About a month ago, three conservative candidates for school council in the city of Clare, West Wisconsin, sparked controversy over a teacher training program that they claim could take parents out of conversations about their children’s gender identity or sexual orientation.
Right-wing groups across the country have taken up the issue, presenting it as another example of schools stealing the role of parents. A few weeks later, the school board president received a death threat.
“I am going to kill you and set fire to your next school board meeting to advance the terrible and radical transgender agenda,” an anonymous email read.
Further south in Holman, in the non-drift scenic area of Wisconsin, local police are investigating a social media post showing a postcard left on cars in a shopping center that read: “Keep Holman White and Christian Schools.”
The postcard called for support for two candidates for the board. Neither candidate was involved in the incident, and both rejected the postcard on social media, calling it a “disgusting and degrading fake political ad.”
“I really do not want to make any more statements about it. It was really exhausting,” said Josh Neumann, a father of six, about the attention paid to the card. The response from his running mate Chad Updike could not be obtained.
Voters in Wisconsin and three other states are going to the polls Tuesday, in what are some of the earliest school board elections this year. In heralding what voters across the country will see in the coming months, many of the traditional non-partisan school council races have become increasingly polarized.
The outsiders who have traditionally stayed out of local races are now trying to influence school council competitions across the country, using more typical tactics for elections with higher risk.
Republicans, and in particular the party’s wing that still supports former President Donald Trump, came to see the local race as a way to energize their base and throw voters to the polls – part of what some leaders called a “district strategy.” Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson last year encouraged residents “to bring back our school councils, our county councils, our city councils.”
Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, speaking on his “War Room” podcast last May, said: “The way to save the nation is very simple. It will go through school councils.”
“These are the compound committees. It’s you. It’s on your shoulders,” he added, warning that “cultural Marxism” is practiced in schools and promises a tea party-like revolt by parents of schoolchildren.
In Wisconsin, as elsewhere, some members of the school administration and other school officials resigned without ending their tenure, saying the anger directed at them made the service unbearable. Others refused to run for re-election.
Bow Claire, School Board President Tim Nordin, who received the death threat, stands firm and runs for re-election. “This is O ‘Claire’s election,” he said in a statement. “Others want to control this election by inciting fear in you and moving voices with money from outside and news coverage. They are, literally, trying to threaten us with surrender. I am left without a bow.”
The three conservative candidates did not respond to requests for comment.
Michael Ford, an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, who researches school council racing, said it is not surprising that the state, the birthplace of school slips and home to one of the most open public school election programs. In Israel, there will be a center for elections for the school’s administration.
“We are always, traditionally, at the forefront of changes in education policy, especially those based on parental involvement,” he said. “I think it makes sense that other states that looked at Wisconsin as a pioneer in these things would see it again.”
Parents, who during the epidemic have seen their children struggling with distance learning and other issues, demand more control over school management and curriculum decisions. The reaction against students wearing masks played an orderly role in conservative issues of parental freedom.
Some political observers and academics are concerned that the politicization of local offices will make it difficult to provide essential school services.
“It makes progress impossible,” Ford said.
The Wisconsin School Board races sometimes had a partisan tone, but the issues at stake were mainly focused on tax control and the distribution of benefits received by educators.
Things started to change about a decade ago. That was when Wisconsin School Board candidates, who had signed petitions to bring back Republican Gov. Scott Walker because of his urge to restrict collective bargaining to public servants, became the targets of conservative talk radio. On the other hand, the largest teachers’ union in the country has generally examined and approved candidates who it believes will support its goals at the negotiating table.
Today, the school administration’s election is more tumultuous and personal – framed in terms of saving schools, saving children and saving America. Also mentioned: COVID-19 protocols, critical race theory, equality, “splitting curriculum”, library book prohibitions and parental rights.
