A winner and loser in an election that swept the three incumbents up for re-election from the Stoughton School Board Tuesday agreed that the voters’ decision wasn’t issue-related so much as it was effort- and money-related.
“I think the at-large candidates knocked on a lot of doors, we reached out to a lot of people and groups, we received several endorsements and some incumbents didn’t seek endorsements,” said Steve Jackson, who was one of three challengers to win a three-year term on the board. “I think the level of effort was just different.”
Jackson and challengers Timothy Bubon and Jonathon Coughlin outpaced incumbents Beverly K. Fergus, Nicole Wiessinger and Brett Schumacher, according to unofficial poll results.
The new board members take over leadership roles at a critical time for the district. UW-Madison Applied Population Lab researcher Sarah Kemp told the board in February that the district’s enrollment is projected to decrease from 1,011 this school year to between 932 and 966 by the 2021-22 school year, according to ConnectStoughton.com.
Also, as enrollment declines, poverty among students continues to rise to about 30 percent and funding sources continue to be limited, according to various reports.
The challengers discussed those issues during their walks through neighborhoods and two public forums, while just one incumbent — Wiessinger — was the only current office holder to show up for both forums, according to Jackson.
“The voters didn’t hear what some of them had to say,” Jackson said. “You can’t just put signs out and expect people to vote for you.”
Schumacher, who served two terms after being appointed to fill in a vacated board seat, said he believes the challengers’ willingness to spend their own money on their campaigns played a big role, too.
“The only thing they didn’t do was drop leaflets from a plane over the city,” Schumacher said.
Jackson didn’t disagree. He said he spent $1,500 of his own money and that helped him win some key endorsements.
“People who do the endorsing asked me how I was vested in the campaign,” Jackson said. “My answer was easy. They could see my own money I was spending and that I had a plan. I don’t think the (incumbents) thought about (a plan).”
The challengers say they hope to make the board more transparent in its decision-making, Jackson said. He chided the board for not sharing data with residents regarding lead in drinking water, for example.
“The incumbents were doing their job as defined by the current board culture and that’s to deal with district policy and budget issues only,” Jackson said. “We want to change that.”
Schumacher, who said he spent about $600 on his campaign, said he believes money is behind the rise in partisan-style politics in small-town elections.
“We got outspent and that got (the challengers) the support of the political action committees,” Schumacher said. “I think it’s sort of a shame that it has come down to money. It’s been that way in Madison for a long time. But in small-town America, it’s a shame that seats can be bought.”
Schumacher said he also believes the new board members will learn that besides becoming advocates for students, they need to represent “all the caretakers of the district. It’s a delicate balancing act.”
Schools Superintendent Tim Onsager said the district was blessed with six solid candidates for the board seats.
“Any of the six would be solid board members,” he said.