How our current school board wars started

By: - October 1, 2021 6:30 am
SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 28: Anti-vaccine protesters stage a protest outside of the San Diego Unified School District office to protest a forced vaccination mandate for students on September 28, 2021 in San Diego, California. The School District was holding a virtual hearing on whether to enact a mandate for students to receive at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

SAN DIEGO, CA – SEPTEMBER 28: Anti-vaccine protesters stage a protest outside of the San Diego Unified School District office to protest a forced vaccination mandate for students on September 28, 2021 in San Diego, California. The School District was holding a virtual hearing on whether to enact a mandate for students to receive at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

On Thursday, the National School Boards Association sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking for federal assistance to investigate and stop threats to school board members across the country, comparing the harassment to domestic terrorism.

In Wisconsin, several school board members have quit in the middle of their terms; others are facing recalls; and a host of these ordinary elected citizens are being shouted at, sworn at, and threatened with physical harm in the culture wars of Wisconsin and the rest of the nation. More school board causalities are added to the list every day, and well documented by the Examiner and other media outlets.

Perhaps no school district has been more contentious than Oconomowoc, which some residents like to describe  as an island of Americanism halfway between the socialist republics of Madison and Milwaukee. Some people in those other communities see Oconomowoc as a final outpost of the Confederacy.

In Oconomowoc, racial antagonism  and the battle over keeping schools open  became stand-ins for conservative values, Christianity and Western culture. 

Last year, the home-grown group Oconomowoc Citizens Represented led the charge to recall board members who did not support five-day-a-week, in-person instruction instead of a hybrid model. The group was not successful in that effort, but it has continued to push its agenda of “conservative values” and is working to elect officials who feel the same way.

On August 16, three members of the Oconomowoc board resigned citing the “dysfunctional” and “disrespectful” attitude they faced on their board creating a “toxic” work environment. 

This is not the first time that an Oconomowoc board member has been forced to resign, says Adam Laats, professor of education and history at Binghamton University in New York.  On Feb. 9, 2018, the principal and one board member resigned after the  Oconomowoc district banned discussions about white privilege after a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day ceremony. 

Laats summarizes what the community said it wanted: “This was exactly the opposite of what the community said we want our schools to be imparting on our children… We don’t want our children to come home and call us racists. We don’t want our children to come home and ask us questions about did our families profit off of slavery or genocide. But seen from the other perspective, that is very successful civic education. Kids will be empowered to ask the difficult questions like that.”

History repeating itself

Laats taught for 10 years in Milwaukee, mostly at Marquette High School before receiving his PhD at UW-Madison. He is the author of the 2015 book, The Other School Reformers: conservative activism in American education. In his book, Laats traces conservative efforts to influence school curriculum  beginning with the Scopes monkey trial in 1925.

Many books on school reform examine the impact of progressive efforts. Some recent  disruptions at school board meetings have been orchestrated by leftwing activists concerned about  police brutality, a lack of diversity and perceived insensitivity to ethnic, gender and racial concerns. Laats felt it was time to look at conservatives’ activism on school issues.

Starting in the 1920s, he says,  “a school board would suddenly become a focal point for these nonpolicy, ideological flashpoint issues.” Hooded Ku Klux Klan members came to school board meetings and stood in the back without speaking a word, their presence sending  a clear message about what they expected.


By the 1950s, Robert Welch and the John Birch Society were making major inroads into mainstream politics with their anticommunist rhetoric, but they got booted out of conservative circles for calling Eisenhower a communist. The Birchers decided, if they couldn’t win on the national level, they would go grassroots, including by disrupting school board meetings, styling themselves as citizen agents of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist Red Scare.

“In the 1960s, the famous John Birch Society tactic was to physically storm the speaker podium and demand that certain members of the board answer the question, ‘Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the communist party?’” says Laats.

The “Moral Majority” made a national comeback in the 1980s with the rise of Ronald Reagan. However, the white, evangelical conservatives felt “betrayed by Reagan,”  says Laats, on abortion, private school funding, and school prayer. “Reagan didn’t come through with any of those things,” he says, attributing to disappointment a general conservatives retreat from national politics.

Donald Trump was different; he tried to deliver. But after losing the presidency and both chambers of Congress, conservatives are struggling to maintain control, says Laats, holding on to some state governments and a majority on the U.S.  Supreme Court. Part of the reason the current school board battles are so intense is that, once again, the right is  returning to the grassroots.

“Local politics can become a refuge from these national trends that people don’t like,” says Laats.“School districts become an island where people can take over this one part and make it better than the national trend.”

Divisions move to the heartland

Michael Ford is a professor of public administration at UW-Oshkosh. After finishing his undergraduate degree at Marquette University, he began his career as a research associate for a leading school choice advocacy organization in Wisconsin. He would later conclude that taxpayer-funded private school voucher program did little to improve education in Milwaukee and said so in his 2017 book, The Consequences of Governance Fragmentation: Milwaukee’s School Voucher Legacy. Ford states that he still has good relationships with many in the private school community.

He is now turning his attention to school board issues, especially school board conflicts. 

He smiles at a January 23, 2017 article he wrote for Brookings quoting a Los Angeles Times article in which the authors stated, “School boards in towns and cities are less ideological and more pragmatic than politicians in Washington.” Ford contended that local school boards were often just as ideological as national bodies, and he feels what is happening now at board meeting after board meeting demonstrates what he said in 2017.

