In Wisconsin, recall efforts add to pressure on school boards in the wake of COVID-19

Usually, an election year like 2021 would be relatively quiet. The presidential election was last year, the governor’s race isn’t until 2022, and Wisconsin — like the rest of the country – tends to see lower turnout and less political engagement in off-cycle years.

But in Mequon and Thiensville, two Milwaukee-area suburbs, a recall election for four of the joint school district’s seven board members has drummed up community, and national, interest.

“It’s definitely not in the background, it’s definitely in the forefront of everything in our community,” said Neda Esmaili, a doctor and mother of two students in the Mequon-Thiensville School District’s Wilson Elementary. “If you just drive through the streets of Mequon and Thiensville, you can see that, as evidenced by all of the signs, and in the newspaper.”

The Mequon-Thiensville School District, or MTSD, is one of 11 Wisconsin school districts that saw a recall attempt in 2021, according to Ballotpedia — and, so far, the only one that has garnered enough signatures to make it onto the ballot.

The petitioners say a decline in MTSD’s academics are driving the recall of board members Wendy Francour, Erik Hollander, Akram Khan and Chris Schultz, though MTSD has consistently scored above 85 percent on its annual report card from the state Department of Public Instruction, placing it in the highest category of “significantly exceeds expectations.”

However, the challengers running to replace the sitting board members and literature supporting the recall have also cited COVID-19 precautions put into place last year and this year, along with concerns that so-called “critical race theory” is being taught in the district.

Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, said concerns driving most recalls tend to fall into those two categories.

“The two main themes we seem to be seeing is frustration with how your district handled the coronavirus pandemic, one way or another, and the majority of the venom seems to be coming from anti-mask folks,” she said. “The other issue is backlash against what people are calling ‘critical race theory.'”

School board recalls are still a small-scale phenomenon in Wisconsin – 11 districts out of 421 is a small minority – but Wisconsin has seen them used more frequently since the attempted 2010 recall of then-Republican Gov. Scott Walker, said Michael Ford, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and deputy director of the Whitburn Center for Governance and Policy Research.

“I really think back in 2010 we opened the door to this, where this idea of a recall election has shifted, at least in the state of Wisconsin, from this extraordinary thing to something that happens constantly,” he said. “COVID kind of blew the doors off this thing, and the fact that we have politicized this pandemic at the outset – and that started at the national level and then bled down to the local level.”

Patricia Jo Forsberg and Katie Thurmes, the two board members named for recall in the Somerset School District, and Eric Solberg, one of two named in a Sparta Area School District recall, have all resigned. Electoral challenges over the same issues last spring changed the makeup of boards in other districts, like Wausau, where more conservative board members won three new open seats.

“I do think that intimidation is part of it,” said Ford. “This idea that, we’re doing this just so we can maybe force some resignations, or make it so unpleasant to hold these local positions or unappealing to want to run for these positions, that it does open the door to more specialized interest groups.”

For DuBois Bourenane, the biggest concern isn’t the recalls themselves.

“People have the right to do a recall, it is a function of democracy that we’re afforded, so we’re not uniformly opposed to recall efforts,” she said. “The question is, do or do not our public schools have public school champions serving on their board, people who firmly believe in the possibilities of the local public school system?”

School board seats in Wisconsin are traditionally nonpartisan, and while party politics have still creeped in at times, the past year has seen that ramp up.

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Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Rebecca Kleefisch’s political action committee put money into about 30 school board races last spring, and MTSD recall organizer Scarlett Johnson has appeared with her at campaign events.

After the Waukesha School Board controversially opted out of a pandemic school lunch program – later reversing course – the county Democratic Party got involved, urging its members to pressure board members into changing their votes.

Several conservative groups, like American Majority, have published playbooks for how Republicans can take control of their local school boards.

“The coordinated and funded plan of action to displace well-intentioned and hardworking school board members is extremely unfortunate,” Terri Phillips, president of the Southeast Wisconsin Schools Alliance, said in an email. “We should be coming together instead of dividing our communities. These recalls are taking us off the crucial and important task of focusing on kids.”

Esmaili, the MTSD parent, said that’s what she has seen.

“It has really been an extremely divisive force in the community,” she said. “I think we have unfortunately gotten a lot of negative attention locally, regionally, nationally – I mean, we were on the front page of the New York Times.”

She’s hopeful, though, that the push for recalls will fade, given that only MTSD’s have made it to the ballot.

Ford, the UW-Oshkosh professor, said recall fever is likely to burn off, in part because they don’t make strategic sense.

“What’s happening now is extraordinarily unique,” he said. “If you look at the local level, it’s really set up for these recalls not to happen.”

School board members are elected for three year terms and aren’t eligible to be recalled within their first year, so there isn’t much of a difference between waiting to challenge board members in their next election. To make it onto the ballot, those leading a recall need 25 percent of the number of voters in that area who cast ballots in the last gubernatorial race, a threshold high enough that MTSD is the only district to hit it since 2019.

“It’s an incredibly ineffective political strategy. It’s much more useful to put your efforts into these elections that occur every two or three years as opposed to having this consistent grind of recall cycles,” he said. “But, I do think this bleeding of hyper-partisanship into nonpartisan office is going to show up in other ways.”

Though still fairly rare, recall efforts have galvanized voters in both parties, and on both sides of the debate over COVID-19 precautions in schools.

DuBois Bourenane said that in many districts where vocally anti-mask parents have stormed school board meetings, and in districts where recalls have been tried, she’s seen parents rise up in support of their schools, as well.

Esmaili said she wasn’t paying nearly as close attention to school board races before the recall effort.

“I have learned so much in the past couple months, when I realized that this had the potential to have a direct impact on my children,” said Esmaili. “I feel like from now on I will be very engaged and very vigilant about what’s going on at my local level.”