Damakant Jayshi

For the second year in a row, contributions for candidates in Wausau-area school board races have poured in with tens of thousands of dollars spent and received, campaign records show.

With a notable exceptions of a few states, most school boards are considered nonpartisan, with the responsibility of setting and guiding policies on education. While partisanship in school board elections is not entirely new and a number of board members have been known to be ideological, the polarizing divide became prominent in the last two years amid COVID-19 mitigation policies, vaccine and masking requirements and curriculum choices, including differences in opinion regarding the role of parents in making those choices.

Additionally, the ongoing controversy over critical race theory, pushed by at least one conservative figure, has only added to the passion and polarization that placed an intense spotlight on school boards across the nation, especially over how race and American history should be taught in schools. Across the nation, calls to ban certain books are also increasing. The involvement of political parties in local elections at the school board level is increasingly overt and vocal.

Two Wausau-area school district races are no exception.

The massive spending is prompting grave concern among some candidates, residents and teachers, some of whom have resorted to social media posts and letters written to newspapers, saying that political parties should stay out of school affairs.

But that plea seems to have fallen on deaf ears. For the April 5 elections, only three of the 11 candidates seeking school board seats in the metro area have opposed political contributions of any kind. The three are all incumbents from the 7-member D.C. Everest School District Board – Lindsey Lewitzke, Joshua Dickerson and Bruce Krueger.

Lewitzke, Dickerson and Krueger told Wausau Pilot & Review they have self-financed their campaigns. Because none of the three spent more than $2,000, none were required to file a report.

State law requires candidates to file campaign finance reports if they receive an aggregate of $2,000, including funds that are self-financed, according to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission. They are exempt from reporting if they “will not accept contributions, make disbursements or incur obligations in aggregate of more than $2,000 in a calendar year.”

Both Democrats and Republicans have their preferred candidates and they are not shy about saying so. The Republican Party of Marathon County made direct cash contributions to six candidates of their choice: Steve Frazier, Shannon Grabko and Alexandra Hartinger, all challengers in the D.C. Everest School District, as well as Wausau School District candidates James Bouche, Jon Creisher and Joanna Reyes. Bouche and Creisher are incumbents in that race.

The state wing of the Democratic Party, meanwhile, has made in-kind contributions for two candidates in in the Wausau School Board race, incumbent Jane Rusch and challenger Kayley McColley. But no direct cash has been issued to either candidate and the Marathon County Democratic Party has made no such contributions.

In both districts, the top three candidates on Tuesday will win a seat. WSD is a 9-member Board.

In Wausau, Bouche, Creisher and Reyes are running on a joint platform and have raised nearly $27,000 to support their campaigns. Creisher raised $10,725 while Reyes raised $8,310, followed by $7,940 for Bouche. Each candidate received $500 directly from the Republican Party of Marathon County, but the amount of in-kind contributions is unclear.

Wausau challenger McColley has raised $5,262.58. Though she has received no cash contribution from the Democratic Party, the state wing of the party has made some in-kind contributions toward fundraising, including sending postcards on her and Rusch’s behalf. While McColley did not say how much of in-kind contribution she received, Rusch told Wausau Pilot & Review that she received a total of $1,480.50 in-kind contribution for mailing service from the Democrats.

On the DCE Board side, the three challengers have raised more than $21,000 in cash with many contributions made by people outside the district, according to their financial report filings. Frazier, Grabko and Hartinger have raised $9,360.62, $7,196.53 and $5,373, respectively. Funding includes $1,300 each from the Republican Party in two installments of $500 each and one of $300 each.

These candidates say their vision has widespread support, which prompted contributions from a range of geographical locations.

Of all the candidates only Lewitzke, Dickerson and Krueger said they oppose receiving campaign donations from political parties in what is widely considered the most local of all elections. For campaign finance reports, click here.

Neither political party sees problems with their involvement in nonpartisan elections.

“We support school board candidates who share our values which include giving parents primary authority regarding how their children are educated with their tax dollars,” Chair of the Republican Party of Marathon County, Jack Hoogendyk, told Wausau Pilot & Review. Hoogendyk pointed to a postcard from the state Democratic Party sent in support of McColley and Rusch, noting that the opposing party has also gotten involved in local races.

