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. 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)

Conservative opposition to science-based COVID safeguards then extended to teaching more accurate history lessons. The culture war-based campaigns distract from years of underfunding and undermining local control.

Within minutes of starting, the public input portion of the March 7 Eau Claire School Board erupted into meeting attendees yelling about a perceived lack of parent rights compared to the rights of LGBTQ students and the kinds of books available to district students, and school board President Tim Nordin felt a sickening sense of deja vu. 

Six months earlier people from Eau Claire and elsewhere had packed the board’s meeting room to protest COVID-19 protection measures such as face masks and the social distancing safeguards district officials had implemented based on the advice of public health officials. Audience members’ tempers flared, and police were called to restore calm. 

The school board suspended in-person meetings, in part because some community members attending those sessions refused to wear face masks as required. But that hasn’t stopped them from sending board members and other district officials a flood of messages criticizing the district’s stances on COVID safeguards, so-called critical race theory, and, most recently, LGBTQ students’ right to confide in teachers and not their parents who may be hostile or worse. 

So when audience members on March 7 began shouting demands of school board members to protect parents’ rights, Nordin put the meeting on hold and, as he had last fall, and called police to intervene. The meeting resumed a short time later.

“I can’t say I was surprised, unfortunately,” Nordin said of the meeting’s vocal interruption. “We’ve been dealing with this kind of thing since the meetings about COVID strategies in the fall. There is a way to have reasonable discussion about these issues, what may be appropriate reading material for various ages. But this group doesn’t seem interested in that. They want to raise these issues and make a scene.”

People supporting additional parents’ rights related to LGBTQ issues and reading material available to students said they are trying to ensure that parents have a say in what their children learn at school. Others say those parents and community members are overreaching in an attempt to unduly regulate educators and undermine faith in public schools.

Such discussions surrounding school policy are playing out across Wisconsin and the rest of the US, and have become the focal point of many of the school board races which will be decided in Wisconsin in the April 5 spring election. 

Many of those contests pit candidates who are considered to be pro-education and typically are backed by teachers unions and education organizations against those who oppose COVID mandates and believe parents should have increased control over curriculum and how schools are run.   

Vocal hostility against schools has grown since the pandemic began two years ago and ramped up significantly last year, as some parents balked at their children being forced to wear masks in school while others supported actions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Increasingly in recent months, community members have disrupted school board meetings, first against virus protection measures, then opposing the teaching of systemic racism in schools and concerns about protections for LGBTQ students. 

Upset at the lack of decorum and threats to their safety, some school board members have resigned or decided against seeking re-election amid the uproar. Those frustrated at schools in other communities, such as Mequon-Thiensville in southeastern Wisconsin, have turned to recall elections as a means of getting their way on issues. During the past two years, Wisconsin has had the second-highest number of school board recalls nationally, trailing only California. 

School board races are officially nonpartisan, but partisan and ideological politics have entered into this spring’s races in a major way. Conservatives have targeted those contests as a means of sparking discussion of emotion-laden issues, an effort many see as a means of boosting voter turnout for their candidates, public education advocates said. 

“Ramping up conservative votes is entirely the motive behind this,” said Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network. “The idea is to create a false sense of distrust and to shift attention away from the many ways we are failing to support our educators and our students. It is a very well-coordinated disinformation campaign.”

DuBois Bourenane said she is particularly frustrated that such actions damage morale at public schools at a time when they are already struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic and deal with chronic underfunding. Such efforts only detract from schools’ ability to meet the needs of educators and students, she said. 

“All of our attention should be on supporting all of the kids right now, not on caving to the whims of some adults,” she said.

Countless messages demanding increased parent input and numerous Freedom of Information Act requests are eating up educators’ time in the Eau Claire district and others that could be better used to teach students, said Nordin, one of six candidates seeking three board positions in the April election. Those efforts are part of a national playbook, he said, intended to sow mistrust in public schools. 

“You’re hearing this same language being used with all of these efforts for greater parent rights all across the country,” Nordin said. “I think the actual end game is ultimately dismantling public schools entirely and privatizing the whole system.” 

Despite his concerns, Nordin said he retains hope that a majority of people value the role of public education. Eighteen of the 26 speakers at the March 7 Eau Claire School Board meeting supported the district’s equity policies, a fact he takes heart in. 

“You just have to hope that enough people realize we are doing the best for students that we can,” he said.