Last September, a group of protestors gathered outside of the Longfellow Administration Building on the city’s east side. The group couldn’t attend the meeting; only board members, public access, and a handful of media folk were allowed inside, with masks. The doors were locked.
The pandemic came at an interesting time for the district. It made passing a referendum hard, because public comment wasn’t able to happen in the same way. Instead of voicing their concerns at meetings, folks unhappy with the referendum instead started an ultimately successful no campaign.
But the protestors weren’t there for that. They were protesting the start of virtual learning in the fall. Other districts in the area had adopted at least some kind of hybrid model, but the majority of the board felt it wasn’t safe to open schools. The group, congealed on Facebook as Parents for Wausau Schools Reopening, became a staple at board meetings. Eventually meetings were moved to a rotation of school auditoriums so people could safely attend in person.
That virtual learning had something to do with a dearth of failing grades in the district seems hard to dispute (what degree it had to do with learning modality versus the effects of COVID itself proved difficult to tease out, but the safest hedge based on the data seems to be that it had a little to do with both).
As the school board faces another election, seven candidates are seeking one of 3 ⅓ seats. (Three are regular board election seats and one is a special election for a one-year term that is currently filled by Jeff Leigh following an appointment by the board.)
The race also features something of a coordinated co-campaign. Three candidates — Karen Vandenberg, Job Creisher and Cody Nikolai — come from the ranks of parents concerned about schools opening. Signage features all three of their names on one ticket.
The candidates also include Kay Gruling, a former physician and school fundraiser, and Nicolas Bisgrove, a bank manager. Both applied along with a bakers dozen candidates for the seat vacated by Theresa Miles last fall.
Only two — Patrick McKee and Tricia Zunker — are incumbents from the current board. The third incumbent, Beth Martin, elected not to run for her seat again. Coupled with Leigh not running for the seat he was appointed to, there will be at least two new candidates on the board, and of course, possibly four.
That could mean a major shift on the board. With several significant votes tallying 5-4, it doesn’t take much to sway the tone of the board. The board coming up will deal with a growing number of students with failing grades, kids who are getting used to learning in person again and the possibility of a new referendum passing (or decision what to do about struggling student mental health and deteriorating infrastructure if it doesn’t).
With all that as a background, the election could prove to be a referendum on how the district handled COVID. While I think it’s safe to say no one interviewed by City Pages could be considered a one-issue candidate — everyone offered diverse opinions and multiple issues they care about — that doesn’t mean voters will see it that way.
The vote is on April 6. But early voting starts before that.
Wausau School Board candidate profiles
(in the order they appear on the district’s website)
Occupation: Director of Strategic Partnerships, Greenheck Fan Corp.
Children in the district: four, middle school, twins in fourth grade, one in kindergarten
About Jon: Jon like many parents was upset about the initial decision to start school virtually in the fall of 2020 in the Wausau School District. He was distressed about how public comments were handled initially, and felt parents’ voices weren’t being heard, and what was read at meetings didn’t reflect the surveys the district was conducting. The resulting increase in failing grades from going virtual is what pushed him and two other parents to run a co-campaign for school board. Creisher says as a board member he wants to do a better job listening to all constituents and parents of children in the district. Creisher felt focusing a referendum wasn’t the right priority while student learning was suffering during a pandemic. He supports the pupil services funding but questions why it increased from $3 million to $4 million between November at April (when the district is trying a referendum again). He’d like to see the district work on the most essential parts of the referendum first, and save the rest for later. Creisher says he wants to see the school work on its culture. “I want this district to be one people are proud of, and one that people are drawn to,” Creisher says. He also wants to see more done to improve student success.
Occupation: Physical Therapist
Children in the district: Three, a junior and a freshman at Wausau West, and an eighth grader at John Muir. A fourth has graduated
About Karen: Karen was already no stranger to school board meetings, but when the district made the decision to return to virtual learning in the fall, she became heavily involved in attending meetings. She’s running, she says, to bring a positive change to a board she says has exhibited a lot of dysfunction recently, and because she is passionate about education. She feels like a portion of the board was ignoring some of the experts and data as well as ignoring some of their constituents and their concerns, and she thought the continuation of virtual learning would be harmful. “It was devastating to see the data.” She understood the reasons for the shut down in March, but felt by fall there was better data to have reopened. She wants to see more willingness to listen to all voices, and a board that tries to find common ground rather than differences. She felt the original referendum was ill-timed while students struggled with virtual learning, but likes aspects of the April on, including the funding for pupil services (she also questions the increase); she works with teens and has seen a huge increase in children struggling with mental health. Vandenberg says she wants to see the culture improve in the district and wants to see the district address the high failure rates that were prompted by the pandemic and virtual learning.
Occupation: former family physician
Children: two children graduated from Wausau West
About Kay: As a physician, Gruling has seen much misinformation about COVID-19 propagated during the September debates around staying virtual and wants to bring her medical expertise to the board. She wants to approach problems in a holistic way. Gruling says she wants to see more civility and listening to others on the board. Gruling started Wausau Nursing Home Service and worked with patients with dementia and other mental health issues, and that required a patience that she hopes to bring to the board. She supported the move to start virtually and slowly move into a hybrid model, but she would have liked to see teacher vaccinated before the latest move that returned secondary students to full-time in-person learning. She finds worrisome that one incumbent running this term voted to not mandate masks in schools. Gruling voted for the first referendum though she was concerned about the tearing down of Grant Elementary. She supports the new referendum and says it has many crucial things students will need going forward. Post-pandemic she wants to see the district focus on its vision points, including more partnerships with business for apprenticeships and programs that promote diversity and culture. Gruling says she is the only candidate to invest heavily in schools, such as helping the West music department raise thousands after budget cuts left the department short.
