seclusion and restraint. To eliminate these disparities, MMSD must establish achievable short and long-term goals to improve graduation rates, academic performance and reduce negative disciplinary encounters. It must analyze the data district-wide and on a school-by-school basis in order to learn how to replicate school building success throughout the district and to hold those accountable who are unable or unwilling to make improvements in these critical areas.
Finally, my experience as Chair of the Goose Lake Watershed District has made me fully aware of Open Records and Open Meetings laws, Robert’s Rules of Order and the importance of public input to governmental bodies. This experience will serve me well if I am chosen to serve on the MMSD school board.
Thank you for your consideration.
With utmost respect,
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.