MILWAUKEE — Over the last year, the pandemic has forced school boards to face some of the hardest decisions they have ever had to make, despite that it seems people's interest in these boards is growing.
"I think what it's done is heighten awareness that schools play a number of roles or functions in our society," said Dan Rossmiller, government relations director with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.
For nearly a year and counting, no school board has been immune to tough decisions, juggling how to fairly provide instruction, overcoming logistical challenges, and prioritizing safety while dealing with mounting emotions and stress.
WASB has said it is too early to review data on the level of movement across school boards, but Rossmiller thinks generally interest in participating in the bodies has grown.
"You in the Milwaukee area, you may be saying that more than other parts of the state. One of the driving factors, I think, has been the mode of instruction. In many parts of the state, instruction has been predominately in-person from the beginning of the school year. Generally, the larger the district the more difficult it is then to go back to full-time in-person instruction and so that concern is motivating people. I think we are seeing more interest. I think that’s a good thing. The community deserves more representation in school boards," said Rossmiller.
There are 14 school districts with upcoming board races, from the Sheboygan Area School District to Milwaukee Public Schools to Whitewater Unified School District.
Four people are vying for the District 5 seat on the Milwaukee Board of School Directors.
Common concerns among them include existing inequities exposed and made worse by the pandemic, a history of underfunding, and struggling academics.
"Fighting to make sure that our educators and our students and our families have the resources that they need the help that they need and we continue to fight to protect their health and ensure their safety. Second, implementing the community schools model," said candidate Jilly Gokalgandhi, who works to fund programs aimed at closing educational equity gaps.
"I actually know the district pretty much inside and out. I know that we have hard-working teachers and wonderful students and dedicated families, but the system is broken and so we really need to assess where the funding is going in our district," said candidate Abbie Fishman, a recently retired MPS teacher.
"I know that poverty is a number one reason for a lot of behaviors that transpired in my neighborhood and education is the major way to change this. The only way that we’re going to move forward and have a better Milwaukee is to take a look and transform our educational system," said candidate Kahri Phelps Okoro, who works as a business development consultant and operations manager.
She added too often MPS students are not prepared for success after high school.
"I’m running as a democratic socialist to transform our system and society to one that helps regular people," said candidate Alex Brower. "I'm going to be advocating for democratic budgeting for a citizen policy initiative process and I'm also going to be advocating for more seats on the school board to represent the communities within our city not just geographical seats."
Wisconsin's spring primary is Tuesday, Feb. 16.