MILWAUKEE — It used to be considered the sleepy race of an election season, but school board races have become red hot. In southeast Wisconsin, dozens of people are vying to get elected.
From requiring masks to switching to virtual learning, school boards across Wisconsin have made some very difficult decisions during the pandemic. As a result, more people want a seat at the table when those choices are made.
"I know, for example in La Crosse, there are eight people running for three seats. Outside of Madison there are 11 people running for three seats. There are large numbers of people running in suburban districts in the Milwaukee-area. So we don't track it, but it would seem there is considerable interest in school board races,” said Dan Rossmiller, the government relations director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.
In southeast Wisconsin, there are several school board primaries with at least five candidates or more running, including in Cedarburg where there are nine declared candidates. Compare that to the last school board election in Cedarburg in 2020, which drew just two candidates.
But voters in some districts haven't wanted to wait for the next regular election to put school board members on the ballot. Over the last two years, there have been 17 efforts across Wisconsin aimed at recalling school board members. Only California saw more recalls during the same time frame.
"There's been a lot of full recall elections, ever since COVID began, and they are usually sort of triggered by parents liking or not liking what the school board is doing,” said Mordecai Lee, political scientist at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.
Even though the elections and the school board meetings themselves can at times be contentious, Lee says ultimately an increase in the number of candidates is a good thing.
"The core of democracy is giving the citizens a choice, and so when incumbents are unopposed, voters don't have a choice. So between the increase in primaries next week and then the one on one in April, this is good for democracy,” said Lee.
In addition to Cedarburg, several districts have school board elections. Those include the school districts of Bristol, Burlington, Columbus, Elmbrook, East Troy, Fort Atkinson, Germantown, Greendale, Hartford, Hartford Union, Menomonee Falls, Mequon-Thiensville, Racine Unified, Raymond, Waukesha and Whitnall.