Research shows Wisconsin sees more political conflict in school board races than nearly every state nationwide

For years, analysts have tracked political influence in school board races
Posted at 11:43 AM, Mar 29, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-29 12:43:51-04

WAUKESHA COUNTY, Wis. — Next Tuesday, several school board races will be decided across Wisconsin. State law claims these races should be non-partisan, but in some cases, it appears there's a growing outside political influence from local parties, non-profits and political action committees.

Political analysts are pinpointing the pandemic as the turning point for local, non-partisan elections.

The sound of gym shoes and boots shuffling through hallways, lockers slamming and keyboards clacking. Sounds we didn't hear much of 2020, but as the pandemic eased, students trailed back into classrooms sparking new hurdles for some.

"The whole fight about close the schools or open the schools," Mordecai Lee said.

Lee's a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. He and other political analysts said health decisions in schools is one of many topics leading to a shift in historically, non-partisan school board elections. Hear Lee's explanation below.


Lee also said despite state laws, political influence is still seeping into elections.

"For an average voter, this is a major disservice because the average voter looks at the list of people who are on the ballot, assume they're all non-partisan, and doesn't know who's affiliated with let's say the Republican Party or the Democratic Party," Lee explained.

Ballotpedia has been tracking political influence in school board elections across the country since 2021. Topics like race in education, coronavirus responses, and sex and gender in schools are all at the crux of these elections.

In 2021, Ballotpedia noted one school board race in Wisconsin with political conflict. That number has since skyrocketed to more than 140 this year; that's more political conflict than every state nationwide except California.

"This is a really slippery slope," Lee warned.


In Waukesha County, the local Republican party chair said their involvement started after they saw Democrats winning more seats locally.

"In late '20 going into early 2021, we really did an analysis of the country and determined we had lost a significant chunk of the county at the local level between municipal boards and school boards," Republican Party of Waukesha County Chairman, Terry Dittrich, said.

Now, Dittrich and his team are focusing this race around the 'Wis-Red Initiative,' mailing fliers out to voters calling on them to cast ballots for school board candidates who support conservative values.


Other groups likeBlue Sky Waukesha, a group that calls itself non-partisan, has also been involved in local races. The group supports and endorses candidates, typically those who are not backed by the Wis-Red Initiative.

The I-Team also talked to the Democratic Party of Waukesha County.

"Historically, our role has been let's talk to the candidates, understand a little bit about what they think, and then communicate the choices to our local members. It was never vetting and supporting," Chairman Matt Mareno said.

Mareno said they don't plan to endorse or financially support candidates through advertising.


Lee said this election could decide whether political influence will continue impacting school board elections in the future.

"This election in those school board districts are more than a partisan election, because it's laying down a line whether we want to see partisanship in school board races," Lee explained.