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Republicans and conservative activists put on a major push to take over school boards in Wisconsin this year, culminating in Tuesday’s nominally nonpartisan elections throughout the state.
In 53 school board races in Wisconsin, candidates took a stance on conservative hot-button issues including race in education, coronavirus responses, or sex and gender in schools, according to Ballotpedia — giving Wisconsin the third-highest number of such races out of all the states.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch got involved, endorsing “conservative leaders and grassroots activists fighting to take back their school boards, municipalities, and counties” throughout the state, including some who proposed removing LGBTQ-friendly books from libraries.
Wisconsin’s politicized school board races were part of a national trend in which, according to ProPublica, “Republicans, and particularly the wing of the party that still supports former President Donald Trump, have come to see local races as a way to energize their base and propel voters to the polls — part of what some leaders have called a ‘precinct strategy.’”
But if Republicans were using Wisconsin’s April 5 school board elections as a test run for state and national elections this fall, the results were mixed.
Republican-endorsed candidates picked up seats in districts including Waukesha and Kenosha. But in other areas, including Beloit, La Crosse and Eau Claire, despite unprecedented involvement by outside groups, major political parties on both sides and even rightwing billionaire and GOP megadonor Diane Hendricks, conservative candidates lost, as voters rejected hyperpartisan, negative school board politics.
In Eau Claire, all three school board candidates who ran on anti-LGBT platforms lost to the incumbents and their allies.
The three conservative candidates stoked controversy about a teacher training program they claimed excludes parents from conversations about their children’s gender identity or sexual orientation. The issue became a topic of national news stories and outraged commentary on Fox News.
The school board president received a death threat in the form of an anonymous email from an account named “Kill All Marxist Teachers” that stated, “I am going to kill you and shoot up your next school-board meeting for promoting the horrific, radical transgender agenda.”
School board president Tim Nordin, who urged his community not to “cede to fear,” won with the largest share of the vote — 19% — on Tuesday night, followed by his allies, incumbent Marquell Johnson and Stephanie Farrar, with 18% each, beating three conservative challengers who each received 15%.
“After the election and for the next several months Eau Claire has some reflecting and repairing to do,” says Christian Phelps, the fulltime digital organizer for the Wisconsin Public Education Network, a nonprofit advocacy group for Wisconsin public schools.
Despite the outcome of the election,“the fact that there’s this sensationalized coverage of students and their identities is really a bad thing already,” Phelps adds.
Phelps, who is 28, grew up in Eau Claire, the child and grandchild of school teachers. He remembers what it was like to be a student during the political upheaval around then-Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10, which curtailed collective bargaining rights for teachers, and how sensitive he was as a gay kid coming out in high school. “You’re not removed from the conversations adults are having,” he says. “It’s hard to be a kid when you’re assessing, ‘How do adults in the community feel about me and do they think I should be safe in school?’”
“I’d hope that in a community like Eau Claire — and many others — the dust can settle,” Phelps adds, “and people can once again view their local school district as something that is not subject to partisanship and pettiness and reset the conversation from a healthier starting point.”
Civil discourse out the window
Partisanship and rancor in formerly nonpartisan races spiked this year all over Wisconsin.
In Kenosha, school board members who had survived a recall attempt were faced with a group of community members angry about COVID-19 safety protocols who swarmed a meeting and voted to slash their salaries. Three seats were up for election on Tuesday, and the county Republican Party gave $750 each to Eric Meadows, Jon Kim and Kristine Schmaling. Two of the Republican-supported newcomers, Meadows and Schmaling, won. But the top vote-getter was Rebecca Stevens, the longest-serving incumbent on the board and one of the three candidates who received $1,000 in support from the teachers’ union-affiliated Kenosha Education Association PAC.
In Waukesha, GOP-backed candidates scored a decisive victory, sweeping all three open seats. Marquell Moorer, Karrie Kozlowski and Mark Borowski, who were supported by WISRED, ran as a combined slate and defeated moderate incumbents Greg Deets and Bill Gaumgart and newcomer Sarah Harrison.
Conversely, in La Crosse, a slate of three candidates endorsed by the teacher’s union, including the incumbent school board president, beat their conservative challengers. The La Crosse Education Association endorsed a slate of candidates for the first time in 30 years. The same slate was endorsed by the La Crosse Democratic Party.
The La Crosse Republican Party endorsed its own slate and Republican congressional candidate Derrick Van Orden weighed in in support of the conservative candidates. The school board’s decision to phase out the school resource officer program was one of the most contentious issues in the race, along with COVID-19 protocols, “parental involvement” and eliminating “critical race theory.”
The normally dull, civil discourse of nonpartisan school board races went out the window and the La Crosse GOP-backed candidates refused to participate in a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters ahead of the primary.
In the little town of Holmen, in the scenic Driftless Area, social media posts of postcards that appeared to be left on cars at a shopping center urged voters to “Keep Holmen Schools White and Christian.”
The postcards endorsed two conservative board candidates, both of whom denounced the racist message and called it a fake.
Incumbent Rebecca Rieber and her running mate Barbara Wuench beat the conservative challengers to win both open seats on Tuesday.
In Beloit, school board president Megan Miller survived a campaign in which a group called the Wisconsinites for Liberty Fund spent more than $11,200 on a campaign of attack ads, according to a late campaign expenditure filing.
Among her opponents: Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks, who has launched a controversial charter school that Miller has criticized, and that operates outside the school board’s governance.
A flier with a photoshopped picture of Miller in a dunce cap landed in Beloit mailboxes, featuring a newspaper clipping stating: “Beloit Schools Get 1 Star, Fail to Meet Expectations on Report Card.” A Facebook video blamed Miller for bad school lunches, the collapse of classroom discipline, and poor academic performance.
In an email dated Jan. 18, 2022, sent by former school board member and current Diane Hendricks employee Kim Bliss from her Hendricks holding company email account, stated, “Diane and I are excited to share some great news regarding monumental changes that can happen this year for the Beloit School District.” The email urged Beloit residents to support a slate of four “exceptional candidates.” On Tuesday, only one of those candidates won, Brian Anderson, in a race in which Miller turned out to be the top vote-getter.
Curriculum about racism, transgender kids and other culture war issues did not feature heavily in the Beloit school board election. Instead, says Miller, “they were running around trashing our school district.”
The students she teaches as a special education reading specialist received the fliers attacking her and emphasizing the district’s low test scores, which she feels had a lasting negative effect.
One student, she says, was nervous about taking a standardized test and when she got the flier denouncing Beloit students’ low scores she got upset. “Kids are like, ‘Is this how bad we are?’ It’s so sad,” says Miller, who believes the school district is on a good path with a new superintendent and a promising strategic plan.
Miller says she refused initial offers of help from the Democratic Party in what she felt should be a nonpartisan race. But after she won the primary and the $11,000 negative campaign against her began, she changed her mind. “I decided I was in a David and Goliath situation. I would take help from anyone,” she says.
There is some evidence that the negative campaigning backfired, turning off voters.
“People are treating me like I have a terminal illness — everyone is being so nice,” Miller said as she awaited election results on Tuesday. Republicans had been coming up to her, she said, “telling me they are voting for me even though they don’t agree with me on anything.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to postcards in Holmen that were left on cars, but social media posts showing postcards left on cards appear to have been faked. The piece was updated to reflect that the postcards were only viewed on social media on Wednesday at 3:20 p.m.
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