Madison protest
Protesters with opposing views argue during a rally to end the coronavirus shutdown in front of State Capitol in Madison on April 24, 2020. Such arguments spilled over into school board meetings and now are part of several issues being pushed by conservative candidates in school board elections. (Photo by KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Once-sleepy spring elections in Wisconsin get heated with comments about history, race, and the role of partisanship.

To get a sense of how different school board campaigns in Wisconsin look today compared to the pre-pandemic, pre-Trump era, consider a few of the newsletter titles from a Rhinelander group called the Take Back Team.

“Natural Immunity vs. Vaccine Immunity: Why Doesn’t the CDC Study This?” [It has.]

“To Mask or Not to Mask: It Makes No Difference If the Mask Is Cloth”

“I’m White. So White, I’m Racist”

“Opt Your Kids Out Today From the Youth Risk Behavior Study”

In other districts, candidates talk of “tyranny” in their communities. There are plots alleged to conform to a “national political agenda.” And the science behind a pandemic “is only looking at one point.”

Conservative candidates across Wisconsin are ramping up activity that began as pushback against coronavirus safeguards but has since become a Trojan horse for a series of long-running “culture war” issues that are not new to educators used to hearing attacks on the content of lesson plans, literature, and their private conversations with children, adolescents, and teenagers.

Other attacks are more personal and targeted toward anyone—educator, parent, child—who wants to discuss gender, sexual identity, and other highly personal issues that children and adolescents may face.

Those candidates and their supporters are quick to assign non-conservative candidates with pejoratives regularly lobbed at Democrats—such as “woke,” or “socialism”—while they enjoy public backing from local Republican parties.

Anti- Anti-Racism

Backlash to teaching about racial injustice, the history of slavery, and the legacy of contemporary racism is age-old but now appears under a new guise of opposing “critical race theory,” which is actually a concept taught in graduate-level classes—not to schoolchildren.

Rhinelander’s “Take Back Team” identifies itself on its website as both conservative and independent.

“We are a diverse group of nonpartisan community members with conservative values who champion a solid education focusing on the fundamentals and critical thinking, the well-being of our children, parental rights, moral purity, freedom, and liberty,” reads their introduction.

The education envisioned by this “diverse group” does not include material currently used to teach history or counsel inclusion. The team’s November newsletter refers to teaching about systemic racism as “a destructive, racist movement that is causing division, hate, shame, and intimidation wherever it is embraced.”

The team’s public activity and endorsement of school board candidates prompted Callie Bertsch to run for school board as a write-in candidate. She said she has fielded several questions or comments about “critical race theory,” a term that has been misappropriated by a right-wing activist to gin up fear and opposition to anti-racism efforts.

“It’s been politicized within the past year, year-and-a-half, because of current events,” said Bertsch, who said she responds with her own questions about where voters heard about the issue.

“But really [I’m] just trying to figure out like what is the actual concern, what do they not want taught? Do you not want racism taught? Do you not what slavery taught? What part of it don’t they understand that makes it so vital for understanding our history in America and correcting the issue of systemic racism?”

There is very little material that answers the question of how anti- anti-racism activists would change these history lessons, other than to note that slavery no longer exists and the country, as explained in one leading conservative publication, has allowed “countless millions of people of all races, political persuasions, religions, and genders to flourish in the spirit of comity, enterprise, prosperity, and freedom.” Beyond those platitudes, little is said about confronting the very real and daily experiences of systemic racism in education, law enforcement, health care, and more.

These races for school board and other local positions are officially nonpartisan, but progressives have belatedly joined conservatives in no longer chiding or shunning candidates who find themselves supported by political parties and other outside groups.

Partisanship Depends on Your Perspective

In Rhinelander, the Take Back Team newsletter notes that the “Republican Party of Oneida County can also be a resource to learn which conservative candidates they endorse.” And the party itself has a poster, seen on its Facebook page, that lists not only its preferred two candidates for Rhinelander school board, but candidates for Rhinelander mayor, city council, and all 21 Oneida County Board seats.

In Brown County, however, Howard-Suamico school board candidate Mike Moran’s most vocal opponent isn’t another one of the candidates on the ballot—it’s a chorus of Facebook comments claiming he should not be elected because he was active in his local party.

“Michael Moran is the former chair of the Brown County Democratic Party. In case you wanted to keep politics out of the race,” said a post from Justin Schmidtka.

In fact, county parties, including the Brown County GOP, have provided contributions to nonpartisan candidates. State law says political parties can give unlimited amounts to candidates, and Democratic parties make donations, too.

Schmidtka is no independent observer on the matter of partisan politics. He is a Republican candidate for Wisconsin secretary of state who claims Wisconsin public school teachers are driven by darker motivations.

“Education over the last 50 years has been high jacked (sic) by the Marxist movement! We must end this kind of thinking and get back to real education.”

Moran has pointed out that even active Democrats and Republicans have long run and served admirably in nonpartisan positions and can work toward common interests—in this case, making sure children are safe and given a good education, something people of any political persuasion should want.

The online comments, however, are like dealing with an entirely different electorate compared to the polite people he said he meets in real life.

“Friendly is definitely not the word I would use,” he said about the tone on social media. “It’s been pretty toxic, to be perfectly honest.” 

He said he has tried to approach his toughest critics, but they prefer to remain two-dimensional on a computer screen—and many don’t even get involved in the actual election. 

“There’s a handful of folks who have contacted me; some of them have been quite nasty. They live here, [but] they’re not even registered voters. Or they don’t vote,” he said.

An Alternative to Anger

Moran and Bertsch each decided to run after seeing organized, vocal teams promote school board candidates whose campaigns were based initially in opposition to COVID safeguards.

“There was a group that was showing up [at school board meetings] basically saying they were representing all of the parents in the district,” Moran said, “and that we didn’t want any safety protocols. Their members all say different things; some say COVID’s not real, some say it’s real. One of the people running for school board believes that it somehow involves Bill Gates reprogramming people. The reality is I wanted to get some of these issues out there so at least people had a positive choice.” 

The group’s Facebook page is private. 

The conditions were similar in Rhinelander for Bertsch when saw the Take Back Team recommendation for two conservative candidates—even though there are three positions up on the ballot.

“The Republican base is saying ‘vote only for these two so that we know that they’ll get in.’ And my thought process was the people who don’t want to vote for them need a third person,” she said. “They need somebody who is younger and female.”

Bertsch said she was raised here in an evangelical family and attended a Christian college before joining the Peace Corps and serving in Bulgaria. It was that time away from home, she said, that helped her see the importance of having educational options that have a broad focus.

“It’s definitely a concern,” Bertsch said of efforts to restrict curriculum and book choices. “Are we perpetuating a cycle of people who will only think in one lane or that education only works one way or that people have to adhere to my beliefs—and I’m going to force that on the public schools, even though that doesn’t work for everybody or discriminates against people or take away people’s rights? I think about it a lot, how will that affect future generations.”

The mother of a child with special needs, she does not agree with those who say basic safeguards against transmitting COVID-19 are an infringement on liberty.

“What is freedom?” she finds herself asking safeguard opponents. “What is freedom for you that’s not freedom for me, or why do you think—going back to the whole masking issue—it’s just really frustrating to think that your idea of liberty and freedom is you not wearing a mask to protect my child? I mean what sense of community or love or Christian values is that?”

Moran also wonders whether too many school board candidates are motivated by personal ideology more than a sense of service to children.

“We have some folks running for the school board that I think are really good people,” he said. “We have other folks running for school board that have a lot of conspiracies that I would question how does that comport with your job on the school board?”