Wisconsin school districts: 2017 elections review and district updates

Apr 28 2017

Citizens across the state of Wisconsin voted in general elections for 126 school board members across 50 of Wisconsin’s largest school districts by enrollment on April 4, 2017. Election data tracked by Ballotpedia showed a 21 percentage point increase in the rate of unopposed seats in Wisconsin school board elections—from 21 percent in 2016 to 42 percent in 2017. Incumbents won nearly 70 percent of the seats up for election in 2017, while that rate was just over 63 percent in 2016.

In addition to voting for school board members, Wisconsin voters cast ballots for the Wisconsin superintendent of public instruction, one seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and municipal seats. Voters also decided on 65 school district referenda across the state. A total of 40 of those referenda were approved, for a success rate of 61.54 percent. In the state’s districts covered by Ballotpedia, 70 percent of the referenda on the ballot were approved.

From 2014 to 2017, incumbents won 65.23 percent of Wisconsin school board seats in elections covered by Ballotpedia. Incumbents took the highest percentage of seats on the ballot in 2014, when they won 76.67 percent of the seats. They took the lowest percentage of seats up for election in 2015, when they won just over half of the seats (52.94 percent). In 2014, incumbents won 61 percent of seats in the school board elections covered by Ballotpedia nationwide, while that number was 58 percent in 2015.

Ballotpedia covered elections in 11 school districts in the state in 2014, 19 school districts in 2015, 49 school districts in 2016, and 50 school districts in 2017. The chart below details the percentage of incumbents and newcomers who were elected to school boards in Wisconsin’s largest school districts from 2014 to 2017.

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The 2017 school board elections attracted the highest average number of candidates who filed for election per seat (1.48) out of the four election cycles Ballotpedia has covered in Wisconsin. The 2014 elections attracted the lowest average number of candidates per seat (1.4). The 2017 race had the second-highest percentage of unopposed seats, with 42 percent of seats seeing no opposition. The 2014 elections had the highest percentage of unopposed seats, at 47 percent, while the 2016 elections had the lowest, at 21 percent. The table below details the average number of candidates to file per seat and the percentage of seats that were unopposed in Wisconsin from 2014 to 2017.

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2017 elections review

See also: Wisconsin school board elections, 2017

Ballotpedia covered elections for 126 seats in Wisconsin’s 50 largest school districts by enrollment on April 4, 2017. These Wisconsin school districts served 455,983 K-12 students during the 2014-2015 school year.[1] Of those 126 seats, nine required a primary election on February 21, 2017, to narrow the field down to two candidates per seat in the general election. Incumbents ran for re-election to four of those seats, and all four advanced to the general election. The other five seats that held primaries were open

An open seat or election is one in which the incumbent officeholder does not seek re-election.


A total of 102 of the 126 incumbents whose seats were on the ballot (80.95 percent) ran to retain their seats. A total of 88 of those incumbents won their seats, for a success rate of 86.27 percent. Forty-six incumbents won re-election unopposed. When facing challengers, incumbents had a 75 percent success rate. Success rates in 2017 were higher than the success rates in Wisconsin’s largest school districts in 2016: 73.7 percent for contested incumbents and 80.9 percent for all incumbents. Overall, incumbents won re-election to 69.84 percent of the Wisconsin school board seats Ballotpedia covered in 2017, while newcomers took the other 30.16 percent.

Spotlight districts

Milwaukee Public Schools

Eight candidates ran for four seats on the Milwaukee Board of School Directors on April 4, 2017. Two candidates faced off for each seat amid a struggle between public school advocates and voucher school advocates. The district faced a lawsuit from a private voucher school over transportation costs, and a study released by a group that represented voucher advocates said the city had violated a state law to sell empty school buildings. Voucher schools had been interested in buying the district’s surplus buildings in the past, but they were turned down. The Milwaukee Department of City Development asserted that the city was following the law and said that the study was misleading.[2][3]

Incumbents Annie Woodward and Larry Miller won re-election to the board on April 4, 2017, and newcomers Tony Baez and Paula Phillips won the two open

