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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Mequon-Thiensville voters reject school board recall

Emily Files
Signs in favor and against the MTSD school board recall line Cedarburg Road in Mequon.

This story originally aired November 1, 2021. It has been updated on November 3, 2021 at 9:00 AM CDT

Voters in Mequon and Thiensville rejected an attempt to recall four school board members in a special election Tuesday. All four incumbents held onto their seats by comfortable margins.

Recall organizers wanted new representation on the board due to concerns over academic performance, racial equity efforts, and COVID mitigation decisions.

Here are the unofficial election results:

MTSD Board Seat #1
Akram Khan (incumbent): 58%
Kristopher Kittell (challenger): 42%

MTSD Board Seat #2
Chris Schultz (incumbent): 59%
Scarlett Johnson (challenger): 41%

MTSD Board Seat #3
Erik Hollander (incumbent): 60%
Charles Lorenz (challenger): 40%

MTSD Board Seat #4
Wendy Francour (incumbent): 59%
Cheryle Rebholz (challenger): 41%

Original story:

When you drive through the Milwaukee suburbs of Mequon and Thiensville, there are visual signs of a community divided.

On Cedarburg Road outside city hall, blue and white signs opposing a Nov. 2 school board recall election line one side of the street. Red and black pro-recall signs line the other side. Supporters of each group sit at tables to answer questions.

"You hear lots of horns honking as people beep for the table of their choice," said Nancy Urbani, one of the local parents staffing the anti-recall table.

Parents and political groups upset over virtual school, mask mandates and “critical race theory” are increasingly targeting school boards with recall campaigns.

In Wisconsin, most recall attempts haven’t gotten enough signatures to make it off the ground.

But in the Mequon-Thiensville School District, an attempt to unseat four of the seven board members did get enough signatures, and goes to a vote Nov. 2. The other members weren’t targeted because they hadn’t been on the board long enough to be eligible for recall.

Emily Files
Supporters of the current MTSD board, including Nancy Urbani (center), campaigned on Cedarburg Avenue the week before the recall election.

Urbani is the treasurer of the Coalition to Support MTSD, a group supportive of the current school board.

"We do not agree with this recall," Urbani said. "We are supporting the incumbents for a wide variety of reasons, one of which is simply because they haven’t done anything wrong."

On the other side of street is Kris Kittell, one of the candidates running to unseat the incumbents.

"We aren’t happy with — they [opposing side] seem to be happy with — that we’re in the top 30% of the country with our test scores," said Kittell. "I don’t think that’s good enough for a district like this, that has these [many] resources and parental involvement. We should be doing better."

Emily Files
Kris Kittell is one of the candidates running to unseat the incumbents in the MTSD recall election.

Recall organizers say academic decline is the key reason they campaigned for this special election. The latest DPI report card for the school district gives it the highest ranking of "significantly exceeding expectations."

But another issue is resonating with voters. Mequon resident Dick Fischer was voting early at city hall last week.

"I’m not a fan of the CRT [critical race theory]," Fischer said. "I don’t think that should have any place. You can tell the story of the history of the country, but you don’t have to emphasize the parts that you have one group distrusting or hating another group."

Critical race theory is a concept sometimes taught in higher education that racism is woven into American institutions. The Mequon-Thiensville School District says CRT is not taught in the classroom. But recall organizer Amber Schroeder said CRT “ideology” has made its way into the district through contracts with equity consultants.

"We’ve started implementing equity instead of equality," Schroeder said. "We want children to reach for the stars, we don’t want to put a cap on their learning, we don’t want to take the kids at the top and bring them to the middle so that we can close the gap. And that’s what they’re attempting to do with the implementation of equity in the district."

Emily Files
Early in-person voting at Mequon City Hall for the special recall election.

This backlash against equity efforts is happening in school districts across the country — with backing from national Republican groups and donors. The Mequon recall candidates are supported by billionaire conservative Dick Uihlein and Republican gubernatorial hopeful Rebecca Kleefisch.

>>Conservatives Get Organized In School Battles, Including In Wisconsin

"This, I think, is politically-motivated," said Wendy Francour, one of the school board members targeted in the recall. "It’s an indicator of where we are as a country."

Francour is adamant that she’s done nothing wrong, and that the recall is driven by misinformation.

"The community must get this vote right, because this recall process cannot become the norm; for our community, for any of the other communities that are undergoing this exact same challenge in our state or our country," Francour said. "We must learn to listen to one another because our kids are watching."

The election is happening Nov. 2, with polls open between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. The members elected will have short terms before their seats are up for another vote: two of them in April 2022 and the others in April 2023.

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Emily has been reporting on Milwaukee-area education for WUWM since 2018.
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