Wendy Francour, Akram Khan, Erik Hollander and Chris Schultz are now facing recall. Photos courtesy of the Mequon-Thiensville School District.

Wendy Francour, Akram Khan, Erik Hollander and Chris Schultz are now facing recall. Photos courtesy of the Mequon-Thiensville School District.

Early in August, many residents of the City of Mequon and the Village of Thiensville found unstamped leaflets in their mailboxes imploring the recipients to “RECALL MTSD SCHOOL BOARD.” It went on to make a number of assertions to justify such a drastic act:

Mequon Thiensville taxpayers, parents and grandparents … you need to be VERY CONCERNED about what is happening in MTSD schools!

Did you know the Mequon-Thiensville School District paid $42,000 of our tax dollars to a (sic) EQUITY consulting firm who told parents to identify themselves on a CRT [Critical Race Theory] RACISM SCALE and recommended stakeholders and staff read the controversial book ‘White Fragility’?

Did you know MTSD failed to prevent voter fraud on July 26th 2021? [There was no election held on that date.–Ed.]

Non-residents were able to ILLEGALLY vote for a nearly $4 MILLION tax levy increase! [An apparent reference to a successful $56 million referendum in 2020. –Ed.]

I asked Mequon City Clerk Caroline Fochs for her response to the fraud allegations. Her reply:

I am not aware of any voter fraud that was committed on or around the time the city voted for the referendum. I do not know what the reference to July 26, 2021 means. If there are specific claims of voter fraud I would certainly want to know and investigate them.

Attached to the cover sheet were four recall petitions — each naming one of the members eligible for what was once an infrequently invoked provision of election law, yet which has blossomed into a nationwide phenomenon in 2021. This year 183 school board officials have been targeted nationwide, nearly three times the 2020 number.

The Mequon mass recall spared the remaining three members of the board, as those seats are all held by board members serving the first year of their current terms in office, and are therefore immune from recall under state law. Circulators had an Aug. 23 deadline to submit at least 4,135 valid signatures on each petition. (That number is one-quarter of the votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election.)

In addition to the dropped-off leaflets, volunteers staffed a table outside Mequon City Hall to collect signatures. Supporters, many far too young to vote, held red-and-white recall signs aloft. When the city warned in mid-August that it would enforce its sign ordinance, lawyers from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty [WILL], acting pro bono, sent a stern letter to Mequon Mayor John Wirth (himself an attorney) and City Administrator William Jones warning that such enforcement would violate the First Amendment. The city relented, the summer signature-gathering continued, and it was successful. Despite challenges from the incumbents, School Board Secretary and Filing Officer Paula G. Taebel signed Certificates of Sufficiency on September 21st for all four challengers. The race was on.

The Four Targeted for Recall

Four board members will now face recall. They are:

  • Wendy Francour, a sales and marketing executive, has lived in Mequon since 1989 and is the vice president of the board, where she has served since 2014. A daughter is a 2009 graduate of Homestead High School. Her three-year term ends in April 2023.
  • Akram Khan, a UWM graduate in Finance and Business, was elected to the board in 2019, and has two children in elementary school. An entrepreneur for 20 years, he is the Director of Instruction for Kumon Math & Reading Center of Mequon. His three-year term ends in April 2022.
  • Erik Hollander, who holds a Doctorate, is an Assistant Professor of Business at Concordia University of Wisconsin in Mequon. He was elected to the board in 2020. His wife is an MTSD teacher, and the couple have two boys in elementary school. His three-year term ends in April 2023.
  • Chris Schultz holds a Masters Degree in Chemistry from the University of Illinois – Chicago and served as a teacher at Homestead High School for 17 years, retiring in 2015. A granddaughter currently attends a district school. She was first elected to the board in April 2016. Her three-year term expires in April 2022.

The four will automatically appear on the ballot according to the Wisconsin Constitution and state statutes.

