Spring non-partisan races have been shaped by GOP-supported spending and messaging. Dozens of school districts forced to ask for additional local help to make up for the Legislature’s lack of support.
Every election, by definition, is shaped by turnout. But Chris Hambuch-Boyle of the Wisconsin Public Education Network sees turnout for Tuesday’s local elections around Wisconsin as make or break for the very future of local schools.
Public education critics have spent the past several weeks lobbing vicious and increasingly party-funded attacks. “When you put the word out for people to support their school board because these types of things are happening, they do show up,” she said. “The quiet majority needs to show up, and they better vote on Tuesday because that’s what will save their public schools.”
School board seats, school referendum requests, and all types of local government slots are on ballots across thousands of different districts—school, county, city, village, town, and even one district for the state’s Court of Appeals. Voters can check online at MyVote.wi.gov for what’s on their ballot by entering their home address.
Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m., though anyone still in line waiting to vote will get to do so.
State law requires an acceptable photo ID to vote—that includes items such as a Wisconsin driver’s license, state ID card, US passport, military and veteran’s IDs, tribal IDs, a certificate of naturalization, and some student IDs, all of them outlined on the state’s Bring It to the Ballot website.
An increasingly partisan frame is being constructed around what are still officially nonpartisan elections. The Republican Party of Polk County, in one example, is paying for fliers for conservative county board candidates who accuses their opponents as being part of “a group of radical activists” who want to “impose their extremist agenda” because they “want to turn Polk County into Minneapolis,” a not-so-subtle dig at a community with a large Black population that has been rocked by turmoil because of police violence. The line, “We don’t need big city values imposed on us,” reflects the Republican Party’s ongoing effort to sow division on a crime-based rural-urban basis, even though both regions share common struggles exacerbated by GOP budgets that have the effect of defunding police.
Conservatives Take Advantage of Trouble They Created
What started as public pushback by some against COVID-19 safeguards in schools has morphed into a right-wing movement attacking educators on multiple fronts—from lesson plans to how students are counseled on personal matters. Spawned by the talking points that are a regular fixture of conservative talk shows, the candidates are light on previous school board attendance and heavy on bringing an agenda, Hambuch-Boyle said.
“None of that’s good for kids,” she said. “And none of that’s good for what needs to happen in our public schools.”
Hambuch-Boyle said voters may sense a need to make changes because of the ongoing tension and struggles in school districts, unaware that the struggles long predate the pandemic and are tied to more than a decade of state funding shortfalls from a Republican-led state Legislature. The financial struggles created by state-level conservatives may have caused the instability local conservatives cite as reason for voters to make a change.
“They might pick the new person on the block,” she said of the temptation facing voters, “but it’s hard to survive when so many districts are funded unfairly.”
83 Ballot Measures—Some to Simply to Stay Above Water
The austerity of the public education funding system is evident in the number of referendums that are asking voters for extra revenue not for new building projects but simply to maintain current operations that cannot be supported within stringent limits imposed by Republican lawmakers.
Altogether, voters will determine the fates of 83 school referenda. Some of them are large physical projects, such as in Wausau where voters are being asked to raise and spend $120 million for remodeling and additions. But the school district said the measure will also allow the district to restructure its debt in a way that actually reduces the property tax burden as old debt is replaced. Building referendum requests failed there in 2020 and 2021.
Other ballot measures have no construction plans; they’re simply asking district residents for enough funding to keep up with current operational expenses. For example, Lodi is requesting $6 million in additional tax support per year for five years.
Court of Appeals Race Targeted by GOP Donors
There is only one contested election for the state Court of Appeals. In District 2, which includes 12 counties in southeastern Wisconsin, incumbent Judge Lori Kornblum is being challenged by Waukesha County Circuit Judge Maria Lazar.
According to a report by the Wisconsin Examiner, the race mirrors an ongoing trend where large conservative donors are inflating the cost and campaign language of judicial races. The challenger, Waukesha County Judge Maria Lazar, has received maximum $5,000 donations from the three billionaires best known for funding Republican candidates and right-wing causes: Diane Hendricks of Beloit and Illinois residents Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein.
Lazar also received donations from the Republican parties in five counties as well as $2,000 from the political action committee behind former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch’s gubernatorial run. State Supreme Court Justice Pat Roggensack is a donor, and former Justice Michael Gableman—conducting a Republican “investigation” into the 2020 presidential election—has endorsed her.
Kornblum’s donors, according to the Examiner, include major Democratic donor Lynde Uihlein, Wisconsin Elections Commission member Mark Thomsen, the PACs of multiple labor organizations, the state Democratic Party, and the Democratic parties in two counties.
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