School Board Battles National Groups
Supporters to recall the entire Mequon-Thiensville School District board wave at cars outside Homestead High School Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, in Mequon, Wis. A loose network of conservative groups with ties to major Republican donors and party-aligned think tanks is quietly lending firepower to local activists engaged in the culture war fights in schools across the country. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Combining donations from conservative supporters and Mequon and Thiensville residents, more than $47,000 has been raised in support of the recall.

Organizers of the Nov. 2 recall of four Mequon-Thiensville School Board members say theirs is a grassroots effort fueled by their frustration about race discussions in school, COVID-19 safeguards, and declining academic performance by the school district’s students. 

But supporters of those targeted by the recall point to another reason for the controversial Nov. 2 vote: Conservative political organizations using those topics to motivate their base for next year’s elections.

Conservative groups and Republican politicians are taking an active role in the recall. Those efforts include gubernatorial candidate and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and other conservatives donating money and services and manning door-knocking campaigns on behalf of challengers to the four incumbent board members: Wendy Francour, Erik Hollander, Akram Khan, and Chris Schultz. 

Billionaire Republican donor Richard Uihlein spent $6,000 on behalf of candidates seeking to unseat the incumbents. Recall backers spent another nearly $6,000 on the law firm of attorney Lane Ruhland, who worked for former President Donald Trump’s campaign and helped file nomination papers in Wisconsin for Kanye West

Likewise, the conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) has offered free legal advice to parents behind the recall, and conservative national advocacy organization, Parents Defending Education, has pointed to tactics used by Wisconsin parents to challenge race discussions and COVID-19 mitigations in schools as a model for others to use.

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Political experts say such actions have become more commonplace as conservatives have focused on school boards in recent months in an effort to energize their voting base around such controversial topics as discussion of racism in schools and COVID-19 safeguards. Those groups are using those issues to connect with their voters on an emotional level, motivating them to vote in next year’s midterm elections, said Sachin Chheda, a progressive consultant in Wisconsin.

“It’s not a secret that these are big right-wing foundations and Republicans who are behind the funding here,” Chheda said. “There is nothing new about that. It’s just that this year it’s about critical race theory, and that discussion is happening at the school board level. … Conservatives are using people’s emotions about those issues, ginning them up to get their voters to turn out.”

Combining donations from conservative supporters and Mequon and Thiensville residents, more than $47,000 has been raised in support of the recall. On the other side, backers of the four school board members, a group called the Coalition to Support MTSD, have raised about $27,000. 

Incumbent board members said they have turned down assistance from county Democratic parties, although progressives are contributing to their cause. Five donations to the group, including $250 from Democratic Maryland state Sen. Craig Zucker, were from outside the school district, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

Different Views

Recall supporters said they were initially motivated by a video titled “The Talk” that Mequon-Thiensville district officials posted to help parents discuss privilege and race with their children. They objected to the video, saying it introduced critical race theory, an academic theory used in higher education that views racism as an inherent part of law and other parts of society. 

Since then some district parents have expressed opposition to COVID-19 mitigation strategies in school, and have criticized board members for allowing Superintendent Matthew Joynt too much latitude. They’ve also complained about students’ academic achievement, although district test scores remain higher than many in Wisconsin. 

“We’ve got parents that are deeply concerned about what is happening,” Amber Schroeder, a parent of four children and one of the recall organizers, told WISN TV in Milwaukee

Recall petitions are recorded as received on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, in Mequon, Wis. The petitions are to recall all of the member of the Mequon-Thiensville School District school board. A loose network of conservative groups with ties to major Republican donors and party-aligned think tanks is quietly lending firepower to local activists engaged in the culture war fights in schools across the country. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Members of Coalition to Support MTSD have rallied behind the Mequon-Thiensville School Board members targeted by the recall. They said those members face possible removal from the board based on false accusations. For example, district educators aren’t teaching critical race theory, just an accurate depiction of history, they said. Supporters also say COVID-19 safeguards are necessary to prevent further spread of the virus that has killed 8,420 in Wisconsin and is infecting children across the state who cannot yet be vaccinated, according to state Department of Health Services data.

Nancy Urbani, a mother of two children who attend Mequon-Thiensville schools, said she decided to support incumbent school board members after hearing those pushing for the recall make claims she said aren’t backed by fact. She said she is frustrated to see money from outside political groups involved in the recall, and decided to get involved after conservatives’ money became part of the effort.

“I want normal, everyday residents to feel like they can step up to run for school board, without having to partner with a political party,” Urbani said. “I worry about finding moderate candidates, because right now they’re likely not to run, but to say, ‘Oh my gosh, don’t bother me with that extremism.’ ” 

‘Community So Divided’

The recall in the suburban Milwaukee school district is one of 11 this year in Wisconsin, according to Ballotpedia, and is the only one in which enough signatures were collected to force a vote. If the effort is successful, it would be the first recall of school board members in the state, and the second in the US, since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Since March 2020, 16 recalls of Wisconsin school boards totaling 36 board members have occurred, with nearly all of them tied to opposition to COVID-19 safeguards and so-called critical race theory. Only California has seen a higher number of recalls of school board members during that time, with recalls occurring in 28 school districts.

Some Wisconsin school board members have resigned rather than face a recall, and because of controversy surrounding school boards in recent months.

Wisconsin education advocates said they are frustrated that school board members have become targets of people interested in endorsing their political views rather than focusing on students’ educational needs. 

The nonpartisan Wisconsin Public Education Network (WPEN) has organized a support and mentoring network for school board members and the response “has been overwhelming,” WPEN Executive Director Heather DuBois Bourenane said. She said she’s upset that politics is playing an outsized role in school issues and the adverse impact that is having on students. 

“The ugliness of the politics of the moment shouldn’t get in the way of public education champions having the courage to stand up to serve local kids,” she said. “The frustration is how all of these things have been thrown together in this political soup and are being used to pit people against each other, and kids are paying the price for it.”

Urbani said she laments the community divide in Mequon and Thiensville because of the recall. Friends and neighbors have been estranged, she said, because of strong feelings on both sides of the issue. Given those divisions, she worries some people may not reconnect after the recall.

“It’s hard to see this community so divided. It’s really sad,” Urbani said. “No matter how this recall turns out, we are going to have a lot of work to try to figure out how to come together again.”