Incumbent, current board president
Occupation: Associate Justice for the HoChunk Nation Supreme Court; law professor
Children in the district: one son, in fourth grade
About Tricia: Zunkers is running for her second term. Zunker says she’s never missed a single vote or meeting in those three years. She is running to ensure that Wausau’s is a destination district. Her aims are attracting new talent and ensuring students have needed mental health resources, and ensuring safety, which took on new meaning with COVID-19. Zunker hopes the board can continue to communicate effectively and respectfully even when there are disagreements. She points out that when she first came on the board, she met with every other board member and visited every school within her first week of being elected. Zunker says it was unfortunate there wasn’t more leadership around response to COVID-19, which put pressure on local school boards to come up with solutions. Zunker stands by the initial decision to remain virtual, and says administration handled it well, adding things like hubs for students to get help and identifying students who were struggling. Zunker says she stands by every one of her votes. Zunker supported both referenda but says the point is to send it to voters — they’re the ones who ultimately make the decision. She really hopes April’s passes though, because of the needed pupil services enhancement and building needs which are an equity issue with different students having different learning environments. Even after a challenging year for board members, Zunker says she sees it as her duty to serve a district which gave her so much.
Occupation: Orthopedic surgeon
Children in district: 13 children, many home schooled; some attend Newman
About Cody: Nikolai says he wants to represent taxpayers and parents in the district. And, he hopes to see the ways the district educates students expanded beyond brick and mortar options. Nikolai says he would like to see less politicking on the school board and would like to see it be less dysfunctional. He says the future of Wausau centers on the children. He points to the district losing more than 400 students this past school year and says it was because of unwillingness to listen to scientific fact. Nikolai says he would have liked to see Wausau open up its schools much sooner, similar to other districts in the area. Nikolai thinks the district made a tough ask for a referendum considering the challenge many parents were facing because of the pandemic. Nikolai says he supports the expansion of pupil services on the April referendum, but is more concerned about the second question which calls for $148.8 million in building upgrades and maintenance. Nikolai says it’s misleading that it doesn’t tell taxpayers that their taxes would decrease if it does not pass. Nikolai says he brings a unique perspective to the board via his experience teaching everyone from his children via homeschooling to medical residents to medical students through his position on the faculty at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Nikolai says the most important thing will be to find a way to bring back the 400 students the district lost and to restore trust in the board while removing the political agenda.
Incumbent, current vice president
Occupation: United Health Group, Vice President of Clinical Operations
Children in the district: Eighth grader at John Muir
About Patrick: McKee is running for this fourth term on the board. His reasons for running now are the same as they were when he first ran: he had children in the district and wanted a way to give back. He values education and has lived here all his life, save for college in Madison. McKee says he would like to see board members have a more holistic view of issues, not just be entrenched in one school of thought, regardless of what info is brought forward. McKee supported the initial plan to keep Wausau Schools virtual in the fall because they didn’t have have enough information yet; but as more info came out about how children weren’t superspreaders of COVID-19, he felt schools should open. McKee says he wasn’t surprised when the November referenda failed, because he knew people right or wrong would have a hard time paying for upgrades on schools that weren’t being used, especially combined with the closing of Grant. McKee says he’s hopeful both versions of the referenda on the April ballot will pass. McKee says he would like to see more done on individual learning tracks for students, with the mindset that if kids can focus on what they’re passionate about, they will be more engaged and successful. McKee would also like to see the district become a district of choice. He says too many students have been leaving the district, and that needs to change. He stands by his voting record and his independent voice on the board.
Occupation: Senior financial specialist at Incredible Bank
Children in the district: son in sixth grade, daughter in fourth grade
About Nicolas: Bisgrove wants to bring his business and management skills to the board and wants to see the board become a body that listens to all concerns. He touts honesty, which sometimes means hard truths, but also an ability to bring everyone together on tough issues. He points out the current divide of the board — with many votes coming in at 5-4 — and he hopes to see less polarization. He thought the board was smart to be cautious about opening schools in the beginning but wants to continue seeing data advise decisions and wants to see the district continue to follow mitigation strategies and make sure teachers are safe. He says the data supports the district’s decision to start allowing students in person again. It fits his campaign slogan, he says, which is “learn from the past, act for the future.” Investment is one of the tenets of his campaign, Bisgrove says; he supports the referendum and says interest rates are ideal right now. The district’s buildings need the work, he says, and the additional pupil services staff is needed. In the next term it will be really important to address the large achievement gap created by COVID-19 and virtual learning. Bisgrove says the extremes of both political parties scare him and he is presenting something of an alternative, based on bringing everyone together and to foster tomorrow’s future leaders. Bisgrove sees himself as someone who can bring opposing sides together to the negotiating table to find compromise.