First came the death threats. Then the major-party cash started rolling in.
After COVID-19 cases spiked last fall, a bitter debate over virtual learning split the Oak Creek-Franklin School Board and brought a partisan aura to this spring’s officially nonpartisan elections. The campaign ended with the defeat of two incumbent board members on April 6.
And it wasn’t just Oak Creek. State and local Republican and Democratic parties, and a political action committee led by former GOP Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, spent at least $22,384 on school board races statewide, including at least $14,257 in southeastern Wisconsin, apparently for the first time, according to campaign finance reports and media accounts.
Although the individual amounts were often small, it was a significant infusion of outside money, advertising and professional assistance into traditionally low-profile, low-spending local races. In many cases, the party involvement reflected the ideological divide over responses to the pandemic, as Republican ex-President Donald Trump pushed false narratives about the outbreak.
Following the recommendation of Superintendent Dan Unertl, and based on health officials’ advice, the Oak Creek-Franklin district started the school year with all students virtual, over the objections of a vocal group of parents. As disease burden figures fell, elementary schools fully reopened Sept. 28, with middle and high school students in a hybrid model.
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But that only lasted three weeks. Virus cases shot up statewide, leading the board to vote Oct. 15 to move all students back into virtual learning, starting Oct. 19. The vote was 4-3 along gender lines, with female members Sheryl Cerniglia, Jane Eickhoff, Leah Schreiber Johnson and Amy Mlot in the majority and male members Frank Carini, Darin Grabowski and Mark Verhalen voting to keep students in school buildings.
That night, all four women received an email warning them of “a target on your back,” Cerniglia and Schreiber Johnson said. Police confirmed their account.
In Franklin, where Cerniglia lives, investigators were unable to determine “an actual and verified email address (from which) the threatening email originated,” Franklin Police Sgt. Jeremy Fadness said. In Oak Creek, officers consulted with the Milwaukee County district attorney’s office and decided the email fell within the bounds of constitutionally protected free speech, Oak Creek Police Capt. David Stecker said.
Beyond the threats, the women were subjected to sexist slurs and other insults in emails and on social media, Cerniglia and Schreiber Johnson say. The board’s previously harmonious meetings turned hostile, which led Eickhoff to decide not to seek re-election, Schreiber Johnson says. Eickhoff and Mlot did not respond to emails seeking comment.
A new grassroots movement, Take Back the Board, formed to organize opposition to Schreiber Johnson and Cerniglia. (Mlot’s term doesn’t expire until 2023.) A key theme of the campaign was that the board majority had ignored the results of a summer survey in which parents overwhelmingly preferred in-person learning.
“Parents realized their feedback wasn’t really being heard at the school board level,” says Kelly Ganiere, one of five challengers who entered the spring race for the seats held by Cerniglia, Eickhoff and Schreiber Johnson. “They were just not listening.”
Some parents thought Oak Creek-Franklin should have followed the lead of the neighboring Franklin district, which remained open for in-person learning while offering a virtual option, say Cerniglia, Ganiere and Schreiber Johnson. Most of Franklin is in the Franklin district, but the suburb’s eastern edge is in the Oak Creek-Franklin district.
However, some other Milwaukee County school districts, including the Milwaukee Public Schools, remained virtual for weeks after Oak Creek-Franklin students returned to their buildings in January.
Cerniglia says many parents changed their minds after the survey, as more information came out about the spread of the virus, but a vocal minority remained unconvinced. She and Schreiber Johnson say they stand by their votes as the best choice for public health.
“I wouldn’t have changed that decision for all the money in the world,” Cerniglia says. “We did the right thing.”
Ganiere, a nurse, says the schools could “move forward with caution” while letting parents decide what was best for their children. She condemns the threats and says she entered the race because she was appalled by the board’s “dysfunction” and shouting matches.
Ideology was a factor as well. Oak Creek and Franklin are redder than most other Milwaukee County suburbs and Cerniglia says part of the campaign was “fallout (from) the national presidential election.” In addition to the pandemic rhetoric, challenger Andrew Matias, who was eliminated in the primary, railed against “the failed Obama lunch program,” echoing Trump’s rants about former President Barack Obama’s initiative to fight childhood obesity.
