Special education issues expected to play big role in Madison school board election

MADISON, Wis. — As the spring 2020 election season kicks off with the deadline to turn in candidate paperwork on Tuesday, special education issues in the Madison Metropolitan School District are expected to play a big role in the campaign for Seat 7.

Wayne Strong will run against incumbent Nicki Vander Meullen.

Strong, who was a Madison police officer for 24 years and is the current director of workforce development at the Urban League of Greater Madison, ran for a school board seat and lost in 2013 and 2014.

He said he decided to run again because he wants to help close the achievement gap and end the school-to-prison pipeline.

“I don’t feel that our students of color are quite where they need to be. And I want to make sure that I’m a part of the solution,” said Strong.

Vander Meullen has been a voice for families of students with special needs for almost three years. She said she is the first person with autism to be elected to a school board in the U.S.

“I’m definitely the biggest disability advocate on the board it’s safe to say, and without it, it’s going to be hard to have those voices continue to be heard and not marginalized,” said Vander Meullen.

Special education has been a complicated issue in Madison. Parents have complained about the shortage of staff and the lack of training to prepare those staff members to be able to handle the needs of each student.

Last month, the board of education approved by a 4-3 vote the purchase of a building to house Intensive Intervention Programs for student with special needs.

Vander Meulen and many parents spoke out in opposition of the purchase, fearing it would segregate the students.

Strong said he believes the decision to buy the building instead of continuing to rent made sense financially.

If elected to the board, he said he hopes to find out the root cause of some of the problems that require students to be in the Intensive Intervention Program.

“A lot of our kids are dealing with trauma, a lot of them are dealing with poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, all sorts of issues our kids are facing. So let’s look at why our kids are being expelled from school, suspended from school, and really try to develop some policy and solutions around keeping those kids in the mainstream of our educational system,” said Strong.

Madison Metropolitan School District parent Martha Siravo said she and other parents of students with special needs are worried that if Vander Meullen loses the election, their community will lose a voice at the table.

“Is there another person with her expertise and knowledge coming in that has the same experiences that she has? It’s very difficult to do and there’s not a lot of people willing to do that who have also lived the experience while they’re growing up, and been able to thrive beyond it,” said Siravo.

Siravo said she has gone to Vander Meulen for help addressing issues in the past and doesn’t want students with disabilities to be forgotten if she is no longer on the board.

“I have a way of saying, ‘Hey, this is an issue.’ How many individuals with disabilities do we have in this program? How many do we have in honors? And that plays an incredible role,” said Vander Meulen.

Strong said, although he doesn’t have that personal connection with students with special needs, he wants to create policies that help all students succeed.

“You have to be able to listen to people who are going to have very different interests than your own, different opinions than your own. And I’m prepared to do that,” said Strong.