Residents of the Kenosha Unified School District, led by a local chapter of a right-wing activist group, recently voted to slash pay for school board members and require them to attend meetings in person to get paid. It is just one example of a district where school board members are being punished, threatened, or even recalled for enacting COVID-19 safeguards. (Screenshot via Kenosha Unified School District/Youtube)
Residents of the Kenosha Unified School District, led by a local chapter of a right-wing activist group, recently voted to slash pay for school board members and require them to attend meetings in person to get paid. It is just one example of a district where school board members are being punished, threatened, or even recalled for enacting COVID-19 safeguards. (Screenshot via Kenosha Unified School District/Youtube)

One outgoing school board member says she hopes the current toxic political climate encourages more young people to speak up and get involved.

As a school board member in the Beaver Dam Unified School District, Tony Klatt had dealt with plenty of challenging issues. 

Shortly after he began his board tenure in April 2019, a vehicle crashed into the district middle school. Then Klatt and his fellow board members made the difficult decision to close a much-loved elementary school. 

However, those matters paled in comparison to public pressure Klatt and his board colleagues faced related to the coronavirus pandemic. Chief among those choices was whether to require wearing face masks in school this year as recommended by public health experts as a way to slow spread of the virus. 

Klatt, who voted twice in favor of requiring masks, resigned from the board Monday, citing concerns about the safety of his family. Klatt noted such instances as a vehicle idling outside his house late at night and negative communications he has received related to his support for masks as reasons for his stepping down. 

“With those pieced artifacts of selective information floating around and the communications that I have received as a result, my family no longer feels safe,” Klatt said in a Facebook post announcing his resignation. “It isn’t in my family’s best interest for me to try to appease a vocal group that continue to try to intimidate, harass, insult, and throw civility to the side.”

Klatt is among school board members across Wisconsin who report facing backlash from parents and other community members about their stances on COVID-19 mitigation strategies in schools. Board members report mounting public pressure and in some cases outright threats to their safety amid oftentimes controversial discussions about that topic. 

Statewide Issue

School board meetings in recent weeks in school districts throughout Wisconsin and the US have become especially contentious, and in some cases police have been called to respond to outbursts by people opposed to masks even as the number of new cases of COVID-19 has spiked and as outbreaks in schools have become commonplace

Many of the efforts to oppose masks in schools to reduce spread of COVID-19 have been prompted by conservative citizens’ groups and backed by Republican state lawmakers. For instance, at the Kenosha School Board meeting Tuesday, a group called Moms for Liberty—a right-wing national organization with local chapters that opposes mask requirements and curriculum about systemic racism—pushed through a reduction in school board members’ salaries from $6,500 annually to $100 per meeting attended, recommended a property tax cut that would give schools about $7 million less funding, and instated a requirement for board members to attend meetings in person to be paid. 

The school board had recently voted to require masks in school, prompting outrage among some in the community.  

In the Sparta School District, school board member Eric Solberg resigned Monday after he was targeted in a recall effort by citizens who were upset about the board’s decision on Sept. 8 to reinstate a requirement that masks be worn at school. Solberg told the Monroe County Herald that he received “uncomfortable emails” that made him uneasy. 

“This was affecting me to a very personal level that was affecting my health and my family and we needed to make a change,” Solberg said.

RELATED: ‘Our Hopes Lie With All of You’: 500 Wisconsin Pediatricians Call on Schools to Require Masks

Somerset school board members Patricia Jo Forsberg and Katie Thurmes have resigned in the face of a recall effort targeting them for their support of requiring masks at school. Federal, state, and local health officials recommend that masks be worn in schools and that other measures such as social distancing be implemented, especially with the contagious Delta variant accounting for more COVID-19 cases in recent months. 

“COVID has brought out the worst in our community and the worst in our district,” Forsberg said. “Members of our board and the administrators are so afraid of the special interest groups in the community that they are only acting in their own best interests, to save their faces, in spite of the responsibility to the children, the district, and the community.” 

Recalls Abound

School board members in other districts face recall, too, after they supported requiring masks in school. Four Mequon-Thiensville school board members could be recalled in November after 17,000 signatures were collected to force that action. Recall backers said they support that effort because of high taxes, declining test scores, and a focus on COVID-19 mitigation standards. 

“The school board continues to value COVID elimination above all else,” a website supporting the recall states. 

Six board members in the Tomahawk School District face recall even after the board caved to parental pressure and repealed a previously approved mask requirement. Likewise, five Stevens Point School Board members could face recall in November after a group of conservatives filed paperwork seeking that action because of their outrage regarding whether masks should be required in schools. A recall of two board members in the Amery School District because of the mask requirement issue failed to garner enough signatures.

The elections-tracking website Ballotpedia has recorded eight school board recall efforts in Wisconsin so far this year, with five more school board member recalls attempted in 2020. During the previous decade, Wisconsin averaged one recall per year.

The Eau Claire School Board took the extraordinary step Monday of ending its meeting early after some audience members refused to wear face masks as required. A few audience members also failed to wear masks at a Sept. 13 meeting but complied when asked to. 

To avoid another anti-mask incident, the board rescheduled its meeting for Sept. 27 and will only allow public participation to be virtual to avoid another anti-mask incident.

“This is exactly the kind of situation that puts people at risk of contracting the disease,” board President Tim Nordin said. “We won’t do this in front of people and create an unsafe environment.”

Masking Politics

The Oshkosh School Board has been meeting virtually since late August, when the board adjourned its meeting after debate between mask opponents and supporters became confrontational. The controversy followed the board’s decision to require masks in school. 

During Wednesday’s board meeting at least one attendee threatened board members, telling them “we’re coming for you.” Prior to the meeting, board members met in closed session to discuss their safety and security.  

The Eau Claire Area School District is one of a handful in northwest Wisconsin that requires masks in schools. A group of people against wearing masks had rallied outside the district’s administration building on Aug. 16, and the decision to make masks mandatory prompted pushback.

Nordin said he and other board members have received criticism for requiring masks, but the majority of responses, especially after the adjournment of Monday’s meeting, have been supportive. 

“The people against [masks] are very loud and oftentimes very disrespectful and very aggressive,” he said. “But after adjourning [Monday’s meeting], we got a lot of support from the community and surrounding communities. I was really bolstered by that. We have to do whatever we can to keep kids protected.” 

In a Wednesday appearance on the Up North Podcast, Forsberg, one of the Somerset School Board members who resigned, said she hopes the current climate prompts more 18-20-year-olds to get involved in local politics and run for local office.

“We need some younger people to get in there and I really think that the youth right now is really motivated, no matter what side it is,” she said. “But I also think we have to really push that school boards, village boards—it’s nonpartisan, and bringing your personal politics into these things do not make productive environments for public education and public services.”