When Political Advocacy Comes Before Child Literacy

The fight to get students back into the classrooms this fall has frustrated parents across the country, but perhaps nowhere have families had to face unnecessary obstructions like those in Oak Creek, WI.

Following the conclusion of the 2019-2020 school year, the Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District (OCFJSD) had worked closely with local, state, and national health authorities to prepare strong plans for the 2020-2021 school year reopening. In addition to accelerated cleaning schedules and hygiene protocols, the plans included a survey to parents with the intention to offer options for both classroom instruction or virtual learning, depending on the families’ preferences.

A Family Feedback Survey administered by the district over the summer received 3,505 responses, which represents about 55% of the parent-student body. This marked an unusually-strong response considering the average rate of response to surveys in America is between 10-30%. Overall, the survey found that 73% of all parents were willing to send their child back to school or did not have strong concerns about sending their child back to school in fall.

The district and the parent-student body were overwhelmingly motivated and prepared to return to the classroom.

In any act of Congress, a vote of nearly 75% would constitute a supermajority. While this survey is hardly an act of Congress, that does not mean that the rules and values of democracy should be disregarded in favor of a small fraction of parents acting by proxy of a special interest group’s bully tactics.

But that is exactly what happened. In a special meeting of the school board on August 13th, less than two weeks after surveying parents for their choice of fall learning, the district reversed course in a move that shocked and upset parents across the community.

The push behind that decision came from a special interest group influenced by the teachers’ union.

YES For Oak Creek Schools claims to be a local parent advocacy group, but they would seem to be more of a wolf in sheep’s clothing when they ignored the demands of nearly 75% of parents. “We call on the district and administration to open virtually,” Jenny von Helms of YES For Oak Creek Schools told the Oak Creek Patch, not even two weeks after an overwhelming majority of parents voted to the contrary of that.

This, unfortunately, appears to be only the latest instance of YES playing politics instead of independent advocacy.

On their website, YES states that they are an “independent grassroots organization of volunteers who advocate for greater parent involvement and improved communication in the Oak Creek-Franklin School District.”

If this alone were true, it would seem to be a legitimate effort that had some merit. Regardless of one’s political leanings, we all want the most productive, efficient, and safe learning environments for our children. For a group to encourage parental involvement – at face value – could be a reasonable and unifying objective. In fact it might even be irresponsible for anyone to object to that premise.

Unfortunately, after it’s founding in 2014 the group quickly devolved into politicking. Their focus became more about manipulating the school board than advocating for parental involvement.

On a post from the group’s public Facebook page this past August, the group outlined some of the things they have accomplished over the past six years. Of particular note is their lobbying for the expansion of the school board. One might liken this to the philosophy some have suggested about packing the courts to gain favor when the current numbers are not effectively achieving what their personal interests are. It is not a stretch to draw that parallel in concept and intention in this case.

It is noteworthy that in the same post, the group states, “YES is not affiliated with the Oak Creek-Franklin school district or school board.” That simply isn’t true, and it’s where the unfortunate manipulation of the group’s original, self-stated mission goes tangentially wrong.

Engaging parents in school polices? Great. Advocating for better facilities for students? Also great. Restructuring the school board and subjectively setting the narrative for potential school board candidates? That would seem the furthest from from independent advocacy for better communication with the schools. It would not appear to be unlawful, but it’s also not ethical – especially when the group expressly states that they are unaffiliated with the district or board, all while trying to control the board’s structure and position its members.

This would be like saying that Planned Parenthood isn’t affiliated with the Democratic Party, or the NRA isn’t affiliated with the GOP. Sure, neither are legally-bound by entity, but their intentions and the end-goals associated with those intentions are implicit and undeniable. That applies to YES and OCFJSD, also.

We can prove this by the group’s own words and actions. In a letter sent to school board candidates in January 2016, YES boasts that they are using their website as a one-stop shop for voters, and that they are “uniquely positioned to reach a large population of voters.” They further state, “With assistance from local media and other potential partners, we have the ability to draw even more voters to our website.”

(We don’t know the answer to who those other “potential partners” are, and YES did not further elaborate about that at their website).

Again, in itself, this may seem innocent, but this is where the advocacy stops and the campaigning begins. YES collected questionnaires from the candidates for the school board, but went an irresponsible step further than simply posting those profiles for voter review. They privately and subjectively graded those candidates according to their own interests and then published a scorecard of candidates on the website they already promoted as being able to drive traffic to.

This is now campaigning, and it goes shamefully awry from the group’s own stated mission. Their Facebook page even proudly posted their “new campaign logo” as recently as 2018. Why would an independent advocacy group have a campaign logo?

Equally as troubling but not surprising given the efforts by YES, the results of the election associated with the scorecard provided to voters by YES show that the assumed liberal candidates they graded with the highest marks won all four seats on the board. By social media posts alone, it could be easily suggested that at least two of the three candidates receiving an “F” grade across all columns by YES prior to the election were conservatives.

It should be very concerning that a group who brags about its influence on voters then directs those who may be influenced to a report card on candidates, subjective to their opinions, and does not include or allow for any candidate response to the grades prior to the election. This is particularly troubling when the founder of that group is, in fact, affiliated with the school board – which is funded by taxpayers.

Jenny von Helms, who is the founder of YES – a group that states they have no affiliation with the school district or the school board – has participated as a member of official school board ad hoc committees every year since YES was founded. On her public LinkedIn profile, von Helms lists her membership on the OCFJSD Facilities Planning Committee in 2014, and also her membership on the OCFJSD Attendance Area Committee from 2015 to the present day.

You can read more about the details of YES’ involvement in the ad hoc committee on their own website, with further details provided in the committee’s agendas and minutes. The school board assembled the committee as a unilateral body to bring one comprehensive recommendation on elementary boundary changes to the school board for implementation in the 2016-2017 school year.

In August, we sent an open records request to the OCFJSD, that included requesting a list of all school district disbursements made to any consulting groups or ad hoc committees for the years 2014 through 2020. A representative of the district responded about two weeks later to inform us that the financial software that the district uses does not break down expenses by the categories we requested, and it was not something they track outside of their financial software.

Without the financial data, it is difficult if not impossible to make a monetary case regarding conflict of interests between YES and the school board, however the optics are overwhelmingly and undeniably suggestive that YES is not as independent and unaffiliated as they claim to be. And because of that, the delay in getting kids back into the classroom caused exacerbated logistical and financial problems for parents struggling to juggle a job while simultaneously providing supervision and guidance for virtual learners. Additionally, it made things even more challenging for parents of students with special needs or those suffering from other mental health conditions often mitigated by the networking and regiment of a normal school day.

Consider this article the truthful call to action for parents in Oak Creek and across the country to be engaged and know what’s going on with the school district and the school board in your areas, as the group claiming to be parent advocates here appear to be nothing more than self-interested proxies of either the school board or the teachers union – depending on which day of the week it is. The taxpayers of Oak Creek may never know which is more financially evident without the balance sheets of YES or OCFJSD.

Oak Creek, a town of roughy 37,000 people, is the southernmost suburb of Milwaukee. The National Center for Education Statistics reports an enrollment of just over 6,600 students across 14 institutions in the Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District for 2018-2019. The district receives $80 million annually in tax revenue, with $40 million of that coming from the taxpayers of Oak Creek. The remainder is funded by the State of Wisconsin ($37 million) and the Federal Government ($3 million).

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