No school board was more contentious than the board of Milwaukee Public School (MPS) during the quarter century beginning in the 1980s. MPS had no true conservatives on the board but had a shifting majority on the issue of charters and vouchers. For most of Wisconsin, Milwaukee was seen as a dysfunctional, hostile district while educational leaders in their own local communities saw themselves as reasonable and calm. 

Not a single MPS board member supports the voucher program today. Few conservatives run for the Milwaukee school board and policies such as required mask wearing, anti-racism curriculum and gender equality evoke little protest. What happened in Milwaukee is simply that conservative parents left the system: they moved out of the city, used the open enrollment program, which allows them to send their kids to public schools in other districts, and vouchers to find schools that match their personal philosophy. Instead of fighting on the local level, conservatives have turned to state government to reign in MPS.

Lately, small town and local school boards “have become hyper nationalized,” says Ford. “We are seeing more national issues that have traditionally been the purview of urban school districts. That has bled down. Those things were always there.”

But this year has a different feel than school conflicts of the past. Concludes Ford, “We see board meetings where people are showing up, screaming, laying down threats, questioning the very legitimacy of the body, of its right to exist, the right to make policy; that is new; that is anti-democratic.”

An August 25 Oshkosh school board meeting on the district’s COVID safety plan was cancelled because some 40 protesters refused to wear masks.  Ford states that “some Oshkosh people testifying refused to give their address, and at least a few had testified at other area school board meetings.”

“There is a number of conservative think tanks that have put out tool kits on how people can protest what is going on in their districts, including making public records requests, open records requests, and other strategies,” says Dan Rossmiller government relations director for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB). “It seems to be using these playbooks because often they will claim they are making a Freedom of Information Act request which is not the language of Wisconsin… We have had people testify at a hearing where someone was reading off of his phone, right off one of these tool kits.”

WASB has no position on the wearing of masks in school. It represents school boards that have taken different positions on masks.  “School boards should consult with their medical advisor, with their local county or city health department, their legal counsel, and their liability insurance carrier,” advises Rossmiller. But WASB does defend the right of school boards to operate in a democratic manner, free from intimidation and threats. It will conduct online workshops in October under the working title, “Managing Challenging School Board Meetings.”

Germantown is unmoved

On Sept.r 13, the Examiner reported that  some Wisconsin school districts were not following federal policy mandating masks on school buses, putting their liability insurance in peril.

On that same September 13, Germantown school district, highlighted in the story, held its monthly meeting. The lack of a mask requirement in the district dominated the public discussions.

Said a parent and nurse, “Insurance companies are beginning to question whether they will continue to offer coverage of school districts who will not require students to wear masks.”

Another parent, when he stated that federal mandates require that students wear masks on buses, was interrupted by a school board member. “Our buses are private.” But the parent continued. He had contacted attorneys outlining that they would have a strong case if any students are hospitalized or die.

Parents who supported a mask requirement received loud applause from the audience. But so did parents who wanted to keep masks optional.

Said one parent, “Why are you allowing your students to become so hateful of America? Why are you allowing teachers to teach hateful things and indoctrinate your students? …You did not consciously authorize CRT, Marxism, SCL [Student Centered Learning] and such… Please do not take the racism bait. America is no longer racist… No longer are there slave property owners in America. But some people are becoming slaves to government by not working… Do you support Western, democratic values or Marxist tyranny?”

At the September 27 Germantown board meeting, the board made no changes to its optional mask policy. It restated that the bus company would offer masks to any students who boarded without a mask, but would continue to transport all students regardless of mask-wearing. The board made no effort to enforce mask-wearing on buses.

Meanwhile, the number of COVD cases in the district jumped from 45 after the first seven days of school to 128 by the September 27 meeting. 

How will this all end?

Ford counsels school boards on how to handle conflict both internally and externally. He believes, in the short-term, things are likely to get worse. 

School board members elected from an interest group may become more involved in the day-to-day operations of the district, infringing upon the role of the superintendent. “I’m worried about more superintendent turnover,” says Ford. Superintendents are likely to say, “This isn’t what I signed up for. How can I do my job if I have seven people telling me how to do my job every single day and undermining my decisions?”

School board turnover also means a loss of institutional memory. It isn’t just a problem when members decide to quit in the middle of their terms. Many may also  decide not to run for reelection.  Others face recall efforts and new opponents in the general election. In previous elections, many board members ran unopposed. Not this time around. But Ford is worried about the kind of people who will be elected next spring. Will they be ideologues or problem solvers?

Laats is more optimistic in the long-term. “My hunch is that the school board furor will not be like a new wild fire, but like an old wild fire. It will burn, and it will cause harm, but it will fizzle pretty quickly because very few people are actually happy to sit back and not have their public schools function, which is what happens if you disrupt school board meetings.” The current round of citizen unrest  will attract a lot of attention for a while. he believes, and then quickly revert to something that most people will not want to be bothered with: discussions of budget details, resource allocation, pensions, and other unsexy details of governance. 

“The No. 1 issue is who gets to decide,” says Laats. The anger directed at school boards is about people’s sense that “something has been taken from them, and they want to have control over their schools.” By 2024, as the presidential election heats up, he predicts,  “they will not be debating this.” 

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Terrence Falk
Terrence Falk

Terrence Falk worked for more than 31 years as a Milwaukee Public School teacher and served for 12 years on the Milwaukee school board and as Milwaukee's representative to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. He has written for Milwaukee Magazine, Shepherd Express, Science Magazine, Urban Milwaukee and School News.