What the Kenosha school board can teach us about democracy

September 30, 2021 6:30 am
Yellow t-shirt with "don't tread on me" logo and button. A man wears a 'I Do Not Comply' pin at a protest against masks, vaccines, and vaccine passports outside the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). To date, there have been over 534,000 deaths in the U.S. due to COVID-19. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

ATLANTA, GA – MARCH 13: A man wears a ‘I Do Not Comply’ pin at a protest against masks, vaccines, and vaccine passports outside the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). To date, there have been over 534,000 deaths in the U.S. due to COVID-19. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

On Tuesday the Kenosha school board held its regular monthly meeting, and it did so virtually. Just one week had gone by since the takeover of the school district’s in-person annual meeting of electors by anti-maskers who voted to recommend cutting the tax levy for schools by $1.2 million. The angry citizens who took over the annual meeting, where the majority of members of the public who show up can make policy, also eliminated school board members’ $6,500 annual stipend, replacing it with a $100 per meeting payment which board members can only collect if they attend meetings in person.

The disruption of the Kenosha board mirrors similar incidents nationwide that have made national news. But apart from punishing school board members with a pay cut for daring to pass a school mask mandate, the insurgent anti-maskers have not achieved their goals in Kenosha.

School board members chose to forego the insulting $100 payment for meeting in person and kept to their plan to meet virtually in September. They will likely do the same in October, according to school board president Yolanda Adams. Losing the $6,500 stipend was not going to change school board members’ minds, and dangling $100 won’t affect their decisions about holding in-person meetings, she says.

Yolanda Adams, president of the Kenosha school board
Yolanda Adams, president of the Kenosha school board | Photo courtesy of Kenosha Unified School District

“I don’t think that amount of money makes or breaks it for a board member,” Adams says. “We’re not there for the stipend.”

As is the case for many elected local positions, she points out, the compensation for school board members doesn’t come close to covering the hours that they work — especially lately as members try to navigate the demands of keeping students and staff safe while supporting learning during the pandemic.


Now that she won’t be getting her paycheck from the board, Adams plans to work one day a week for her son, who owns his own engineering firm, and offered her a job to help her make ends meet.

Despite the extra hassle, and the sheer mean-spiritedness of the pay cut, the anti-maskers’ aggressive tactics have not caused the board to rethink Kenosha’s school mask policy, which remains in place.

“Even if we went back to masks, we wouldn’t be paid,” Adams points out. “That’s what this group was mad about [the school mask policy], and they retaliated by taking our pay.”

The pay cut was sheer bullying — mean, but not effective. 

The bigger issue, Adams says, is the $1.2 million tax levy cut, which would take a big bite out of programs for students in the Kenosha schools. 

But the electors’ vote on the tax levy is merely advisory. At the next monthly board meeting on Oct. 29 the board plans to revisit the budget and set the levy. So that bit of bullying didn’t work either.

To review: No change in mask policy. No change in school funding. What have the anti-maskers who took over the annual meeting accomplished? 

They took a paltry stipend away from a group of nonpartisan public officials who have been put in the unenviable position of making public health policy and juggling shifting guidance from various public health agencies. Those school board members have no one else to turn to for guidance in  making these hard decisions now that the Wisconsin Supreme Court has barred Gov. Tony Evers from enforcing a statewide mask order. 

The other thing the anti-maskers have accomplished is to intimidate ordinary citizens who are now afraid to show up to school board meetings. 

“A lot of people didn’t go to the annual meeting because they fear this group,” says Adams. “They feel they’re being bullied. So we lost that other side and that voice, which is too bad.” 

“I had a lady chase me down the hall at a city council meeting,” Adams says. And board members aren’t the only ones being tormented. Teachers have been followed to their cars and berated in the parking lot. “It’s getting really ugly,” she adds. “This is the kind of thing you have to deal with.”

The Kenosha school board has responded to all of this bullying not by folding its tent or rescinding its mask order, but by forgoing the insulting $100 paycheck and holding meetings online, where citizens feel safer participating.

About 13 members of the public participated in the citizens’ comments portion of the virtual meeting Tuesday night.

“That’s about normal,” says Adams. And normal is a victory in the current climate of disruption, recall campaigns, and threats of violence against school board members who support masks and virtual or hybrid instruction.

The intimidation, supported and even encouraged by Republicans and their donor groups, have driven some school board members in other parts of the state to quit.

Ironically, one consequence of the anti-mask bullying in Kenosha is to help push school board meetings, which had been in-person for the last seven months, back online. Naturally, they’re mad about that, too. 

“The group would rather be in person so they can grandstand,” says Adams. The board is now discussing the citizens’ group’s  demands that it provide an in-person space to watch virtual meetings. 

Kenosha board members have made it their goal to model calm in the face of extreme provocation, for the sake of the community and for other school boards around the state. “We started getting hateful emails last summer,” says Adams. “A  lot of school boards are dealing with it.”

She and the rest of the board see it as important not to react out of anger to what is going on, since “this group isn’t gonna go away,” she says. “They’re all over, and they continue to disrupt. We’re going to have to plan for that.” 

“It’s important what we do, to give other districts a model,” she adds.

Among the issues the board is addressing is its policy on public meetings. Unlike the annual electors’ meeting, which is run by the community, the board controls its regular meetings and doesn’t have to take citizens’ comments at all. “But we also don’t want to cut off all the speakers,” Adams says. “We’re being careful that we don’t be reactive to what has happened.”

One person who testified at the most recent virtual Kenosha school board meeting was the woman who chased Adams down the hall at the city council meeting. “I knew her face, but I didn’t know who she was,” until she showed up on Zoom, says Adams. “She revealed herself to me,” and even brought up the incident at the city council meeting. Now that she knows her name, Adams says she is filing a complaint that the woman has been stalking her with the local police department.

Meanwhile, members of the public are pushing back on the tactics used by anti-mask, anti-tax activists with a petition drive calling for a budget that meets students’ needs and attempting to undo the cut in board members’ pay.

The lesson of Kenosha, according to the Wisconsin Public Education Network’s Heather DuBois Bourenane, is that citizens must stand up against efforts to sabotage public schools. 

“We knew it was coming. It is here,” DuBois Bourenane wrote in a letter to public school advocates statewide. “The architects of decades-long attacks on public schools are now exploiting the passions of anti-mask and anti-equity organizers, and using them to weaponize district budgets to harm local children.”

“This moment serves as a huge wake-up call to all of us: This is what happens when we don’t show up,” DuBois Bourenane adds in a call to action, urging people to attend board meetings, be a voice for public schools and turn out for school board elections — where board members in various districts will face recall efforts this spring. 

If attacks on school board members teach us anything, it’s that to save our democracy and protect our communities, citizens have got to get engaged and show up. 

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.