And Schreiber Johnson is an unabashed Democrat in GOP territory. In her first campaign, in 2018, she was the only suburban school board candidate endorsed by the progressive Wisconsin Working Families Party and one of the few backed by independent spending – $6,625 – from then-County Executive Chris Abele’s Leadership MKE.
That may have marked her as a potential rising star on the left. Schreiber Johnson agrees she would be on anyone’s short list of possible challengers to state Rep. Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek), but she says she’s not interested in that now and rules out a 2022 Assembly bid.
On its website, Take Back the Board targeted Schreiber Johnson above all others, singling out her ties to Working Families, Democrats and other progressive groups. Schreiber Johnson objects to the suggestion that her vote for virtual learning was in any way political.
The Oak Creek-Franklin race drew the attention of likely gubernatorial hopeful Kleefisch’s Rebecca PAC, which was founded in 2020 to back Republican legislative candidates but expanded into supporting conservatives in this spring’s nonpartisan state and local races. The $13,050 that Rebecca PAC spent on school board races statewide included $2,000 in donations and $300 in independent spending for Ganiere and fellow challengers Mike Dudzik, Jerry Krist and Jeffrey Tilghman.
Ganiere says she’s never been active in politics, wasn’t directly connected to Take Back the Board and didn’t ask for Rebecca PAC’s help, but gladly accepted it. Kleefisch, Dudzik and Krist didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Schreiber Johnson then appealed to Democrats for help. She was the only Wisconsin school board candidate to receive a direct $3,000 contribution from the state party, plus $148 of in-kind assistance with software, graphics and fundraising. That accounted for more than two-thirds of the $4,364 that state Democrats spent on school board races statewide.
The state Republican Party wasn’t involved in the Oak Creek-Franklin contest, although it donated $3,200 to Oconomowoc School Board challenger Alexandra Schweitzer, who also received $400 from Rebecca PAC. Schweitzer lost, but conservatives achieved their goal of ousting incumbent board member Juliet Steitzer, who had voted for a hybrid learning model.
Elsewhere in southeastern Wisconsin, Rebecca PAC donated $1,000 to losing MPS board candidate Kahri Phelps-Okoro and was active in school board races in the Burlington, Elmbrook, Germantown, Greendale, Hartford High School, Menomonee Falls and Mequon-Thiensville districts. State Democrats supported candidates in the Merton, New Berlin, Racine and Waukesha school board contests.
Another $14,693 from state Democrats and $2,200 from Rebecca PAC went to municipal and county candidates statewide. In the Milwaukee area, Democrats donated $3,000 in cash and $192 of in-kind assistance to former legislative candidate Emily Siegrist’s successful run for Brown Deer Village Board. Democrats also backed a losing Oak Creek aldermanic candidate. Neither of the two major state parties were involved in any local nonpartisan races in 2019 or 2020, campaign finance reports show.
Wisconsin GOP Executive Director Mark Jefferson and Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler both say they were reacting to spending for local candidates by independent groups on the other side of the spectrum, and that they want to ensure their side is represented at all levels of government.
Jefferson also says Republicans “gravitated toward areas where local activists were fired up” about issues like school reopenings, and recognized that “these local leaders are the state legislators of tomorrow.”
However, Jefferson denies his party targeted progressives with potential future political careers like Schreiber Johnson or Tricia Zunker, the two-time Democratic congressional candidate defeated for re-election to the Wausau School Board. The three winning Wausau challengers were backed by $1,800 from Rebecca PAC and $1,500 from the Marathon County Republican Party.
The pandemic wasn’t the only issue. Rebecca PAC donated $500 to Elmbrook School Board candidate James Gunsalus, who was also supported by ads from the Waukesha County GOP. Gunsalus lost his bid to unseat incumbent Mushir Hasan, the board’s lone Muslim member and leading diversity advocate.
Jefferson says Republicans “don’t have a problem with diversity,” but object to critical race theory, which teaches about the influence of racism throughout history. However, the county party’s ads attacked both the critical race theory curriculum and the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion program as contrary to “American values.”
Both Wikler and Jefferson predict more partisan involvement in future local nonpartisan elections, whether from their parties or from independent partisan groups.
“We can’t just win the presidential election and take the next two years off,” Wikler says.