Political agendas, endorsements playing a major role in school board elections

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) – It’s what some experts are calling the new norm, with political agendas and endorsements increasingly making their way into nonpartisan elections.

The political atmosphere for typically sleepy, low turnout spring elections is beginning to shift as parties insert more money and controversial education issues in nonpartisan school board races.

It's a national trend occurring in Wisconsin, with nearly every school district having candidates on the ballot April 5 besides Milwaukee, since they elected members last year.

While both major political parties are involved, Republicans on the state and local level are the ones investing the most in these elections, in hopes to swing voters by primarily focusing on parental rights and COVID-19 protocols in schools.

Republicans have funneled more than $70,000 in Wisconsin’s school board reelections, meanwhile Democrats are just shy of $10,000, according to state finance reports.

Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, who tracks campaign spending, said it’s an unprecedented amount of money he has seen before in local school board races.

“These used to be sleepy affairs and nonpartisan, but right now they are hyper-partisan races,” Rothschild said. “I think Republican strategists are viewing this to keep their base very engaged in the process, so they'll turn out in great numbers not only in April’s election, but also in November,” Rothschild said.

Rebecca Klefisch, a GOP candidate for governor, endorsed more than 100 school board candidates and donated $150 to a handful of school board campaigns through her Political Action Committee.

“I’m proud to stand with these parents fighting back against mandates, school closures, poor student achievement and inappropriate content in the classroom,” Kleefisch said in a statement. “On Tuesday, we’ll take back control.”

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin has argued voters care more about the economy and health care, instead of controversial school concerns.

“Wisconsinites need local leaders who will work to bring communities together, instead of policies that divide communities,” said Democratic Party of Wisconsin Rapid Response Director Hannah Menchhoff.

Michael Ford, a UW-Oshkosh professor who works with school boards to build trust in local government, said while it’s encouraging to see more people wanting to get involved in local races, he worries about inserting political agendas into nonpartisan races.

“When you start bringing national politics into nonpartisan races, you really risk increasing conflict and bringing some of that dysfunction on the state level down to the local level,” said Ford, the director of UW-Oshkosh Whitburn Center for Governance and Policy Research.

Ford wrote an article last year, “Why School Board Elections Should Stay Nonpartisan,” noting “The goal of having nonpartisan elections is not to remove all politics from governing, but rather to remove a conflict point that keeps the school board from doing its job.”

He believes too many candidates running for school board in Wisconsin are focusing on national education issues, instead of local ones.

Ballotpedia, who tracks election data, found 56 school board elections in Wisconsin where candidates took a stance on either gender identity curriculum, COVID-19 protocols, or critical race theory, a term used over how race and diversity is taught in schools.

“I think you're going to find that if any of these candidates do win, they're going to get into a government environment and find out [critical race theory] is not happening in these school districts anyways and they’ll have to pivot into more substantial issues,” Ford said.

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