Ballotpedia’s analysis of Wisconsin’s spring school board elections

Today, we’re bringing you a special edition of the Brew. 

All 421 school districts in Wisconsin held at least one election on April 4. In total, 954 of the state’s 2,794 school board seats, around 35%, were on the ballot. Below, you’ll get an in-depth look at those results. In tomorrow’s edition, we’ll take a look at the school board results out of Oklahoma.

The aim of this unique, comprehensive coverage is simple: to help close the “knowledge gap” about local races and candidates, and to encourage voter participation in the process.

Welcome to the Wednesday, May 24, Brew. 

By: Douglas Kronaizl

This year we are covering every school board election in 10 states: Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Today, we’re kicking things off with Wisconsin. Here’s what’s in store for you as you start your day:

  1. Top liberal endorsers had 73% win rate compared to 48% for top conservative groups
  2. Open seats and incumbent defeats mirror historical averages
  3. Union-endorsed candidates win governing majority in La Crosse

Top liberal endorsers had 73% win rate in school board races compared to 48% for top conservative groups

The top five liberal endorsers in Wisconsin had a win rate in school board elections of 73.2% compared to 47.5% among the state’s top five conservative endorsers.

As part of our school board coverage, we are gathering descriptive endorsements, those that help describe the stances or policy positions of a candidate. This is based on the assumption that endorsers tend to endorse candidates with whom they align.

Ballotpedia staff conducts outreach, recurring research, and asks candidates to find out who is endorsing whom. Once we find an endorsement, we tag them as either liberal or conservative based on whether they are affiliated with a major party or support education policies associated with a major party.

The top liberal endorsers in Wisconsin were:

  • Local affiliates of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, a teacher’s union;
  • The Wisconsin State AFL-CIO and its affiliates;
  • The Democratic Party of Wisconsin and its affiliates;
  • Blue Sky Waukesha, a group in Waukesha County; and
  • Fair Wisconsin, an LGBTQ advocacy group.

The top conservative endorsers in Wisconsin were:

  • The Republican Party of Wisconsin and its affiliates;
  • Moms for Liberty and its affiliates;
  • Get Involved Wisconsin, a voter mobilization group;
  • 1776 Project PAC; and,
  • WisRed PAC, a group in Waukesha County.

Among the liberal endorsers, all but Blue Sky Waukesha had win rates greater than 50%. 

For conservative endorsers, only WisRed PAC had a win rate greater than 50%.

All 10 endorsers made endorsements in uncontested races, where the endorsed candidate was guaranteed to win. For the state GOP and Moms for Liberty, those uncontested endorsements resulted in overall win rates greater than 50%.

But for the purposes of this analysis, only endorsements made in contested elections are included below:

While these 10 groups made a total of 627 endorsements, many of those endorsements overlapped within ideological lines. These endorsements all went to 286 candidates in 114 races, around 55% of all contested elections and 20% of all elections, overall.

Of those 286 candidates, 166 (58%) received endorsements from more than one of the top 10 endorsers.

Almost all of those candidates only received endorsements from either conservative or liberal endorsers. 

Two candidates—Noah Becker in the Green Bay School District and incumbent Robert Bohmann in the Muskego-Norway School District—received endorsements from both conservative and liberal endorsers.

  • The GOP and AFL-CIO endorsed Becker; and,
  • The GOP, Moms for Liberty, WisRed PAC, and Blue Sky Waukesha endorsed Bohmann.

Becker lost, but Bohmann won, making him the only candidate who received both conservative and liberal endorsements to win a school board seat.

Every school board election in Wisconsin is nonpartisan, meaning candidates appear on the ballot without any party labels.

Without those party labels, endorsements often serve as a way for voters to get an idea of who they support based on the groups or individuals supporting those candidates.

We are gathering endorsements for elections at all levels of government this year. But we could always use a helping hand. That’s why we’ve created a helpful form you can use to send us any endorsements you come across from individuals or organizations, large or small.

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Open seats and incumbent defeats mirror historical averages

Of the 954 school board seats up for election in Wisconsin, 690 incumbents (72%) ran for re-election, leaving 264 seats (28%) open. Open seats are guaranteed to newcomers.

Wisconsin’s open-seat rate is similar to what we typically see in our regular, nationwide school board coverage. The difference in Wisconsin is that slightly more incumbents ran for re-election than we’ve seen nationally. Between 2018 and 2022, an average of 71% of incumbents ran for re-election, leaving 29% of seats open.

Of the 690 incumbents who ran for re-election, 615 (89%) won, and 75 (11%) lost. Three incumbents lost in primaries held on Feb. 21, and the remaining 72 incumbents lost in the general election.

This overall loss rate was below average compared to the 16% loss rate we’ve seen nationwide over the last five years.

But this loss rate also only tells half the story. One reason so many incumbents won re-election is that 60% ran unopposed, guaranteeing their victory. This is almost double the 36% rate of unopposed incumbents we typically see nationwide for school board elections.

Only 278 incumbents faced challengers. When looking only at contested elections, the loss rate increases from 11% to 27%, mirroring the historical average of 26%.

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Union-endorsed candidates win governing majority in La Crosse

Now that we’ve given you the topline data, here’s a deep dive into the results of one specific school board. 

For the first time in at least 30 years, candidates who received endorsements from the La Crosse Education Association, a local affiliate of the nation’s largest teacher’s union, have a governing majority in the School District of La Crosse.

This district was one of 36 districts where every seat up for election was open, guaranteeing four newcomers to the nine-member board.

The two union-endorsed winners—Jeff Jackson and Trevor Sprague—join incumbents Katie Berkedal, Meredith Garcia, and Juan Jimenez, whom the union endorsed in last year’s elections. At that time, the endorsement was newsworthy since the union had not weighed in on any elections in several decades.

La Crosse is the county seat of La Crosse County, a Solid Democratic county in the state, which has supported Democratic candidates for president in each of the past three elections.

Along with Jackson and Sprague, voters elected Scott Neumeister and Deb Suchla to the board. Both candidates received endorsements from conservative organizations, including the county Republican Party.

Both candidates also received endorsements from the 1776 Project PAC. According to the group’s website, it is an organization “dedicated to electing school board members nationwide who want to reform our public education system by promoting patriotism and pride in American history.”

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