As the April 3 election quickly approaches, the spotlight has shifted toward the Menomonee Falls School Board, and political affiliations of board members and candidates could influence the outcome of this upcoming election and elections to come.
The debate over Act 10 — Gov. Scott Walker’s repair bill — was perhaps the needle that injected partisanship into virtually every level of government in Wisconsin.
The partisan barbs and harsh debate generated by the passage of the bill, which eliminates most bargaining rights of public employees, isn't just limited to state recall elections. Now, political affiliations of the Falls School Board and the board candidates are being magnified and scrutinized.
When Verify the Recall released its searchable public database of individuals who signed a recall petition for the governor, lieutenant governor, and state senators, curious individuals could spend a day searching for those who signed.
If you searched for the names of School Board members Lori Blodorn and Gina Palazzari, you’d find that they signed petitions in 2011 for both Walker and Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling.
That decision has garnered negative feedback from residents and Patch readers. Both Blodorn and Palazzari have served more than a year on the board, and both were members of the five-member negotiating team that constructed .
They are the only two members of either the school or village boards whose names were found in the recall database.
However, both women — who are not on the ballot this year — were adamant that their personal decision to sign a petition has nothing to with their duties as School Board members.
“I think that partisanship doesn’t have a place on the School Board,” said Blodorn, whose term doesn't expire until next spring. “Whether I signed the recall petition or not as an individual citizen has no bearing on how I do my job as a School Board member. Since Act 10, we are living in a hyper-partisan world.”
Palazzari received a couple emails from residents looking forward to preventing her re-election in 2014 based upon her decision to sign a recall petition.
“Board members are elected officials, but that doesn't take away our ability as private citizens to exercise our legally protected rights,” she said. “I signed the recall petition as a private person, taking Act 10 and its fallout into personal consideration.”
Taxpayers group gets involved
In a , Act 10 and the teachers contract were central issues of debate between the candidates in the April 3 election. Less focus was placed on the inner workings of the schools, and dollars and cents dominated most of the discussion. Touting the line on Act 10 has become central to the platform of candidates Richard Houdek and Paul Tadda, who are running against incumbent David Noshay and newcomer Michele Divelbiss.
Houdek and Tadda both made it clear early on in the forum that they were firm supporters of Act 10. In fact, the first sentence of both their opening statements were declarations of support for the legislation.
Their strong support of the measure garnered them an endorsement from the Menomonee Falls Taxpayer’s Association, which is a relatively new group dedicated to electing conservative leaders to office. Although the School Board is a nonpartisan race, Tadda said the endorsement is beneficial.
“I believe it is a positive for my campaign. I am being honest by telling people that I am a conservative, and the endorsement only shows that other conservatives agree that I am a true conservative,” he said.
Houdek also spoke highly of his endorsement from the conservative group when asked if it was a positive development for his campaign.
“Yes, I do. Lower taxes, conservative principles, and less government is a goal we should be seeking,” Houdek said.
Interstingly, Tadda lists Houdek as one of several other conservatives that he has endorsed, and is endorsed by.
The new landscape of politics
According to "Becoming a Better Board Member," which is released from the National School Boards Association, a School Board member has four roles. Board members' roles are to have a vision, structure, accountability and advocacy. Political affiliations aren't mentioned in the manual, which is meant as a primer for new board members.
Whatever side of the political spectrum a Falls resident is on, it’s clear the School Board is no longer sheltered from the influence of politics. It’s a dynamic that’s changing the political landscape in not only Wisconsin but the country.
Just take a look back at the state “nonpartisan” Supreme Court election that pitted Democrat JoAnne Kloppenburg against Republican David Prosser last April. The election would determine a swing vote on the court, and both candidates were quite clear about their political affiliations. The election had high turnout, and was essentially a referendum on whether the state was heading in the right direction.
But it's a dynamic reaching the entire nation.
In Jefferson County in Colorado, a local NBC affiliate reported how typical “mom and pop” School Board elections had turned into coordinated professional campaigns. In Bellingham, Washington, a local election for the conservation district board member race also was heated with party affiliations. An election that usually needed just 30 ballots swelled to 1,200.
The dynamic has been embedded in election landscape that Utah lawmakers attempted to pass legislation in 2011 mandating partisan elections for School Board races in that state. The bill was passed by the Senate, but was never heard in the House.
Should schools be a partisan debate?
Regardless of their political bent, all four candidates for School Board assured voters that their personal beliefs would not interfere with their work on the board.
“With the three years of experience I have on the School Board I am a nonpartisan participant and I have no other agenda other than improving education for our students,” Noshay said during the forum.
Tadda said announcing his conservatism was simply an act of full disclosure for voters.
“I am a conservative, and I believe that the majority of Menomonee Falls voters are conservatives who want their elected representatives to reflect their values as closely as possible. This is how representative democracy is supposed to work,” Tadda said. “I believe it is only reasonable for voters to desire information on the political beliefs of their School Board candidates. Therefore, I am providing the voters with this information.”
Tadda added that it’s impractical to suggest that b oard members can completely separate themselves from their beliefs.
“This illustrates a point that I made in the forum. To suggest that a person will separate themselves from their political views just because they are elected to the School Board is really not practical,” he said. “It is another reason why I am comfortable running as a conservative. I am being honest with the voters.”
When asked if a person’s political affiliation should be a deciding factor on who to vote for, Houdek’s response wasn’t 100 percent in one direction.
“Probably not, but I support Governor Walker and Governor Walker's Act 10, budget repair bill, and I'm proud of it.,” Houdek said.
However, seasoned School Board members Blodorn and Palazzari said partisan-based discussion has harmed debate about issues in the district, and has drifted the focus of the community away from what’s important.
“We all want the same things for our schools. We all want good schools, and we all want to do that in a fiscally responsible way,” Blodorn said. “I want that as a board member. Taxpayers and citizens want that. Administrators, custodians, and teachers all want the same thing. However, it’s unfortunate that the partisan issues are dictating the debate right now.”
Blodorn said aligning oneself with a political affiliation in a School Board race doesn’t benefit anyone.
“Aligning yourself with a political party in a nonpartisan race does the community a disservice,” Blodorn said.
On a regular basis, the School Board hosts open roundtable discussions with members of the community. On Tuesday, the district held another session where technology upgrades, curriculum, and staffing. However, Palazarri said only a small crowd of regular attendees were there.
“It’s put this whole race into a different realm that I don’t think is useful for the village or the functioning of our schools,” Palazzari said. “We had the same handful of people there for our roundtable discussion as we usually do. Some people have devolved the whole election into politics. It’s a little disappointing and disingenuous that many of those same people weren’t there.”