2014 marks an interesting year in which, both in the city council and school board races, a relative unknown newcomer was able to take the city by storm to finish first. In June, Robb Davis finished first over incumbent Councilmember Rochelle Swanson, former School Board member John Munn and current school board member Sheila Allen.
In November, Madhavi Sunder, largely unknown in the community six months ago, won a resounding decision, finishing first by a large margin, winning all but two precincts, and receiving votes on 55.4 percent of the ballots cast.
Interestingly enough, in neither case were observers terribly surprised, at least based on the analyses in the last month. How did that happen? The Vanguard will explore that question.
The simplest answer is really the same as for the Robb Davis campaign before her – she created a large and diverse team and she walked. If she didn’t outwork everyone else in the field, she matched them.
On election night, Ms. Sunder spent a good five to ten minutes going through the contributions of her campaign team. She especially praised the work of Diana Glick, who was in charge of the precinct walking operation – an operation that helped her place first in all but two precincts.
Like Robb Davis’ core team, a lot of the ground workers were involved in their first campaign. She told me, “I am so proud that we have energized a new generation of parents who have not been involved in Davis politics before.”
And, while there was a segment of the politicos who had backed her in the campaign – the Davis City Council, Lois Wolk, Delaine Eastin, Jim Provenza – there was a large group of people at her campaign party that one had never seen before at political events. There were a large number of kids running around carefree.
We went to several other campaign parties, and, while they were well-attended, it was more of the traditional Davis schools group.
The Madhavi Sunder campaign, like the Robb Davis campaign, demonstrates that grassroots politics remain at the core of winning elections in Davis. While certainly much was made about the campaign war chest that Ms. Sunder assembled, it wasn’t a bombardment of slick campaign mailers that won it for her, but rather the sweat and hard work of an energized team.
In order for this team to be effective, Ms. Sunder had to overcome a somewhat significant hurdle – a push-button issue could have undone the consensus she hoped to build.
When Madhavi Sunder announced she was seeking appointment to the vacancy filled by Nancy Peterson’s resignation and, if not appointed, would run for the school board, she was best known in the community for supporting GATE.
She was a member of Davis Excel. In June 9, 2013, she wrote a letter to the editor defending the Davis GATE Program. For some, she had a reputation of being combative at public meetings.
However, when running for the school board, while not running from her position on GATE/AIM, Ms. Sunder was able to broaden her focus.
In response to the question the Vanguard posed on the topic, she said, “The AIM program is a means that the DJUSD has used since at least the 1980s to serve some of the children who are not being challenged adequately in the regular study. In fact, challenging students at their level is the very essence of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s suggestion that we should promote a growth, not a fixed, mindset.”
She continued, “Placing a child in a classroom where the work comes easily relative to one’s peers only confirms the child’s view that his or her success is natural, confirming a fixed mindset. We want each of the children in our schools to be challenged so that they will ultimately grow.”
“I have participated in the district’s AIM advisory committee meetings. There and in countless conversations with members of the community, I have heard concerns about AIM. There are concerns about the size of the program, stigma placed on children not in the program, the lottery, private testing, and the all-or-nothing option that seems to exist, because our regular-ed programs do not offer consistent or adequate differentiation to meet the needs of AIM learners in their classrooms,” Ms. Sunder said adding, “We ought to have more effective ways of meeting the needs of diverse learners in the regular classroom. We need to keep class sizes small and provide professional development to teachers in differentiated instruction.”
Even within the framework of supporting the GATE/AIM program, Ms. Sunder was looking broader, and that broader focus clearly helped to diffuse, if not eliminate, concerns that many in the community might have otherwise had about her being a single issue candidate.
While I met with a lot of the candidates for school board frequently during the course of the campaign, the thing that struck me about Madhavi Sunder throughout was her willingness to ask questions and to figure out better ways to do things, whether it was campaign tactics, issues that she should explore, or more.
To me, one of the most impressive things is that she toured all of the schools in the district during the course of her campaign. And she didn’t just tour them, she talked with them.
“Some principals told me – they were just grateful, they said I was the closest thing to a board member that had been on their site in a number of years,” she said.
Several people who were quite critical of Ms. Sunder, going in, told me that watching her campaign in action actually alleviated a lot of concerns. They said that she ran a very positive and connected campaign, she listened to a wide variety of different people and preached a message of helping all of the kids.
If she is to govern like she campaigned, she will be very successful. There are a lot of issues that have not been addressed over the last several years. Some of that is due to the district being in survival mode with the budget. But Madhavi Sunder and really the entire new school board will now get to tackle these issues from a fresh perspective and the community will get to see how Madhavi Sunder, the school board member, operates.
“I think we have great potential here in Davis, nobody ever doubts that. The question is actually can we reach it,” she told me on Tuesday night.
So the year that started with so much tumult will end with a board that has four members who were not on it when Nancy Peterson resigned on that day in March. What that means for our kids remains to be seen.
—David M. Greenwald reporting