School board elections near, battles head to ballot box

Wisconsin school boards are now at the center of culture wars on things like diversity, curricula, library books and COVID-19 mitigation.

On Feb. 15, heated school board primaries will be decided as voters in several districts in Wisconsin choose from a field of candidates vying to lead their area schools.

It comes as recent school board meetings have continued debates about pandemic response.

"As (COVID-19) numbers have significantly risen, teachers in unmasked classrooms are no longer feeling comfortable," Elmbrook schools teacher Michelle Cozzens said at a January school board meeting

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"Ms. Roddy and Mr. Deets, and Bill Baumgart (board members) sure voted for hybrid (learning), and that created an education nightmare for our students and families. It caused massive failures," Stacy Keen, a Waukesha schools parent, said at a February school board committee meeting.

Burlington, Elmbrook and Waukesha districts have competitive primaries and are districts that have faced intense school board debates centering on more than COVID-19 in the classroom.

"We have a lot at stake in this. And 10 years from now, we will look at this election and know that this is a pivotal moment in our community's history," Elmbrook parent Emily Donohue said.

"It’s going to affect the next five, 10 to 15 to 20 years," said David Richmond, a Waukesha parent.

Both Donohue and Richmond started closely watching their respective local school boards during the COVID-19 pandemic, although they disagree on how best to run schools.

"Shame on us for being so complacent for so long, for assuming that the education that our children were getting reflected the values of a majority of our community, and what we’re realizing is that this is fringe minority values that are being pushed on our community," Donohue said.

Donohue added that watching her kids when they were still in virtual learning opened her eyes.

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Both parents spoke out at their respective board meetings. Now, they are watching the races, and pondering what it means for the future direction of their schools.

"Where do school boards want to take things from a COVID perspective, as we work through COVID? Where do they stand on issues, whether that be signage issues, the SSO (seamless summer option) program here, teaching philosophies?" said Richmond.

He was critical of how the district had originally opted out of the federal seamless summer option program, which provides free lunch for all students. Instead, the district had chosen the pre-pandemic program of free lunches for poorer children. After national attention, the school board decided to switch back to the program offering all students a free lunch.

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"A lot of COVID-related restrictions, and in our district currently, we have parent choice, which I think is excellent, but I could see that changing and morphing, if our board changes," Donohue said.

The battle over schools now spills over to the ballot box. The school board primaries narrow the field of candidates for the April 5 election.

"The main point I’m looking for is accountability," said Richmond. "We need to have school board members – and all districts need to have school board members – who are open to understanding and learning and not coming in with pre-determined ways of how it should be done."

The latest example of just how contested school boards have become took place in Cedarburg. There, board member Jen Calzada dropped out of her race and resigned from board. She cited "personal attacks" spilling over and affecting her children and family.

Not every community has a school board primary. 

Districts with primaries include Bristol, Burlington, Cedarburg, Columbus, Elmbrook, East Troy, Fort Atkinson, Germantown, Greendale, Hartford, Hartford Union, Menomonee Falls, Mequon-Thiensville, Racine Unified, Raymond, Waukesha, and Whitnall.

To find out if you have a primary and what's on your ballot, check out the state's My Vote Wisconsin website.

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