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MPSD Board Election Preview

The Periscope makes an effort to preview each election, but with limited resources, sometimes we have to pick our battles. This year is no exception. There are a LOT of contested races at the School Board, County Board, and City Council level. We are thrilled to see this level of participation in local politics and we hope that it marks the beginning of a trend. However, we have not followed many of these races closely enough to properly preview them, and we have therefore decided to focus this preview article on the race that appears to have by far the most intrigue: The race for the Manitowoc Public School Board, where 6 candidates are vying for 3 open seats.
There’s much more than that, however. The 3 incumbents–Lisa Johnston, Dave Nickels, and Meredith Sauer–are running as a slate, and the 3 challengers–Matthew Phipps, Matthew Spaulding, and Tony Vlastelica–are also running as a slate. If you live in Manitowoc, you have surely seen signs advocating for both of these slates, with the incumbents having yellow signs and the challengers having red and blue signs.
As we predicted in our article that followed up the February primary, this campaign has been pretty wild. Accusations have been hurled between the slates, and there have been wilder and wilder claims involving, among other things, insurrections, torture, bigotry, and even witchcraft!
I am writing this article with the perhaps obvious disclaimer that I am strongly supporting the challengers. This is an opinion article that will be organized by using bullet points to present each of the claims that have been made by the incumbents and/or their supporters. I will then give my take as to the validity of these claims.

Incumbent Claim #1: The challengers are not qualified. Supporters of the incumbents have challenged qualifications of the challengers, in some cases even claiming that they have “no business” even running. Um, I’ve been very clear about my opinion that elected officials should come from all walks of life, and that it’s obviously up to the voters to sort out their qualifications and make their decision accordingly.
But let’s take the criticism at its face, and let’s look at some of the qualifications. The incumbents, of course, can claim experience in the job as one of their qualifications. That is something to consider, to be sure, but often I think it’s oversold and from a logic standpoint, if that was really the most important thing, we wouldn’t even need an election unless there was an open seat. It does take some time to get up to speed in any job, and school board is no different, but I trust that the challengers won’t have any trouble. Going to more objective measures, challenger Tony Vlastelica started and runs his own business. Matt Phipps is part of a family owned construction company and was a substitute teacher. Matt Spaulding has a law enforcement background.
Supporters of the incumbents have criticized the challengers for not having kids in the District (which is true except for Spaulding) and Meredith Sauer in particular has emphasized her impressive experience as a math teacher. I don’t think that you need children in the district in order to care what goes on there–The entire community benefits from having a strong school district, and people pay the same amount of taxes whether they have children in the district or not.

Incumbent Claim #2: The District’s problems are being overexaggerated or taken out of context by the challengers. One of the biggest battle cries of the challengers has been a claim that the MPSD is in the “lowest 8%” of all Wisconsin public school districts. It obviously follows that we can and should be aiming much, much higher. Further, the challengers point to steadily decreasing ratings and other metrics. Most or all of the challengers’ data comes from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which is the agency charged with overseeing Wisconsin’s public schools. Most objective people can log onto the DPI website, sort the overall ratings, and come to the same “lowest 8%” conclusion. The incumbents counter that the rating is a single metric that uses only a few data points, that the ratings don’t compare apples to apples because of Manitowoc’s funding shortfalls and high percentage of students below the poverty level, and that we rank high on many other metrics. (The incumbents appear to have wisely abandoned the knee-slapping argument that the DPI doesn’t rank districts.)
The other issue that seems to be knocked about is whether there is a serious discipline problem in the MPSD. The challengers are arguing that there is a discipline problem, while the incumbents have tended to downplay it. Here, though, the School Board rather hastily assembled a “behavior ad hoc committee” to address, um, student behavior. I have two comments about this committee. First, if there aren’t any discipline problems, why assemble an ad hoc committee to address them? One recommendation that has come out of this committee is a discipline model that will take YEARS to fully implement! If your grandparents and great grandparents could figure out discipline on the family farm, do we really need an ad hoc committee to come up with a clumsy academic model?
This leads me to my conclusion about this matter. Voters and parents are paying attention more and more. Many of them don’t closely follow ratings from an alphabet soup agency in Madison or a window dressing discipline committee in Manitowoc. But, they do see what’s happening day after day in the district, and that’s what makes them much more likely to believe the challengers–something needs to change. What the challengers are saying matches what voters and parents are seeing with their own eyes, while many of the things that incumbents are saying strikes many as utterly absurd and impossible to believe. This is very powerful.

