In a June campaign video, Kelda Roys seized the opportunity to attack Gov. Scott Walker’s ties to Delavan-Darien.
“What’s happening in Delavan-Darien, Walker’s home school district, is not isolated,” Roys says. “Schools across the state are struggling with massive budget cuts … it doesn’t have to be this way.”
On the campaign trail, Mahlon Mitchell has used the same ploy. Another Democratic candidate for governor, Mitchell’s take is more expected—he graduated from Delavan High School in 1995, nine years after Walker.
During a debate last month, Mitchell quipped that he and Walker “obviously took some different classes” and said districts shouldn’t have to rely on referendums to fund operations.
Both candidates underscore a prevailing tactic in the Democratic gubernatorial primary: Attack Walker’s education policy. But the candidates have pointedly used his home district as the posterchild for school funding—and several others have weighed in.
Analiese Eicher, program director at the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, said Delavan-Darien is an easy target for Democrats running for governor. Aside from being Walker’s home district, Eicher said Delavan-Darien is the most recent district in the state suffering from cuts.
Since a $3.5 million operational referendum failed in April, the school board has voted to close Darien Elementary and lay off 39 teachers. Class sizes are expected to increase, at least 51 students have applied to enroll in other districts and the school board has shaken up its administration.
“It is a primary example, especially given how Walker likes to tout his roots,” Eicher said. “If you want to create jobs, you’ve got to invest in people. And clearly, as seen in Delavan-Darien, that’s not what has been happening.”
State schools Superintendent Tony Evers, who some say is the leading Democratic candidate for governor, has fueled the public education debate among Democrats in the primaries.
In May, Evers sent a letter to Delavan-Darien School Board members, who reached out to elected officials after the failed referendum. The board asked lawmakers to rectify the state’s school funding model, or else the longtime conservative community could look “another direction when going to the polls in November.”
In his response, Evers wrote he wholeheartedly agreed that the state’s school finance system needed to change. He said he was aware of the district’s “pressing fiscal concerns” and would seek to address them in the 2019-21 biennial budget.
Evers also slighted Walker in the letter, writing that in 2017, Walker and the Legislature failed to fund “most of my school finance proposals.”
But the Delavan-Darien conversation isn’t just tied to Democrats.
Walker, a Republican, commented on his alma mater at a June press event in Fontana, saying a long-term solution for public education is “just changing the overall school aide formula.”
“In Delavan’s case particularly, you’ve got about two-thirds of the students (who) qualify for low or reduced lunch programs,” Walker said.
“There’s a real imbalance with high property values on the lake and people don’t have the economic means on the other end. We’ve got to change that.”
Jeff Scherer, Delavan-Darien School Board president, said the growing spotlight on the district is positive, despite much of it harping on the tumultuous past several months.
“The fact that politicians are talking about us is a good sign,” Scherer said. “I can only take that as positive.”
But interim Superintendent Jill Sorbie shared a different tone. Though she celebrates government officials jockeying for school funding solutions, she expressed some objections to Roys' campaign ad.
Sorbie said the ad, which features one of the 39 teachers laid off in April, included inaccuracies about the district, some of which could cast a negative shadow.
“Instead of casting further potential negative attention, I would greatly appreciate the candidate reaching out to me to discuss viable solutions,” Sorbie said.