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)

Supporters of the incumbents say the win shows most people don’t side with efforts to prevent COVID safeguards or stop the teaching of race and racism in schools.

A recall of four Mequon-Thiensville School Board members Tuesday failed to unseat any of them, an outcome supporters of a race that attracted national media attention said shows many voters don’t agree with the divisive campaign by conservatives to oust the incumbents.

Board members Wendy Francour, Erik Hollander, Akram Khan, and Chris Schultz each won more than 58% of the vote, according to election results the school district posted. People who worked on behalf of incumbent board members said the vote validates the fact that the school district is providing students with a quality education.

In fact, unfounded claims by recall organizers that Mequon-Thiensville students aren’t performing well academically, or that district educators are teaching critical race theory, prompted pushback from many in the community, supporters of school board incumbents said. While district academic scores have dipped during the pandemic, they have done so in schools across the state, and Mequon-Thiensville students still outperform most districts statewide.

Some who voted against the Mequon-Thiensville said they did so because the recall effort wasn’t based on facts but instead used politically motivated scare tactics to paint incumbent board members in a negative light.

“I feel like we conquered fear and anger, at least temporarily,” Nancy Urbani, a mother of two students in Mequon-Thiensville schools who worked on behalf of school board incumbents targeted by the recall, said of Tuesday’s vote.

The divisive recall prompted a high voter turnout. More than 11,600 votes were cast, far more than the 6,442 in April’s school board election. 

READ MORE: Wisconsin Parents Are Standing Up for COVID Safety In Schools

Amber Schroeder, one of the recall organizers, said in a statement from herself and recall candidates that the recall group is proud of its work to bring attention to issues in the Mequon-Thiensville district that she and others believe merit discussion.

“While this is a small loss for us, we’ve had a huge victory for many people in our community,” Schroeder said in the statement. “We are proud of what we were able to accomplish in such a short time, and we are ready to keep fighting for children.”

The recall effort enlisted the assistance of conservative organizations and donations and help from Republican backers and politicians. Those actions include gubernatorial candidate and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and other conservatives donating money and services and staffing door-knocking campaigns on behalf of challengers to the incumbents. 

In addition, 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. 

Recall backers raised about $49,000, while supporters of school board incumbents raised $27,000.

Prompting Pushback

Political experts say the Mequon-Thiensville recall is an example of efforts in Wisconsin and nationally by conservatives to focus on using school boards to rally their voters around such issues as critical race theory and COVID-19 mitigation strategies. Groups have shown up at school board meetings in recent months to object strongly to those topics, in some cases shutting down meetings and prompting the intervention of police.

In some school districts, outbursts at school board meetings about those issues have prompted board members to resign. The Mequon-Thiensville recall resulted in strong divisions within the suburban Milwaukee communities, Urbani and others said.

“Feelings are so strong on both sides of this, and there was all of this political money coming in,” Urbani said. “You have friends on the opposite side of this issue, neighbors who are no longer speaking to each other. It’s sad.”

Tuesday’s election is the 16th failed recall effort against Wisconsin school board members since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Many of those efforts have focused on COVID-19 safeguards. Only California has had more recalls during that time. 

Groups have formed in school districts across Wisconsin in recent weeks to oppose those attending school board meetings and calling for an end to school face mask policies and discussion of race in classrooms. Among them is a group of citizens in the Baraboo School District, where about 300 people attended the district’s annual meeting in response to people showing up to oppose masks and teaching of equity in the district. 

Earlier this fall a group of people took over the annual meeting in the Kenosha School District, prompting about $2.9 million in budget cuts. However, those expenditures, which included a pay reduction for school board members, were subsequently reinstated. 

“Baraboo is just one of many examples of places where attempts to sabotage the annual meeting were thwarted because way more people than usual showed up,” said Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director for the Wisconsin Public Education Network. “All of this has energized supporters of strong public schools who are fully committed to making sure those schools have what they need—from resources to leaders—to meet the needs of every single child.”