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Realizing the power of school boards

Published: Apr. 18, 2022 at 6:57 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - School boards around Wisconsin set things like curriculum, policies the district operates under, and the local taxes needed to run and maintain the schools.

”It varies from state to state, but ultimately, school boards are one of the most powerful local government bodies that we have,” John Blakeman, UW-Stevens Point professor of political science said. “They’re also the most democratic in that they’re all elected and they are ultimately responsible or accountable to the electorate.”

It is a power that many people, like Jon Creisher, have come to realize over the pandemic.

”Seeing how much power the school board had just to keep my child out of school at the time,” he began, saying that he took his younger children out of the Wausau school district at the beginning of the pandemic and wanted more options for his kids, especially for his son with special needs. They have since rejoined the district.

He said that is why he ran in 2021 for the district’s school board. At that time, he ran on a ticket with two other candidates, collectively spending about $30,000 of $38,000 raised.

”To put out signs, to put out information, advertisements, those things take money and to do it individually, obviously, each of us would be paying for those things individually. So, I think it’s more an opportunity to pool the resources and to get the message out there.”

He used that tactic again this year, raising roughly $27,000 alongside incumbent, Jim Bouché, and newcomer, Joanna Reyes. Each candidate comes with their own background and experience, and each election is technically nonpartisan. However, campaign finance reports show partisan backing. Republicans have backed this and last election’s winning joint campaigns, while Democrats have supported others.

The money raised this year and last year by candidates is more than prior to the pandemic, with a candidate spending around $4,000 on the high end in 2019.

Blakeman said it is national topics like pandemic protocols, race, and gender, paired with the power of the boards that often energize voters and political parties.

”This has happened before, we go back to the early 1970s where we start to see the rise of the Christian right movement and they started by focusing on school boards and especially books that they didn’t want students reading.”

He said after that peak in the movement, campaign spending quickly returned to typical lower levels, but he added that it goes in waves. He predicts interest in school board races will soon go down again, as it has in the past, and resurge again when another national topic captures people’s attention.

Wausau’s newly-elected board members will be confirmed on Monday. NewsChannel 7 reached out to all of the candidates from the latest Wausau School Board election and the others were either unavailable for this story’s deadline, declined to comment, or did not respond to a request for comment.

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