Reopening debate injects school board races statewide with divisiveness

Classroom of desks row after row that are all empty
Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

Across the state, the intensity, confusion and frustration of local debates over the reopening of schools to in-person instruction has carried over to school board races. 

In districts big and small, parents animated by their attempts to push districts to reopen faster than health guidelines suggested have jumped into school board races to avenge their anger over difficult and controversial decisions. Meanwhile, Facebook groups populated by parents have become breeding grounds for misinformation, personal attacks and agitation for loosening the remaining COVID-19 restrictions in school. 

In one district, members of the school board received death threats after voting to continue following public health guidance and keep school buildings closed. 

Over the last year, parents were forced to upend their lives to respond to school closures and then watched as state and local governments prioritized the opening of bars and restaurants over in-person school. The debate to reopen divided communities between those desperate to provide their children a more normal learning environment and those anxious about the spread of a deadly and infectious disease. 

With state and national politicians tossing the occasional grenade into the debate, school boards were left to fend for themselves as they attempted to interpret local COVID-19 burden rates, implement mitigation measures and proceed as responsibly as they could.

Now, even in districts that have long returned to mostly in-person school, the wounds created during the last year of the pandemic remain and the issue is at the center of several races. 

“From what I’m seeing, the in-person vs. virtual school, based on reaction to COVID is the absolute number-one top campaign issue,” says Leah Schreiber Johnson, an Oak Creek-Franklin School Board member facing multiple challengers. 

Green Bay, one of the state’s largest districts, has only just begun returning to in-person school. Elementary school children up to fifth grade have been in school four days a week since March 1. Older kids have eased back into school throughout the month, but in a blended model with students split into two groups dividing in-person and virtual school days. 

The school board voted 5-2 in favor of this plan after pressure from parents — most notably a Facebook group that at the time was called “Open Green Bay Area Public Schools.” A competing group, “Safe Opening for Green Bay Schools,” has also been formed as a counter and the first group has since changed its name to the less aggressive “GBAPS – Community Advocates for Students.” The politics have become so divisive that members of one group have filed open records requests with the school district requesting information about members of the other. 

The politics of the competing interests has continued to raise the temperature of the debate. Throughout the fight, the parents pushing for a return to school said they just wanted a choice in how their children were taught. Yet after they won four days per week in the classroom they continued to push for five days, which would have put an end to the district’s virtual option — an option chosen by many families still concerned about the effect of the virus on themselves or family members. 

Rhonda Sitnikau voted in favor of the district’s reopening plan and has been one of the favored candidates of the more aggressive reopening group. According to her, the actions of school boards have simply become more important this year so it makes sense the campaigns would reflect that. 

“I think people are more tapped in and focused on what a school board is responsible for,” she says. “The role of the school board has been under the microscope more than ever before and because of that you’ll see people weigh in on it.”

Sitnikau admits that the debate has at times been toxic and the two sides haven’t shown much empathy for the other position, but that fundamentally it’s a good thing for parents to be invested in the district. 

“I’ve been trying to remind people that families wanting to be back in our schools is a good thing, it’s not something to clutch their pearls about,” Sitnikau, who has a child in the district, says. “It’s showing you how valuable this service is. You should absolutely take that and maximize that and realize you have more families invested than you’ve ever had before. Has it been stressful and divisive at times? Yes, because people are struggling for various reasons. But people really recognize the value of their school district more than ever before.” 

But Green Bay parents being “invested” hasn’t only resulted in advocacy for their children. Superintendent Steven Murley, who was hired last March just as the pandemic began, has been the subject of a number of personal attacks. 

Social media posts and emails to Murley show parents so unhappy with his efforts to keep students, staff and the community safe that they have requested his resignation. 

“In your effort to make everyone happy, you have served to disenfranchise the entirety of your student body, likely alienated your faculty, while also likely creating an unnecessary burden for the average taxpayer at large,” an email between an aggrieved parent and Murley obtained by the Wisconsin Examiner, states. If you cannot come up with a concrete plan to offer all students of all ages a minimum of 4 days for in person learning as soon as possible this year, consider stepping down and let somebody else lead our district as superintendent. Other districts have moved forward for ALL children and it’s time we do too.” 

Parents who were in favor of a more cautious approach pointed out that Green Bay is much larger than most districts in the state and the infrastructure of some school buildings is not conducive to preventing the spread of airborne disease. A large portion of the district’s students are Black or Hispanic — two groups that have been disproportionately harmed by the pandemic, giving parents a reason to question the wisdom of returning to school too soon. 

Elsewhere in northeastern Wisconsin, the Appleton Area School District has also seen its school board race injected with the bitter politics of reopening, even though students in the district were in the classroom under a hybrid model at the beginning of the school year last fall. 

Another one of the state’s largest districts, Appleton was the center of a reopening debate that included a failed attempt at recalling three school board members

There are now four candidates vying for two open seats on the board and the debate has moved to whether all students should return to in-person school five days per week — even though nearly a quarter of the district’s 16,000 students continue to choose virtual learning. 

The two candidates pushing for a quicker return to entirely in-person school have both been endorsed by the Outagamie County Republican Party

Jim Bowman, a board member not up for re-election who is in favor of a more cautious approach, says the community has been so divided over these issues that people can’t agree on basic facts. 

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“The central disagreement in our community is how serious is the virus,” he says. “If you think it’s serious, you’re more likely to want the board to be cautious. If you think the virus is overstated, there’s some hoax in it, it’s silly to keep them out of class. That’s the fundamental issue.”

“Their bias is that the risk of the virus is overstated,” he continues. “This whole thing is overblown, we’ve gone too far, we never should’ve shut down as much as we did.”

In the Milwaukee suburbs, the debate is just as heated. The Oak Creek-Franklin School District went to hybrid school in January and began five-day-a-week in-person school for every grade in mid-February, but a number of candidates have joined forces to unseat incumbents who they see as being too slow to act. 

The district hasn’t had to close a single school because of an outbreak of COVID-19 but challengers continue to run on the threat of the board instituting another district-wide closure. 

After the board voted 4-3 to continue following the path it chose last fall — using public health metrics to decide the method of learning — all of the board members received a “profane” death threat, according to board member Schreiber Johnson. 

Schreiber Johnson is the main target of criticism and has been accused of being in the pocket of the state Democratic Party and the teachers’ union because of her votes. 

“I don’t think our experience was different than any other school district,” she says. “The discourse had broken down, it was not civil. As national and state level governments chose not to act, school boards like ours were left to make really difficult decisions. The uncertainty meant communities started to break up into camps.”

From her perspective, the past year has been a constant barrage of challenging decisions, risk assessments, trauma and stress, so of course that’s taken a toll on people. 

“People are running short on empathy,” she says.