“That certainly is their right,” he said.

But the Marathon County Democratic Party did not spend money in any local school board race.

“As the mailer clearly states, (the mailer) was sent and paid for by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin as an in-kind contribution to the candidates,” Iris Riis, communications director for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, told Wausau Pilot & Review. “This was the only support the Democratic Party of Wisconsin provided to school board candidates in Marathon County.”

Riis acknowledged that school board races in Wisconsin are nonpartisan, but echoed Hoogendyk’s view.

“Each political party has an interest in helping elect candidates who reflect their ideals at the local level, especially when there are attacks on those ideals by the other side,” Riis said.

Residents in both school districts have expressed concerns about partisan politics playing a role in such elections.

One D.C. Everest district resident reached out to Wausau Pilot & Review questioning why partisanship is suddenly front and center.

“Parents and residents are very concerned about the partisanship nature of the elections,” she said. “Why is the Republican Party donating cash to the three challengers? I don’t care about what the political parties do for other elections but I do care about my school district.” This has resembled a political campaign, she further said, adding that “this is not good for our kids.”

She took a particular exception to Frazier, who told Wausau Pilot & Review that he wants to ensure transparency to Board’s work. That topic has been one of his campaign planks as well. “If he is for transparency, why does he block residents or deletes or hides their comments on questions on his Facebook campaign page?” She shared several screenshots of Frazier’s Facebook page which are no longer available on his social media page.

When Wausau Pilot & Review asked him to respond to his engagement practices on Facebook, Frazier declined, saying, “You have my response.”

Frazier said three incumbents on the DCE Board – Lewitzke, Dickerson and Krueger – and WSD incumbent Rusch and challenger McColley – have been endorsed by the Community for All group. In a Feb. 26 Facebook post, he accused the group of indulging in “blatant racism, with a side of Marxism. Or another term is Critical Race Theory.”

The group had pushed to adopt a diversity resolution in Wausau and Marathon County.

D.C. Everest candidate Grabko, who too had talked about transparency in response to questions, declined to provide specifics when asked and pointed instead to Wausau Pilot & Review’s election-related Q&A in which candidates lay out their motive for running and their vision as Board members.

The amount of outside spending in the election is also unclear. Get Involved Wisconsin, which touts itself as a grassroots “non-profit organization dedicated to mobilizing citizens to participate and take action to address local issues affecting our way of life,” sent mailings opposing some candidates for local office including Jane Rusch. The organization’s registered agent is Meg Ellefson, a local radio personality, according to state records, but the group’s name does not appear in a search of campaign spending on the Wisconsin Elections Commission website.

Running on combine platform, again

Just like in 2021 when three candidates ran on a combined platform and spent more than $30,000 in the Wausau School Board race, this year three candidates are running on a joint platform and on track to again spend tens of thousands of dollars. All three received cash from the Republican Party.

One of the candidates from the joint group last year, Creisher, finished fourth in 2021 to serve a one-year term to fill a vacant spot. He is running again, this time with Bouche and Reyes. They have each spent an identical amount, $5,104.28, for campaign-related disbursements. McColley has spent $4,368.95. Rush cited only the in-kind expenditure of $1,484.50 that she received from the Democratic party as campaign spending.

Reyes alleges that McColley violated campaign finance rules by raising and spending money in 2021 but not reporting it. McColley’s finance filing shows a combined record of last year and this year. In response, McColley told Wausau Pilot & Review she “filed the reports according to the advice given to me by Cassie Peck who is the Wausau School District clerk.”

It was Peck who shared the campaign finance reports of all the candidates on Thursday.

Wausau Pilot asked candidates whether they received any contributions from political parties, whether the thousands of dollars they were receiving was normal for a school board election, and whether they believed the school boards should remain nonpartisan. Here are their answers, which have been edited for relevance and clarity, listed in the order in which they were received. Click here to see the latest campaign finance reports. For full WSD candidate profiles, click here. For D.C. Everest candidate profiles, click here.

Joshua Dickerson (incumbent, D.C. Everest Board): I’m 100% self-funded. I will not accept donations from individuals, special interest groups, or political parties. I’m awaiting final invoices for yard signs that will be around 1,900.00 dollars, that’s my only expense. 

