Pandemic Politics in an Ozaukee County School Board Recall

By Will Kenneally | Here & Now

October 29, 2021 • Southeast Region

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Reporter Will Kenneally examines how national partisan conflict over responding to COVID-19 and other issues is igniting at the local level, as a Republican-aligned campaign in suburban Milwaukee seeks to replace four members of the Mequon-Thiensville Board of Education.

“Oh, absolutely. It started with the pandemic,” said Chris Schultz. She joined the Mequon-Thiensville school board in 2015, shortly after retiring as a science teacher.

The district, like many, grappled with how to run schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic, weighing measures like virtual schooling and mask mandates.

Schultz received many emails.

“We had parents on both sides concerned with mandatory masking versus optional masking,” she said, “and that issue continued and developed and got much stronger toward the end of the school year, when the state-level mandates — masking mandates — were relinquished.”

Chris Schultz sits at a table behind a laptop and in front of a painted concrete-block wall.

Chris Schultz is among the members of the Mequon-Thiensville Board of Education who is facing a recall election. Schultz points toward the COVID-19 pandemic as helping generate controversies that led to a recall effort. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

That controversy culminated Aug. 23, when Amber Schroeder and other recall organizers filed enough signatures to begin the process to recall four members of the Mequon-Thiensville school board.

“We want to see a lot of change,” said Schroeder. “We want to see the focus brought back to the children, back to the kids in the district. We want to see more parental engagement with our kids and our community members.”

Amber Schroeder stands at a podium holding a piece of paper in front of a painted concrete-block wall.

Amber Schroeder is one of the organizers of the Restore MTSD campaign, which is seeking to recall four members of the Mequon-Thiensville school board and supports four candidates running to replace them. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

The group Restore MTSD is running candidates against the four members of the school board that are eligible to be recalled.

Scarlett Johnson is running against Chris Schultz.

“We need to change the way our school board governs,” said Johnson.

“When we are able to move to a bottom-up system and we’re able to disperse power,” she continued, “I think when we do that, we’re going to see some real change.”

Scarlett Johnson holds a microphone and stands in front of easels with large sheets of paper labeled "Administration" and "Curriculum" (among others) that have Post-It notes attached to each.

Scarlett Johnson is one of four candidates running in the Mequon-Thiensville school board recall campaign. Johnson is running against Chris Schultz. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Johnson and Schroeder have been working up to this for about a year, petitioning the school board for change.

“It’s personal. It matters to me. It matters to the community,” said Schroeder.

“I’ve got three boys in the district, I have a high schooler and my two little kids I pulled out of the district this year,” continued Schroeder. “It’s not just about my kids. It’s about my neighbors, kids. It’s about my friends’ kids. It’s about strangers’ kids. Our kids deserve more than what they’re getting right now from our district.”

That’s a point of agreement from all sides.

“I have no doubt that there are parents that are authentically concerned about our district and what’s happening in our district, and they want us to continue to be in the top. Want us to be number one, right? As do we,” said Schultz. “We all want our district to be the best it can be. But [the] introduction of politics into this conflict, though — because from my perspective — really muddied the waters.”

School board races have turned into a proxy for national political fights over issues like pandemic response and critical race theory.

A map shows states in different shades of color to illustrated the number of recalls in each.

A map shows differing levels of school board recall efforts across the United States in 2021, with a darker shade of color in a state indicating a higher number of campaigns. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

“The four board members who are facing recall continued to be satisfied with managing our district’s decline,” said Johnson. “They not only defend as we see today the status quo, they look to double down on many of the policies which have resulted in the deterioration we see today.”

Wisconsin is among the states with the most recall efforts nationally, and has drawn attention from political partisans.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch has close ties with recall organizers, and the campaign has received the backing of GOP donor Richard Uihlein.

From left, Scarlett Johnson (holding a "Ready for Rebecca" sign) and Amber Schroeder (wearing a "Rebecca for Governor" shirt) stand behind Republican candidate for governor and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch at a political rally.

Organizers of the Mequon-Thiensville school board recall campaign have close ties to Rebecca Kleefisch (in foreground), who is running in the Republican primary for governor of Wisconsin. Recall candidate Scarlett Johnson (left) and organizer Amber Schroeder (center) stand behind the candidate at a political rally. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

“I think, unfortunately, maybe because of the political flavor of what’s going on, it’s been much more controversial conversations that are being had that people are, you know, it’s more of a tit for tat, this and that, this person versus that person,” said Schultz.

That controversy spilled over into an Oct. 25 school board meeting — the last before the recall election.

“I wanted to publicly let you all know and everybody listening and in attendance, Akram Khan and I had an interaction last week where I saw him on the sidewalk,” Schroeder said during a public comment portion of the meeting.

“You know what? We are not going to go there this evening … you may not discuss any individual board members,” board president Shelley Burns said, cutting her off.

Schultz said in an interview after the meeting that the high tensions make some of the board’s regular decision-making harder.

“It’s definitely for the kids — our students — are what matters absolutely the most,” said Schultz.

A digital sign reads: "MTSD Special Election, 11/2/21, Polls open 7 AM - 8PM.

Voters in the Mequon-Thiensville School District are voting in recall races that cover four out of its seven school board seats. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

A successful recall of board members could see a policy shift — with tighter control on curricula and covid-mitigation measures, policies which Schultz said the board has largely deferred to the superintendent to shape.

And a successful recall could be a blueprint for future action around the state.

Voters head to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 2.

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