Conservatives’ school board push yields mixed results

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08 Apr 2022, 8:04 am

Wisconsin Examiner

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.’”

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%.

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.

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.

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“

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