The Four Announced Challengers

Each of the four board members facing recall has drawn a challenger. They are:

  • Cheryle Rebholz has filed to run against Francour. She is the owner of Faces II Esthetic Salon, and the founder and co-owner of Bear Arms Indoor Boutique Shooting Range, both in Mequon. She attended MATC and is a former school board member and an unsuccessful candidate for mayor in the Spring 2019 primary. Her three children attended Mequon schools after the family moved to the city in 1991.
  • Kristopher C. Kittell has filed to run against Khan. He is a home remodeler and an MTSD graduate who has lived in the city since 1968. He and his wife have a daughter in 6th grade.
  • Charles Lorenz has filed to run against Hollander. He is a Business Intelligence Architect. Lorenz and his family moved to Mequon in 2015. One son is a 2021 graduate of Homestead High School, which two other sons currently attend. A daughter is in a parochial elementary school.
  • Scarlett Johnson has filed to run against Schultz. She is the lead organizer, and has often been the voice, of the recall effort, and has five children enrolled in the district. Her family has lived in Mequon for the past 11 years.

Will Other Challengers Join the Fray?

The election is scheduled for November 2nd. If no more than two candidates emerge for any race, it will serve as the general election. If more than two candidates run in a given race, November 2nd will be a primary election. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote in a given race, a general election will be scheduled for November 30th. The deadline for filing a Declaration of Candidacy and a Campaign Finance Registration Statement is 5 p.m. on Tuesday Oct. 5th. It is worth noting that potential candidates need not collect signatures on nomination forms to run. The two documents mentioned above suffice. It is therefore possible that spoiler candidates could emerge to complicate matters.

A Highly Regarded School System

The Mequon-Thiensville School District is considered one of the finest in the state, and has occasionally achieved national recognition. Overall, the district scores an 89.5% out of 100% rating, “Significantly Exceeds Expectations,” in the State of Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction report card. Homestead High School ranks 3rd among the state’s 673 high schools. None of the incumbent board members are accused of any improprieties, whether personal, financial, professional or relating to their board service — heretofore the cause of most such recalls nationwide. Instead, the pandemic and recent electoral politics, including election audits, seem to be fueling the effort nationwide, as US News reported in September, saying:

Across the nation, anger over the handling of the coronavirus has shifted from the federal government to the local school board, where community members are acting out with increasing frequency and fury.

This is not about failures of governance on the part of school board members, it is all about grassroots partisan control of a large political base in a field that is usually non-partisan and apolitical.

Recall Supporters Include David Clarke, WILL

Candidate Johnson has spoken in favor of groups like No Left Turn in Education, founded last year and now with chapters in more than half the states. It has taken national issues like CRT to the grassroots school district level. Among the members of its national board is David Clarke, the retired Sheriff of Milwaukee County. Clarke is also Chairman of the Board of Rise Up Wisconsin Inc., a right wing grassroots political movement that states:

The concept of a government of, by and for the people has been turned on its head and into a government of, by and for the unelected bureaucrats. WE THE PEOPLE DID NOT CONSENT TO THIS TYRANNY.

WILL is headed by Atty. Rick Esenberg, a Mequon resident. The law firm, which receives considerable funding from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, as Urban Milwaukee has reported, opposes CRT and mask mandates, and pushes for in-person school attendance. Last month it successfully advocated for changes in state law expanding parental influence in school curricula.

The recall effort also has the support of Patriots of Ozaukee County. The group counts the recall among its initiatives. Others include opposition to mask and vaccine mandates, CRT, and a new sex education curriculum in Cedarburg.

Finally, the Restore MTSD website, successor to the Recall MTSD site, said the district should “retain services of an independent forensic auditor to conduct an audit on finance and communications, ensuring that all stakeholders have total confidence that their tax dollars were and are being properly managed and spent.” There have been no allegations to the contrary by the group, which opposed the district’s hiring of a consultant on racial matters.

Significantly, the group also recommends that the board, “Establish a committee of MTSD parents to oversee curriculum choices and their implementation.”

