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Community meets, questions Madison superintendent candidate

Published On: Feb 07 2013 09:57:15 PM CST   Updated On: Feb 08 2013 08:03:39 AM CST
Jennifer Cheatham

Residents came out to a community forum in downtown Madison on Thursday night to ask questions of the sole candidate for Madison Metropolitan School District superintendent.

Board of Education members decided to have the community question-and-answer session at the Monona Terrace even after the other finalist dropped out earlier this week, leaving only Jennifer Cheatham, chief of instruction for Chicago Public Schools.

Cheatham said she's taking the board's decision to have her meet the public Thursday night as a statement of confidence in her.

The mayor and other elected leaders listened at the forum as Cheatham said Madison is her top choice and she isn't looking anywhere else. If she gets the job, Cheatham said she plans to have a long tenure in Madison.

"Call me Jen. I hope we're going to know one another for a long time, so we need to become good friends," Cheatham said.

Cheatham showed a sense of humor at the meeting but also cited statistics and national studies. There were questions from schoolchildren about the minority achievement gap, which Cheatham said should be addressed through culturally aware teachers.

"These conversations about race are so tough because people want to have them and then they get scared, and they want to walk away," Cheatham said.

She answered a lot of questions about her policies as chief instruction officer for Chicago Public Schools.

"I would never come into a school district thinking that I'm going to impose some approach that I used in a former school district. Every district is different. We need to together decide what the best approach is for Madison," she said.

Another topic that was brought up was Cheatham's role in the Chicago teachers strike last year. She said her policies didn't cause the strike.

"I think, and I feel strongly, in that I've had a good collaborative relationship with the members of our teachers union," Cheatham said.

But afterward, John Matthews, the head of the Madison teachers union, questioned her collaborative attitude, referencing the strike.

"That kind of an attitude isn't going to sail in Madison," Matthews said.

But Matthews said he thinks the decision's already been made.

"It's time to start working with her because I think the board's convinced. The board will, in my opinion, before your morning news make an announcement that she's hired," Matthews said.

The school board met behind closed doors after the meeting Thursday night about whether to hire Cheatham or re-open the search. A district spokeswoman said the board wouldn't come to a decision Thursday night.

Kaleem Caire, the head of the Urban League of Greater Madison, said that Cheatham needs to meet with community leaders and teachers before there's a decision. He said that if she's perceived as the "winner by default" after all of this, it will dog her throughout her time in Madison.

The board is scheduled to meet again Friday afternoon.

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