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The school board race in Waukesha is a microcosm of school board races around Wisconsin and the nation. In Waukesha, many voters took their frustration out on existing school board members in the 2021 school board elections, choosing a more conservative board.
On Tuesday, the Waukesha school board primary showed just how much momentum conservatives have going into the new year. Waukesha conservatives came out ahead of more progressive candidates in the Feb. 15 primary — but only by a narrow margin. Nationally, right-wing organizations, including the Republican party, are targeting grassroots races all the way down to school board and city council elections, pouring in money and resources. In Waukesha, they have had some success, but it won’t be clear how much until the April 5 general election.
Last year, the deciding issues in Waukesha and many other school board elections was whether schools should remain virtual or in hybrid, or whether students should go back in person and even be allowed to remove face masks. Now citizens are voting against boards that they feel paid too little attention to learning loss and emotional stress in their children. Voters want to know what their school boards are going to do to correct the situation even as schools begin to go back to normal.
Support for minority and LBGTQ students
A new controversy developed in Waukesha which had little to do with the pandemic highlighted divisions. Diversity, minority rights and especially LGBTQ issues came to the forefront led by a progressive grassroots organization Alliance for Education in Waukesha. In August, the school administration ordered signs posted for Black Lives Matter and counter-signs supporting police with the symbol of a thin blue line removed from hallways and classrooms. The ban also included “safe zone” signs for LGBTQ students. The administration also disbanded diversity training for staff members. By simply removing the signage, the administration hoped it could make the conflicts go away.
The three incumbent board members up for reelection questioned the administration’s actions. School board member Greg Deets asked for an accounting and contended those actions were ill-advised and counterproductive.
Deets and other board members supporting his position consider themselves common sense moderates. However, they inherited the progressive label because they were supported by self-identified progressive organizations.
A political action committee (PAC) supporting the incumbents in the February 15 primary was Waukesha United 4 Kids.They began an introductory posting with the words, “Dear progressive friends of Waukesha public schools” and featured, as part of their logo, a multicolored rainbow in solidarity with the LGBTQ community.
Conservatives make their point
Conservatives countered with an attack on critical race theory making it part of the mix in the minds of voters in the 2022 primary election. But in general, voters wanted to know what school board members were going to do to get their children back on track. Conservatives made that their featured issue.
The conservative candidates called themselves the “common sense” candidates claiming critical race theory and other diversity issues are distractions from academic success.
“The move away from fundamental educational principles to emotionally charged diversity, inclusion, and equitable training and teaching is decreasing student achievement…” states conservative candidate Karrie Koziowski on her campaign website.Waukesha conservatives are operating from a national playbook linking decreased academic performance to the preoccupation of liberal school boards with political correctness. And that scenario has gained support even in ultraliberal communities like San Francisco where several school board members were recalled because voters believed these elected officials were spending too much time on political correctness and too little on academic performance.
Speakers at Waukesha school board meetings and in conservative candidate literature highlighted the percentage of students who were below math and reading proficiency and an increasing number of high school students failing one or more classes this past year.
In fact, the Waukesha school system is rated one of the top academic school districts in the state and the latest district report card rates the district as “Exceeds Expectations.” The more moderate progressive candidates stated that the pandemic had a negative impact on education that cut across all school districts despite the heroic dedication of school officials and staff. But for parents with struggling children, having a school district highly rated by the state is small consolation.
Progressives say what is distracting from academic success are the actions of the administration: taking down signs supporting minority and LGBTQ students and even suspending a teacher who refused to comply.
While conservatives spoke before the school board on the loss of academic achievement, they were far outnumbered by those who spoke against sign removal for minority and LGBTQ students. For these supporters, the issues go far beyond political correctness. Even conservative members of the Waukesha school board concede that there has been an increase in bullying, placing student health, safety and academic achievement at risk. The removal of signs supporting the targeted students has been seen by other students as a green light to marginalize and belittle them.
What the primary results mean
Conservatives won primary victories, but the more progressive candidates were only a few percentage points behind. Carl Lock of Waukesha United 4 Kids and Laura Pisoneault of Alliance for Education in Waukesha both stated in emails that they were satisfied with the close finish of the more progressive candidates.
They believe that conservative voters are far more likely to vote in primaries than moderates and progressives who often show up only for the general elections. Lock believes that conservatives won in 2021 because of low voter turnout. Moderates and progressives will not make that same mistake again, he says.
Lock also contends that the conservative narrow victory could be related to Republican operatives pouring money and expertise into the races. He saw a whole lot of flyers supporting conservative candidates, but not much coming from the other side.
Conservatives narrowed their preferred candidates to just three, equal to the number of seats opened in this election: Karrie Koziowski, Mark Borowski, and Marquell Mooerer. A fourth candidate, Jaymz Touchstone, who was also perceived as being more conservative but was not supported by Republicans. The three top candidates ran a coordinated campaign.
The progressives were far less organized and operated with fewer resources. Progressives did not even support all of the same candidates. Waukesha United 4 Kids PAC supported all incumbents: Greg Deets, William Baumgart, and Amanda Median Roddy. But the Democratic party could not endorse Roddy, a moderate Republican. Instead, they supported newcomer Sarah Harrison. Nor does it appear that either Waukesha United or Democrats put money and expertise into the primary.
Pisoneault laments that the Republicans have made school board races part of their political agenda. Progressives who have viewed such races nonpartisan may be pushed to take a more partisan political stance.
Roddy got squeezed out because her status as a moderate Republican meant she had trouble gaining support from either side. Making the cut was Harrison who was seen as the most liberal candidate and made that known in the one public forum.
The January 28 forum was hosted by the Waukesha Forum Planning Committee and was moderated by Alan Borsuk, longtime Milwaukee journalist who wrote all the questions himself. But the three conservatives refused to participate, claiming that the forum was put together by progressives, despite Borsuk’s efforts to remain neutral. Only non-endorsed conservative Touchstone agreed to participate.
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The Republican endorsed candidates probably solidified their support with the conservative base but may have done little to gain support from the more moderate voters in the April 5 general election.
All four progressives ran independent campaigns. Had they agreed to trim the slate to just three candidates, the results show that Deets would probably come in second or third fighting it out with Borowoski. That would still leave conservative Koziowski, who was the most outspoken conservative, in first place.
After the April election, even if progressives prevail and win all three contested seats, they would still be in the minority. Only an overwhelming victory might change some minds of some board members. The more likely scenario is a slim win or a loss of one or even all three contested seats.
So far, progressives have dutifully attended school board meetings for nearly six months making their case that the ban on signs for Black Lives Matter and safe zones for LGBTQ students be lifted. The board has listened, even commended them for having the courage to speak up, but the board has done nothing.
The Alliance has shown no inclination to take aggressive civil disobedient actions beyond teachers refusing to take down signs from the classrooms on their own which resulted in one teacher being suspended.
A complaint has been filed with the Department of Education, Civil Rights Division. That will likely take months with no certain outcome.
School board member Greg Deets has warned that teachers may flee the district and prospective new teachers might shun Waukesha creating a major teacher shortage.
While progressives have no chance of winning a majority on the school board even if they hold on to all three seats, they could lose more seats in April.
The Waukesha school board February 15 primary election results:
Karrie A. Koziowski 17% 5,408
Mark Borowski 16% 5,102
Marquell Moorer 16% 4,912
Greg Deets (inc) 13% 4,204
William A. Baumgart (inc) 12% 3,852
Sarah Harrison 12% 3,612
Defeated in primary:
Amanda Medina Roddy (inc) 11% 3,470
Jaymz Touchstone 2% 701
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