“It Seems Very Tea Party-ish”

All groups active in the recall efforts in Mequon and elsewhere appeal to the fears of voters by provoking resentment against citizen boards and their members, with the aim of channeling that resentment further up the ballot to partisan races at the District, State and Federal levels. We’ve been down that road before in the past decade.

“It seems very tea party-ish to me. These are ingredients for having an impact on future elections,” said Attorney Dan Lennington candidly.

He should know, as he is the Deputy Counsel at Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, and was the author of the August letter telling Mequon officials to not enforce the sign ordinance.

Incumbents Find Support

Support MTSD sign. Photo by Michael Horne.

Support MTSD sign. Photo by Michael Horne.

A group called Support Mequon Thiensville School District has been organized to back the incumbent candidates. It states:

  • We should protect and support our district
  • MTSD is an exemplary & fiscally responsible school district
  • Keep partisan politics out of our school board

Former Mequon mayors have also indicated their support for the current board:

The recall effort is not factually justified, and harms the outstanding reputation of our school district and the community at large.

The four school board members targeted for recall are knowledgeable and conscientious civic volunteers who have done nothing ethically or legally wrong.

If recall organizers object to MTSD policies, they should run for office during regular school board elections held each April, instead of subjecting the community to the divisive and damaging effects of an irresponsible recall election.

Dan Abendroth, former Mayor of Mequon

I am opposed to the recall process as a vehicle for regress of disenchantment. The ballot box is the place for deciding these matters … not an expensive recall.

Curt Gielow, former Mayor of Mequon

The group is currently issuing lawn signs supporting the incumbents. Expect to find their blue signs vying with the red ones of their opponents soon.

So, Why Target Mequon-Thiensville School District?

In the April 6th, 2021 School Board election 6,442 ballots were cast, representing a 30 per cent turnout. Voters were to select three candidates from a slate of six, including three incumbents. John W. Daniels, III, from a prominent African-American family, was ousted by Andrew Hopkins, who voiced many of the concerns of the challengers. Board president Shelly D. Burns and member Paula Taebel were retained. All three are immune from recall until next spring.

A November special recall election, and possibly a primary as well, would likely have a low turnout, leaving the results to the most motivated constituency from either side. The recall supporters presumably have the financial advantage, as supporters of the incumbents have admitted in their fundraising appeals.

Mequon is the third largest city in the area, after Milwaukee and Madison. With Thiensville it encompasses over 47 square miles, which is about 70% of the size of the District of Columbia. It is rich, and it is trending blue, and has a consolidated K-12 school district. The Nicolet Union School District, immediately to the south, and representing Glendale, Fox Point, Bayside and River Hills, is only a third of the area, and is fed by elementary school students from three districts. That’s an awful lot of recalling to do.

Ozaukee County (pop. 91,503) has the highest per capita income of all Wisconsin counties. And the City of Mequon, with 24,422 residents, has the highest per capita income in the county.  It is growing increasingly blue, as seen in recent election results. Biden received 8,418 votes against Trump’s 8,781, and even carried five Mequon wards, mostly in the affluent southeast portion of the city. Thiensville, (pop. 3,157) gave Biden 1,081 votes, while Trump squeaked by with 1,126 votes cast. This is a remarkable transformation for a community that has been rock-solid Republican since the Civil War.

Or, consider the 23rd Assembly District, which runs along the lakeshore from Whitefish Bay to Grafton. It was long held by Republican Atty. Jim Ott, a former television weatherman (and climate change skeptic) who lost his reelection bid in November to Democrat Deb Andraca by a vote of 21,052 to 19,728. Ott did carry the Mequon portion of the district handily, winning 60% of the vote. But Democrat Andraca is now WILL President Esenberg’s Representative to the assembly. And that’s a call to action!

(Disclosure: Michael Horne is a MTSD alumni and 1971 graduate of Homestead High School who resides in Mequon. His mother, a Mequon resident since 1967, is a former substitute teacher in the district.)

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