Rebecca Klishish, the former deputy governor under Walker who is running for the Democratic Republic’s candidacy for governor, recently approved 115 local candidates she calls conservative, including 48 candidates for school administration – a two-year product of recruiting and training people for local races. Her campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Political experts say it is very unusual for candidates for the position of governor to support candidates for school administration, except perhaps in their hometown. Democratic Gov. Tony Everers did not. “The governor generally did not get involved in non-partisan races in Wisconsin,” his communications ministry said in an email.
Another sign this spring that the school council race is taking on a more partisan tone: Instead of campaigning as individuals, candidates in many of the country’s population centers are running on boards with common platforms and talking points.
“Note conservative voters do not stay home: vote for all four candidates,” the Sussex village newsletter said. Paid by the Republican Party of Wakesha County, it includes the names and photos of two candidates for the village trustee and two for the school administration.
A special focus for Republicans in Wisconsin was the traditional conservative communities ringing in Milwaukee known as the WOW counties: Washington, Uzuki and Waxaka.
The counties have shown some liberal tendencies lately. In much of the region, Trump’s support has dropped from 2016 to 2020. Biden even won in the city of Cedarburg, Ozuki province, albeit by only 19 votes.
Campaign funding records submitted so far show that the Republican Party of Wakesha district has poured at least $ 10,000 into elections in nine school districts in this district alone.
The Patriots of Ozuki – a newly formed organization dedicated to “promoting conservative values and upholding our constitutional rights” – supports candidates in the school administration and in the municipal race.
Ozuki’s patriots did not respond to requests for comment.
National conservative advocacy groups, with members in Wisconsin and elsewhere, also have an impact on the county’s local school district races. They include Mothers for Freedom, which has a chapter on Kanusha and on its Facebook page recommended three of the six candidates running for the school board.
“Our mission is to preserve America through the unification, education and empowerment of parents to uphold their rights at every level of government,” said Amanda Nadowski, co-chair of the organization in Kanusha and a blatant critic of the Kanusha School Board.
“We attend meetings. We do research. We make a lot of requests for public records,” she said. The tax-exempt organization has only recently begun to charge $ 25 a year in commissions.
Another group that encourages more activism is Phoenix-based Turning Point USA, which has conservative political clubs on high school campuses and colleges around the country. It does not support or fund candidates, but it does have a “school board watchlist” that gives names of counties across the state that say “leftist, racist and anti-American propaganda.” Nine Wisconsin counties appear on its website.
The group uses its watchlist to highlight masks of masks, diversity and other issues, said U.S. Point of Spokesman Andrew Colbett. “These types of issues are of course very important to parents and other stakeholders in the community, and it’s not always easy to find out who supports what. said.
In Ozauki County’s Mequon-Thiensville School District in a suburb north of Milwaukee, one of the organizers of last fall’s unsuccessful recall elections aimed at four school board members is seeking a new board seat. Scarlett Johnson, the former vice president of the Wisconsin episode of No Left Turn in Education, said she wants to bring a new perspective to the board.
“I think education has changed,” she said. “I think the way parents look at education has changed. I think teachers are also very frustrated. So I say the status quo just won’t work anymore. And I don’t feel like our current board and our principals really understand that.”
The recall effort was notable because it drew donations from two billionaires out of state: $ 6,000 from Illinois billionaire Richard O’Hline, a Trump supporter and founder and CEO of Uline, a Wisconsin shipping company, and $ 1,650 from the Chicago Ken hedge fund billionaire Griffin. Vanson said members of the recall effort simply wrote letters to the two men asking for donations.
Representatives from Uihlein and Griffin did not respond to requests for comment.
In all, the recall effort brought in more than $ 58,000 in donations.
A coalition of parents opposed to the recall has raised more than $ 36,000, according to campaign financial reports.
Both parties spent money mainly on Facebook ads, direct mail, radio ads and yard signs.
Nicole Angersano, a leader in the coalition that brought back the recall, resents the coordinated attacks on the county with the highest ranking. “I do not think being angry is an exaggeration,” she said. “It infuriates me.”