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Across Wisconsin, school boards have become the battleground for some of the state’s most contentious fights over COVID-19 mitigation policies and the country’s effort to grapple with its history of racism.
In Oconomowoc, three school board members resigned earlier this week, citing a “toxic” environment. In Whitefish Bay, parents attending a school board meeting jeered at students trying to speak. In Eau Claire, parents protesting a meeting held signs with messages such as “equity = racism.”
The trend has popped up across Wisconsin as boards and communities work to determine how to safely bring students back to classrooms in the fall. Students under 12 still aren’t eligible to be vaccinated and just 39% of students ages 12-15 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to state health data.
Last year, with a statewide mask order in effect, schools were able to keep kids in classrooms while requiring masks. This fall, the order has been struck down even though the highly contagious delta variant is surging across the state.
Public schools advocates see the fights in local school board meetings as a sign of a polarized state and country fatigued by a pandemic and its fallout — with much of the frustration being taken out on school board members just trying to give back to their community.
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“I think Oconomowoc is a good example of people who step up to serve publicly, put themselves out there to do something noble, I would just say helping a community, [only] to be vilified,” says Chris Hambuch-Boyle, the Northwest regional organizing director for the Wisconsin Public Education Network.
Hambuch-Boyle was previously a school board member in Eau Claire and said when she went to speak at a recent school board meeting she didn’t feel safe. But more importantly, the contentious atmosphere puts kids in the middle of a tug-of-war between two camps of parents.
“I see this happening all over the state and I feel bad because there were kids at our meeting that saw adults act like this,” she continues. “I wish it had gone in a different direction. I don’t think kids should be stuck in a political fray because adults can’t get towards the middle and do what’s best for all.”
School boards have been politicized before — parents understandably have always had strong feelings about their kids’ education — but observers say the tenor and length of the recent peak in tensions is new.
The three board members who resigned from their seats in Oconomowoc said the treatment from colleagues was part of the reason they left.
“Because of the dysfunctional and disrespectful behavior of the remaining Board members and interim superintendent, Board work has become toxic and impossible to do,” a letter from the members states. “Therefore, we choose to no longer be subjected to the negative, noxious effects, especially when we are not allowed to engage in any meaningful work to improve the Board and our schools.”
The conflict on the seven-person Oconomowoc board and others around the state has been bubbling since the pandemic began.
One of the three board members who resigned, Dan Raasch, says they were locked out of the decision making process and decided they had to take a stand to alert the community that it needs to act in order to push for the schools they want to see.
“To me it’s what kind of board, what kind of school do you want to represent your community?” Raasch says. “That’s the big picture to me. Do you want one that’s empathetic, collaborative, respectful, teamwork, listening, modeling the behaviors we want to instill in our children. Is that the kind of board and school district you want, or do you want the alternative? It’s not just about the mask or the campaign financing. What do you want for your kids? How do you want to prepare them for the future? What kind of future do you want to prepare them for?”
This spring’s school board election in Oconomowoc saw a losing candidate bring in more than $12,000 in campaign donations, according to a campaign finance report obtained by the Wisconsin Examiner. The candidate, Alexandra Schweitzer, ran on a platform that opposed masks in schools and teaching so-called critical race theory in classrooms. She was endorsed by former conservative Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly and former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke.
Now that the three members have resigned from the board, the remaining members of the Waukesha County board are able to appoint their replacements. Already, the Waukesha County Republican Party and state Rep. Barbara Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc) — who lead the legislative effort to ban transgender girls from playing youth sports earlier this year — have been on social media recruiting applicants.
“Calling all conservatives in Oconomowoc, please reach out to our office if you’re interested in seeking to fill these spots,” the party posted on Facebook, directing people to its website aimed at recruiting local candidates.
Despite the recruitment from local conservatives, Raasch says he thinks there’s a large subset of the community who doesn’t want to see their schools run by anti-mask conservatives.
“We were locked out,” he says. “In short, the cavalry was not coming. There was nothing we could have done to stop this short of what we did. I absolutely believe that from Oconomowoc will rise people who want a school that’s reflective of their values.”
Even as local political groups aim to take over school boards, parents are continuing to show up to board meetings angry over the district’s policies and trying to influence them through intimidation, education advocates say.
“It’s the behavior and disrespect that’s most disturbing,” Terri Phillips, executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Schools Alliance, says. “Our superintendents and board members are having conversations very respectfully. It’s when the disrespect creeps into the board room, calling board members names. Some of the things board members have been called and accused of are uncalled for. It’s poor behavior by adults. It’s adult bullying.”
But, Phillips says, she’s been encouraged by administrators and board members reporting that outside the heat of the meetings, they’re able to have better discussions with parents.
Others, like Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance Executive Director Kim Kaukl, say it’s sad how political the situation has gotten and everyone needs to step back and think about the strategies that kept kids in classrooms last year.
“I question who the adults are in the room,” Kaukl says. “My hope is people will take a deep breath, step back, and say what worked last year we may have to do again for part of this year to make it work so our kids can be in school. We’ve got a proven formula.”
Phillips is hopeful that eventually boards will be able to leave the tensions of the last year and a half behind and get back to the normal, often mundane work of setting district policy.
“Looking into my crystal ball, I was a board president during Act 10, I think some of these things ebb and flow,” she says. “It’s really hard to keep your foot on the gas pedal for that type of work. It’s hard work to make policy changes.”
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