Kayley McColley (challenger, WSD Board): I received some small donations from a number of local community members. I’m incredibly thankful and humbled by their support. No monetary donations from a political party were made.

I have not received monetary donations from organizations. My biggest individual donation was close to $800. 

I agree that school board elections should be non-partisan. However, all parties are welcome to support me, especially if they agree with the issues I’m particularly passionate about such as supporting teachers and producing strong public schools for all students who attend them.

Bruce Krueger (incumbent, D.C. Everest Board): I have not received any campaign contributions from any individual, special interest group or political party. My campaign is 100% self-funded.

Lindsey Lewitzke (incumbent, D.C. Everest Board): I have funded my campaign 100% by myself. I have spent money on yard signs, digital and paper ads and social media ads. I have not received any funds, nor would I ever accept any funds from a political party as school board members are non-partisan. 

Alexandra Hartinger (challenger, D.C. Everest Board): Our campaign funds are all public record and donations come from supporters. I’ve worked hard to raise money that will help me promote myself as a candidate for the school board because I’m passionate about serving my community in that capacity. The people who have given me financial support have done so because they feel that I would be a good fit for the team of people who set the mission, vision and goals for the D.C. Everest School District. 

Steve Frazier (challenger, D.C. Everest Board): I have received donations from like-minded people who also believe that we need more parental involvement, transparency, and accountability. Many donations came from the Wausau metro area, a testament from the community that they want change. As a school board member, I can advocate for these principles.

As far as the Republican party of Marathon County contributions (are concerned), they were unsolicited. This says to me that they also want more parental involvement in their children’s education. They donated to my campaign on their own free will, believing in what I promised to do. I will truly bring a fresh perspective to the D.C. Everest School Board. 

Shannon Grabko (challenger, D.C. Everest Board): All donations, whether direct or indirect, come from everyday people who want to help those willing to stand up and serve their community. I am strongly backed by my family and friends who believe in what I stand for. The school board is not political and I will never allow it to be.

Jonathan Creisher (incumbent, WSD Board): Fundraising has certainly increased in school board campaigns in recent years because communities have begun to pay closer attention to their local elections. To clarify, 95% of my campaign donations came from individual donors and less than 5% came from a political party. I would gladly accept donations from the Democratic party as well so that I can get the word out to the WSD about who I am.

James Bouche (incumbent, WSD Board): I’m not aware of what is normal or what is abnormal, but I will say I have been overwhelmed by the tremendous support that individuals in our community have given me as I run for a second term on the Wausau School District Board of Education. I sent out a campaign finance request letter as I did the last time to many community friends and longtime acquaintances, and I received double of what I received the last time. 95% of all donations came from local individuals.

My answer pertaining to political party involvement is right from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB): “School Boards are a non-partisan elected board.” The purist in me would like to see no politics in school board elections, but the realist in me, knows better. I will accept money from either or both parties; if they know me, they know I will vote for what is best for all students, families, staff and taxpayers in our community. 

Since I serve parents and students from the entire school district no matter what their political persuasion, I would love to see the Democratic party match the Republican party donation.

Joanna Reyes (challenger, WSD Board): Based on local, regional, and national trends, I would say yes (on whether the amount is normal for a school board election).

This is a campaign for public office and the public has every right to contribute in the capacity each member of it believes is appropriate.

Notably, what my contributions do show is just how truly diverse the demographics are in support of my campaign. All of the candidates for school board have received financial support in some capacity. (Editor’s note: This is at least true for WSD candidates.) I am certainly not ashamed to be transparent about my campaign contributors. 

As to non-partisanship, my voters know I will objectively evaluate any issue if elected and use rational decision-making before drawing any conclusion, and that I will not be biased by emotion or political affiliations. 

Jane Rusch (incumbent, WSD Board): I have received an in-kind donation from the Democratic party. I did not seek it out; they came to me after seeing the outpouring of cash from the Republican party to the slate of candidates. 

This is the only contribution I’ve taken in the six times I’ve run for school board. It makes me sad that school board races have become about money and have been politicized by some candidates. 

Have the other candidates that have signs listed their in-kind contributions from the businesses that have put out their signs?

It seems odd that the party that is always screaming election fraud doesn’t seem to be reporting all their contributions. 

Candidate finance reports: