The Waukesha Board of Education meets to vote on opting back into a federal free meals program. (Screenshot via Waukesha School District TV/YouTube)
The Waukesha Board of Education meets to vote on opting back into a federal free meals program. (Screenshot via Waukesha School District TV/YouTube)

One board member who refused to change his stance told his colleagues to “find their fortitude and their spine.”

The Waukesha Board of Education on Monday opted back into the federal program that provides free meals for all students, regardless of their household’s income, reversing course on a controversial decision to opt out of the program.

As first reported last week by WUWM, Waukesha was the only school district in Wisconsin to opt out of the program. Children who normally qualify for free and reduced lunch would be unaffected by the district’s decision; however, the program was meant to help students whose families would not typically qualify but who have fallen on hard times due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The story quickly gained national attention due to school officials’ reasoning about their decision to opt out. District Chief Financial Officer Darren Clark said he feared there would be a “slow addiction” to the program if children were allowed to eat for free, and School Board Member Karen Rajnicek said families who used the program could “become spoiled.”

RELATED: Over 1,100 Current and Former Waukesha Students Demand More Equitable Education

After unanimously voting to opt out of the program, the board voted 5-4 Monday night to reverse course. Superintendent Jim Sebert said district administration supported the move, noting that some families who wouldn’t normally qualify for free or reduced meals may be “experiencing situational poverty due to the pandemic.”

Board members said they had received hundreds of messages from the public, some containing threats, after their initial decision.

Anthony Zenobia, a newly elected board member who ran on a platform opposing COVID-19 safety measures and so-called “critical race theory” and was one of the four board members who voted against rejoining the program, claimed the School Board members were the true victims in the debate. He said “the progressive socialist left” and the Washington Post “brutalized moms with children in this district for political gain,” referring to mothers who serve on the board.

During debate before the vote, Zenobia said his fellow board members should “find their fortitude and their spine” and not give in to the “mob” of people who wanted the district to opt back in. That “mob” included a group of local parents who protested the decision.