Political polarization has not spared school boards in Wisconsin. Many will see primary elections for the contested seats on Tuesday.


The political polarization of the pandemic has not spared Wisconsin school boards. Mask disputes and unruly crowds interrupted meetings, board members were recalled and some resigned following threats and verbal abuse. On Tuesday, those lingering tensions will play out at polling places across the state, as many school boards hold primary elections.

Wisconsin school board members serve three-year terms. Their terms are staggered so that in any given election approximately one-third of the five to nine member councils are elected each year. When there are more than two candidates per open seat, the county holds a primary election to narrow the field.

This year’s school board races are particularly lively in suburban neighborhoods, where in many cases COVID-19 precautions have mostly been abandoned. But candidates who began by campaigning against virtual learning and masking translated that momentum into electoral challenges.

At Elmbrook, longtime board member Glen Allgaier participate in the primary on Tuesday against two newcomers, former director of operations at Advocate Aurora Health Systems Kathy Lim and Daniel Medeiros, chief engineer at Milwaukee Tool. Medeiros supports COVID-19 mitigation measures and policies like Equity Principles that school board members rejected last year after some decried them as “critical race theory.” Lim, who according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel released a campaign flyer that falsely quoted a former colleague, supported the school board’s decision to overturn equity principles, and wrote on neighborhood social network Nextdoor that attorney Aurora’s vaccine demand was a factor in his departure from the hospital system.

School board positions are non-partisan, although party politics often enter the race. Candidates for school boards sometimes obtain funding and support from state and local party organizations. Remember Scarlett Johnson, candidate for the Mequon-Thiensville school board, for example, works with Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch and received money from its political action committee. And national PACs have laid out step-by-step plans for communities to “turn over” their school boards.

Terri Phillips, director of the Southeast Wisconsin Schools Alliance and former school board member, said contested elections are not unusual — she remembers some of hers being hotly contested and others being quiet — but the Explicit politics of some electoral challenges feels New.

“There are board members who are conservative Republicans who are being challenged because they are apparently not conservative enough,” she said. “It’s been so interesting to watch.”

Vladimir Kogan, a political science professor at Ohio State University who studies state and local government, said the politicization of school board elections in the age of the pandemic must occur after former President Donald Trump weighed in on COVID-19 precautions and The New York Times 1619 Project. He said the policy was also woven into school boards in the late 2000s when former President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” plan tied federal funding to common core standards.

“You have national political organizations that see an opportunity,” Kogan said. “One way to keep issues salient is to have competitive elections where you have challengers who come forward and raise those issues.”

It’s no coincidence, he said, that many of the most dramatic challenges are taking place in suburban neighborhoods like Elmbrook, Mequon-Thiensville and Menomonee Falls.

“The urban areas are mostly blue, the rural areas are mostly red, and really all the action is in the suburbs, and the suburbs are purple, so I think especially if you’re a Republican, and you’re thinking ‘What problems am I talking?’ Right now the education is great,” Kogan said. “The suburbs are the tipping points, education is particularly important there – elections are decided on the fringes, and there is a fairly large bloc of voters there for whom education could be a crucial issue.”

Cathy Olig, a board member awaiting re-election this year in Menomonee Falls, said she had to prepare more for this election than her first in 2019. She started fundraising and ordering signs in December to prepare for a February primary, while in its run without a primary in 2019, it took those steps closer to the April election.

“It’s very different from running my first campaign, it has a different feel,” she said.

Tuesday’s primary is a continuation of escalating political efforts around school boards. While the April 2020 election drop-off date came too early for the pandemic to play such a big role in those elections, the 2021 ballots were dropped at the height of pandemic school tensions, when some districts faced backlash for starting the school year virtually. or having mask requirements.

In Wausau, the school board’s decision to start the 2020-21 school year in a virtual school led to an unusually nasty and partisan spring election in 2021, even after the school board voted to return students to the halls. class in October 2020. A bloc of three Conservative candidates won that race decisively, unseating the school board president. This year, three incumbents and two challengers are seeking election for three seats on the board.

An unprecedented number of 17 school boards saw attempted recalls between 2020 and 2021 on how board members handled COVID-19. All have contested elections this year – seven with enough challengers they need to make it to a primary.

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In Butternut School District in northern Wisconsin, council member Gary Mertig retained his seat despite a recall vote in December 2021, one of only two recall attempts to garner enough signatures to vote. Mertig is not re-elected this year, but his recall challenger is running for the open board seat. The race has four candidates, meaning it will go to a primary – a rare occurrence in Mertig’s 31 years on the board.

“I’m trying to remember the last time we had a primary for the school board,” Mertig said, adding after a long pause, “it’s been a long time.”

While the race for the school board is hectic, Mertig said the meetings have calmed down considerably. Earlier in the pandemic, he said they had to have attendees removed because they refused to wear masks and yelled at board members.

“We had a school board meeting about two and a half weeks ago, and we had two people in the audience,” he said. “Both were staff members. One came alone and the other was invited because we needed information. There was no public there, and that made me a little shocked.”

Kim Kaukl, president of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, said rural districts have had a quieter 2022 so far.

“I wouldn’t say the problem is gone, but I would say it’s probably not as bad as we saw in the fall,” he said. “There are certainly candidates running on certain issues such as masking and vaccination.”

Still, he said he was worried debates over the so-called critical race theory in suburban neighborhoods will soon spread to more rural neighborhoods.

In the past, debate on burning national issues at the school board level has been tempered by local issues such as teacher pay and facility updates. But Kogan, the Ohio State teacher, said the recess of local newspapers meant there were often school board meetings without reporters present, meaning community members weren’t don’t know as much about specific local problems.

“I think the counterbalance is gone,” he said. “In the past, I think voters would have given more weight to those local considerations, because they would have been just as important because of the coverage – and now I think those issues are going to have less weight, and voters when they are deciding who to vote for will give more weight to national issues.”

Board members say candidates who run because of a specific issue are often frustrated once they get on the board. Mertig said he’s seen school board candidates get excited about a specific national issue every five or 10 years.

“Once in a while we’ll have an issue that’s come up over the years, and sometimes it gets the interest of some people who come to the board and they become a single issue candidate,” he said. -he declares. “And then as soon as they get to the board, they kind of lose interest. A lot of school board members who have done that in the past.”

The primary election takes place on February 15. Voters can register at their polling station on Election Day – find out where your polling station is here. The general election for school board members will take place on April 5th.


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