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Local control is about making tough choices

Local school board members are learning the hard way the lesson of “being careful what you wish for” when it comes to wanting more local control.

Many people across the state cheered in March when the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the governor’s mask order. On its face, the court’s decision had more to do with short term political gamesmanship than sound public health policy.

For right or wrong, with the order removed, it was suddenly left to local boards to make the call about continuing or abolishing mask requirements. In a handful of areas, county and city government stepped up with their own local restrictions, but for the most part schools were left with guidance and suggestions rather than orders.

Through the early months of the pandemic, Wisconsin took a top-down approach, dictating to local governments and schools what they could or could not do. This top-down approach has become the standard in Wisconsin over recent decades as power and decision-making has become more concentrated in Madison. The unspoken goal, especially with the schools, is to have them largely interchangeable so that a fourth grader from New Berlin would be able to make the move to Medford or Gilman with little issue.

The challenge of being the one making the final decision is that you don’t have anyone else to hide behind when you are forced to take action that will upset people.

Due largely to the politicization of public health, that has occurred throughout the pandemic. People have strong opinions about COVID-19 and if masks should be worn. On either side of the spectrum, these opinions often have more to do with personal philosophies than hard science.

In representative democracy, it is the burden, and privilege, of the elected representatives of the people to make the tough choices. Elected officials must balance what is popular with what is right for their constituents and community. As a Rib Lake school board member noted during last week’s special meeting, their decisions impact the health and safety of the children and adults in the community.

Over the past six weeks and through many hours of meetings, local school boards heard from the public, discussed the issues and made what they felt was the best decision given their circumstances. These decisions were rarely unanimous, nor should they have been. Contentious issues welcome reasoned dissent. In every case, a decision was reached and the board as a whole moved forward.

It is easy to serve when there are no controversies or tough decisions to be made. The true test of leadership comes in navigating complicated issues where there are strong opinions on all sides. Regardless of their stand on the issues, board members should be commended and thanked by their communities for being willing to stand up and be leaders during these uncertain times.