Incumbent Claim #3: Challengers don’t have a plan. One of the arguments that incumbents seem to put up in any election is that their challengers are good at criticizing what the incumbents have done, but they don’t have any plans for solving the problems. This argument does have some merit, as one of the advantages that any challenger has is that they can attack incumbents on their record and they can say what they might have done, but they have no record themselves to call into question.
In general, I think that the existence of candidate “plans” going into an election are not as important as a lot of voters think. To start, political realities being what they are, even if you have a plan to address something, the chances of it being implemented exactly as you laid it out are very slim. The other reason that I think that plans are somewhat useless is that many of the issues that a candidate will address when in office can’t be anticipated. Take, for example, COVID. Do you think any of the board members during COVID had a “COVID Plan” when they first ran for office years ago? No, because a pandemic wouldn’t have been anticipated by most people. Similarly, there are no doubt issues that will crop up over the next few years that can’t be foreseen today.
So, to me, the more important measure of a candidate than having a plan is, what is their underlying philosophy and value system, and what factors go into their decision making process? Here, I have much more faith in the challengers than I do in the incumbents. All three challengers some from grounded conservative backgrounds and advocate positions that are in line with my beliefs. The incumbents have demonstrated faulty beliefs and decision making, with their decisions on COVID alone disqualifying them from holding office.

Incumbent Claim #4–The District needs stability, and electing 3 new members would be disruptive. To be sure, one of the advantages that incumbents have is that they know the system, they have institutional memory, and they convey a feeling of stability to a board. Is that something we necessarily want here in Manitowoc? The Board’s decision making has been questionable at best and the District appears, by almost all metrics, to be headed in the wrong direction. New blood is needed and the chance of having “too many” new members seems well worth taking.
Another issue under this heading is the seemingly inevitable departure of superintendent Mark Holzman. As of this writing he is a finalist for the same post in Janesville (and may have already taken it by the time you read this) and a year ago he was a finalist in Wauwatosa. He’s looking to leave, obviously. Does that fact change my view of needed stability? Not one bit. Remember, if Mr. Holzman leaves, the board that is seated after this election will pick his replacement. If the incumbents are reelected, the same board that made all of the bad decisions over the past handful of years will be picking the next superintendent, which would magnify the bad decision making. True, we don’t know exactly what kind of superintendent would be chosen if the challengers win, but as before, I’m willing to take the chance and assume that they would bring in a superintendent who’s willing to make necessary changes and tough decisions.

Incumbent Claim #5: Teachers support incumbents. This claim is a touch shaky. It is true that the Manitowoc Teachers’ Association, which is the union that represents the Manitowoc teachers, endorsed the incumbents. But how many teachers are still in this union? Statewide, membership in teacher’s unions has dropped in the neighborhood of 65% since 2010. So, it’s likely that maybe only half at most of Manitowoc teachers are even in the union that endorsed the incumbents. Historically, too, there has been a too-cozy relationship between Board members and teachers, which led to a lot of the taxpayer-unfriendly problems that Act 10 finally attempted to fix.
But what about a large chunk of teachers that are frustrated with the way things have been going, and are more likely not in the union? They can’t mete out discipline the way that they know will work. They don’t feel supported by administrators. I think that those teachers–whether they know it or not–actually have kindred spirits in the challengers and other reformers on the board. I believe strongly that the challengers want to give teachers more freedom and want them to be able to focus on what they do best.

Incumbent Claim #6: Challengers are part of a national right-wing conspiracy. This is where the really wacky stuff is happening, with wilder and wilder claims popping up on Facebook with every passing day. I’m sure you remember seeing “Public Schools Unite Us” signs a few months ago and more recently I saw a billboard supporting the incumbents saying that they will “move our schools forward, not backward”. The implication is clear–If the incumbents want to unite us and move us forward, then clearly the challengers are out to disrupt us and move us backward.
This mirrors a national trend in any school district where parents and taxpayers have tried to reexert some sort of control over what is going on in their schools. People who speak at public meetings are described as “disruptive” and for a while the FBI was even charged with investigating them for terrorism!
Locally, a man who appeared by all objective measures to be nonthreatening was described as “storming” the stage at one school board meeting, and the Board decided to modify public speaking rules by making speakers call in, which was an apparent attempt to make the meetings seem dangerous and any public speaker seem threatening, which mirrors the national narrative. Locally, too, there have been questions about how much money the challengers have been spending and where their money is coming from.
There’s also been a push by the incumbents to accuse the challengers of being “partisan”. There’s an organization putting out ads for incumbent Meredith Sauer, for example, that states, “Meredith is focused on doing what’s best for Manitowoc students, not political games or partisan fights”. To start, the word “nonpartisan” when used to refer to the spring elections means that candidates do not and can not affiliate themselves with a political party. It does not mean that the candidates can’t have an ideology. Further, do you think that the incumbents don’t have an ideology and don’t play political games? For months they forced students to wear masks when science suggested they were not needed. They paid $42,000 to a Milwaukee consulting firm that specializes in implementing critical race theory.

As I stated in my last article, it’s quite likely that all 3 members of one of these slates will be elected–I don’t see many voters picking candidates from each slate. That makes it even more critical that this board gets turned over. There are always unknowns with new board members, but I’m more than willing to accept them because I already know what I will get if the incumbents are reelected. Join me and please vote for 2 Matts and a Tony!

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