An open seat or election is one in which the incumbent officeholder does not seek re-election.

seats on the ballot.[4] This was the first time in three election cycles that every incumbent who ran for re-election won an additional term. All four winners were endorsed by the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association as well as the Wisconsin Gazette and the Shepherd Express.[5][6][7]

Madison Metropolitan School District

The 2017 school board election in the Madison Metropolitan School District brought two new faces—Kate Toews and Nicki Vander Meulen—to the Board of Education amid the introduction of the district’s new Pathways program, scheduled to begin in the 2017-2018 school year. This program will offer “personalized pathways” to students, meaning that as part of the program, between 120 and 150 freshmen at each of the district’s high schools will be given the option to participate in a health services pathway in the fall of 2017. The district plans to make the program mandatory for all its high school students by the 2022-2023 school year, at which point there would be four to six pathways from which they could choose.

The program would have five components, according to the Wisconsin State Journal:

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said she wanted to create an environment that helps each student to develop a post-high school plan. “This is new, and it’s incredibly important if every child is to be successful,” Cheatham said. “We want students to be in the driver’s seat, to set their own goals for after high school and to do it in a systematic way.” The superintendent said that the program also addressed issues that were brought up at community forums and in student focus groups, such as achievement gaps and high school drop-outs. “Students and families said they could not see the relevancy of the coursework,” she said. “Students were going from one class to the next in a disconnected way. And because of this lack of relevancy, they were not making it to the finish line.”[8]

Some district parents voiced concern about the program, saying it could diminish the wide range of elective options available to students. “I think if you have a 91 percent graduation rate (like at West), then there’s probably a better way to help the other 9 percent than reorganizing the entire high school,” Michelle Mouton, a district parent, said. Mouton said she was also concerned that “pushing pathways so hard and so rapidly” put the district in danger of losing skilled teachers, limited the educational scope of the curriculum offered, and risked losing parent support.[8]

Although the district plans to fully implement the program by 2022, the Board of Education will vote on whether to make the program mandatory for all students after the 2018-2019 school year is completed.[8]

Referenda watch

There were 10 referenda on the ballot on April 4, 2017, in five school districts covered by Ballotpedia. Seven of the 10 questions were approved by voters. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction reported that 40 of the 65 total school district referenda that were on the ballot across the state were approved by voters.[10] The following table lists details of the referenda that appeared on the ballot in districts covered by Ballotpedia in 2017:

Governing majority

Janesville School District

The 2017 school board election in Janesville saw a minority faction on the board bolstered despite one of its members choosing not to seek re-election. Ballotpedia identified this faction in its analysis of voting patterns among members of Janesville’s school board. It was made up of four members: Karl Dommershausen, Dale Thompson, Kevin Murray, and Cathy Myers, while the governing majority was made up of five members. The minority faction regularly voted together on issues of the district’s insurance policies. The faction could have dissolved if Dommershausen and/or Murray had not been elected or re-elected since Myers did not run for re-election. However, Dommershausen regained his spot on the board in the 2017 election after losing a bid for re-election in 2016, and Murray also successfully won re-election. Both Dommershausen and Murray were endorsed by the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. Following the 2017 election, Murray, Dommershausen, and Thompson are all board members who could continue to vote singularly on district issues.

Milwaukee Public Schools

The two incumbents who successfully ran for re-election to the Milwaukee Public School Board of Directors—Annie Woodward and Larry Miller—represented different governing factions on the board, according to a Ballotpedia study of the board’s voting patterns in meeting minutes. From 2015 to 2016, Miller was part of a five-member majority faction, and Woodward was part of a two-member minority faction. Claire Zautke, who did not file to retain her District 7 seat, was also a member of the majority faction, while Tatiana Joseph, who did not file to run for another term in District 6, was not a member of either faction.

Kenosha Unified School District

Kenosha Unified School District Board of Education incumbents Gary Kunich and Dan Wade were members of the governing majority on the Kenosha Unified Board of Education from 2015 to 2017, according to a Ballotpedia study of the board’s voting patterns in meeting minutes. Both incumbents were successful in their bids for re-election in the 2017 race.