Pandemic Politics in an Ozaukee County School Board Recall
Here & Now
October 29, 2021 • Southeast Region
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
“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 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.