Republicans and conservative activists have been pushing hard to take control of Wisconsin school boards this year, culminating in Tuesday’s nominally nonpartisan statewide elections.
In 53 school board races in Wisconsin, candidates have taken a stand on burning conservative issues, including race in education, coronavirus responses or sex and gender in schoolsaccording to Ballot — giving Wisconsin the third-most such races of any state.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch got involved, endorsing – approving “conservative leaders and grassroots activists fighting to take back their school boards, municipalities and counties” across the state, including some who have proposed removing LGBTQ books from libraries.
The politicized school board races in Wisconsin were part of a national trend in which, according to ProPublica“Republicans, and particularly the wing of the party that still backs 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 “constituency strategy”.
But if Republicans were to use the April 5 Wisconsin school board elections as a test for national and state elections this fall, the results were mixed.
Republican-endorsed candidates won seats in districts such as Waukesha and Kenosha. But in other areas, including Beloit, La Crosse and Eau Claire, despite unprecedented involvement from outside groups, major political parties on both sides and even right-wing billionaire and GOP megadonor Diane Hendricks, conservative candidates have lost, as voters rejected hyperpartisan and negative school board politics. .
In Eau Claire, everything three school board candidates who ran on anti-LGBT platforms lost to incumbents and their allies.
the three Conservative candidates have fueled controversy over a teacher training program they say excludes parents from conversations about their children’s gender identity or sexual orientation. The issue became the subject of national news and outraged commentary on Fox News.
The chairman of the school board received a death threat in the form of an anonymous email from an account named “Kill All Marxist Teachers” which stated, “I will kill you and shoot your next school board meeting for promoting the horrible and radical transgender agenda.”
School board chairman Tim Nordin, who urged his community not to “give in to fear”, won the largest share of the vote – 19% – on Tuesday night, followed by his allies, incumbents Marquell Johnson and Stephanie Farrar, with 18% each, beating three Conservative challengers who each received 15%.
“After the election and over the next few months, Eau Claire has some reflections and repairs to make,” says Christian Phelps, the full-time digital organizer for the Wisconsin Public Education Network, a nonprofit school advocacy group. Wisconsin public.
Despite the election result, “the fact that there is this sensational coverage of students and their identities is already a really bad thing,” adds Phelps.
Phelps, who is 28, grew up in Eau Claire as the child and grandson of teachers. He remembers what it was like to be a student during the political upheaval around the government at the time. Scott Walker’s Bill 10, which restricted teachers’ collective bargaining rights, and how sensitive he was as an outgoing gay kid in high school. “You’re not removed from the conversations adults have,” he says. “It’s hard being a kid when you assess, ‘What do the adults in the community think of me and do they think I should be safe at school?'”
“Hopefully in a community like Eau Claire – and many others – the dust can settle,” adds Phelps, “and people can once again view their local school district as something not subject to partisanship and pettiness and reset the conversation from a healthier starting point.
Civil speech out the window
Partisanship and rancor in once nonpartisan races have increased this year across Wisconsin.
In Kenosha, school board members who had survived a recall attempt were confronted by a group of community members angry at COVID-19 safety protocols who invaded a meeting and voted in favor. reduce their wages. 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-backed newcomers, Meadows and Schmaling, won. But the top voter was Rebecca Stevens, the council’s oldest incumbent and one of three candidates who received $1,000 in support from the teachers’ union, affiliated with Kenosha PAC Education Association.
In Waukesha, the GOP-backed candidates won a decisive victory, sweeping all three open seats. Marquell Moorer, Karrie Kozlowski and Mark Borowski, who were supported by WISREDcame out as a combined roster and defeated incumbent moderates Greg Deets and Bill Gaumgart and newcomer Sarah Harrison.
Conversely, in La Crosse, a list of three candidates supported by the teachers’ union, including the outgoing president of the school board, beat his conservative opponents. The Crosse Education Association has approved a slate of candidates for the first time in 30 years. The same slate was approved by the La Crosse Democratic Party.
La Crosse Republican Party approved his own slate and Republican congressional candidate Derrick Van Orden weighed in favor of the conservative candidates. The school board’s decision to phase out the school resource officer program has been one of the most contentious issues in the race, along with COVID-19 protocols, “parent involvement” and the elimination of ” critical race theory.
The normally dull, civil speech of nonpartisan school board races faded, and La Crosse’s GOP-backed candidates declined to participate in a League of Women Voters-sponsored debate ahead of the primary.
In the small town of Holmen, in the scenic Driftless area, postcards left on cars in 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 post and called it fake.
Incumbent Rebecca Rieber and her running mate Barbara Wuench beat Conservative challengers to win the two open seats on Tuesday.
In Beloit, school board president Megan Miller survived a campaign in which a group called Wisconsinites for Liberty Fund spent more than $11,200 on an attack ad campaign, an expense filing shows. late campaign.
Among her opponents: Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks, who launched a controversial charter school which Miller criticized, and which operates outside of school board governance.
A flyer with a photoshopped photo of Miller in a dunce cap landed in Beloit mailboxes, with a newspaper clipping reading, “Beloit schools get 1 star, fail to meet expectations on report card.” A Facebook video blamed Miller for bad school lunches, the breakdown of classroom discipline, and poor academic performance.
In an email dated Jan. 18, 2022, from former school board member and current employee of Diane Hendricks, Kim Bliss from her Hendricks holding company email account, said: “Diane and I are delighted to share some good news regarding the monumental changes that may occur this year for the Beloit School District. The email urged residents of Beloit to support a list of four “outstanding candidates”. On Tuesday, only one of those candidates won, Brian Anderson, in a race in which Miller turned out to be the top runner.
Curricula on racism, transgender children and other culture war issues did not figure prominently in the Beloit School Board elections. Instead, Miller says, “they were running around trashing our school district.”
The students she teaches as a special education reading specialist received the flyers attacking her and pointing out the district’s low test scores, which she says had a lasting negative effect.
A student, she says, was nervous about taking a standardized test and when she received the leaflet exposing the poor results of Beloit students, she became angry. “Kids are like, ‘Is this how bad we are?’ It’s so sad,” says Miller, who believes the school district is on the right track with a new superintendent and a promising strategic plan.
Miller says she turned down 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 anyone’s help,” she says.
There is evidence that the negative campaign backfired, turning voters off.
“People treat me like I have a terminal illness – everyone is so nice,” Miller said as he awaited Tuesday’s election results. Republicans had come to her, she said, “telling me they vote for me even if they don’t agree with me on anything.”
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