“Vitriol, insults, and trying to destroy our businesses,” “unfathomable. I was told to put a bullet in my head. I was told children would die, and students would starve. It’s unacceptable.” – Corey Montiho, school board member describing threats he received.
Folding to aggressive threats and bullying from a national “mob” driven by politics and misleading news coverage, the Waukesha School Board reversed direction by rescinding its decision on free school lunches, some board members said in a heated special meeting on Aug. 30.
The 5-4 vote came after an emotional discussion in which school board members in opposition to rescinding the vote described receiving threats, with one board member saying people’s businesses were imperiled, and he was told to “put a bullet in my head.” Board members described their children’s pictures being posted online. Several board members said the board would be caving to a bullying mob if it changed its earlier decision, but that’s just what happened.
In June, the board voted unanimously to abandon a federal program that gives universal free lunches to all students regardless of income. The board switched back to a program, used before the pandemic, that gives free and reduced lunches only to children whose parents meet income guidelines.
Waukesha School Board Reverses Direction
On August 30, though, in the face of a weekend of threats that resulted in police intervention and harm to board members’ businesses, a majority of the board rescinded its earlier vote, and it will now give free lunch to all students, even if their parents are wealthy. The lunches are provided to all under age 18 even if they aren’t enrolled in Waukesha schools.
The board members who caved are Amanda Roddy, Greg Deets, Bill Baumgart, Patrick McCaffery, and Joseph Como Jr. Some board members who caved said that the federal income guidelines can leave out some children whose parents have “situational” poverty due to the pandemic or who don’t apply for reduced or free lunches because of the stigma.
The board members who voted against rescinding the board’s earlier decision were Corey Montiho, Kelly Piacsek, Karin Rajnicek, and Anthony Zenobia. All four board members detailed the barrage of threats they received and implored the board not to give in to the pressure. Some said they believed caving to the progressive mob would be a slippery slope leading to similar pressure on things like mask-wearing and critical race theory.
The Threats: ‘Unfathomable,’ ‘Unacceptable’
Corey Montiho, a school board member, described “vitriol, insults, and trying to destroy our businesses.” He said it was “unfathomable. I was told to put a bullet in my head. I was told children would die, and students would starve. It’s unacceptable.” He also slammed attacks made by members of the public against Darren Clark, assistant superintendent for Business Services, saying Clark “is an unbelievable asset to this district. Part of his job in committees is to raise the other side of issues.” He suggested that people concerned about feeding kids could donate money to pay off kids’ negative balances.
“This motion is being presented to the board to act on because of intimidation and threats that every board member in here has received and every staff member in here has received,” said Zenobia, adding that the motion was being made “under duress, under threats of intimidation.”
Zenobia called for the School Board not to “buckle under pressure of a national mob for lack of a better word…I would implore everyone here for this board to find their fortitude and spine and sit up and say we are not going to be bullied nationally and even locally that now we are going to take away our decisions that we have made with the best intent..if we do that, this whole program will fall apart. We won’t get the support from the community. We won’t get people volunteering.” He said some of the bullies posted children’s pictures online.
“To sit here and pretend like we’re not making this decision under stress is ridiculous. It’s wrong for us to do,” Zenobia said.
Zenobia said the “progressive socialist left brutalized mothers who sit on this board.” He said the mob would move on to other issues.
“The Washington Post and everyone else who piled on this story brutalized moms with children in this district for political gain,” he said. “It’s disgraceful and despicable what’s happened.” He added, “People believed the lies the media spread. It was a politically driven firestorm.”
Board member Kelly Piacsek said that most emails she received wished harm for her and her family. “The facts have not changed since June,” she said, adding that three of the neediest schools already qualified for free meals for all students regardless of income level, a point lost in news coverage.
“Facts are actually not what got us here tonight. We are here because of coercion, intimidation, threats, aimed at our families,” she said. “Deliberately inaccurate information and twisting of words to villainize this board becomes an erroneous headline in the Washington Post.” Facebook censored community members’ posts who tried to correct misstatements of facts, she said, and The Washington Post put a “horrible headline behind a paywall and put it on Twitter.”
The Democratic Party is fundraising on this issue, Piacsek said. “I am so disappointed with this community right now. I have had the Waukesha Police Department at my house all weekend long. My children’s pictures were posted on Twitter,” she said. She asked where the state Department of Public Instruction was regarding the threats against School Board members.
She called the universal free lunches “federally backed perks to high income students.” Students can’t even pay for meals if they want to, she noted, adding that “the same people complaining about this also complain about the privileges of the most advantaged. Think how much more good we could do with our food service resources if they weren’t wasted on families that had the means to pay.”
“It is disgusting and inexcusable to me that the vile threats to my family and our jobs have been accelerated on a national stage by members of our own community,” continued Piacsek. “If this is how it’s going to go from now on, school board members know this, you are to consult with the Washington Post, Twitter, and Facebook before you make your decisions. This is not local control. It’s bad for our district. It’s bad for American schools. When the federal government is responsible for feeding all students at all times regardless of need, they have ultimate authority and we don’t need local school boards anymore. This is how we got CRT and filthy books and mask mandates and all of this stuff.”
She said rescinding the vote would mean the school board “is beholden to a mob.”
She called the universal free lunches “handouts for high-income families,” calling it irresponsible. The resources could be shifted to help the low-income, she said.
“This isn’t about food anymore. So here we are, neck-deep in cancel culture. Never did I in a million years think my family would be doxxed,” she added.
The threats came on the backs of sometimes biased media coverage; some news outlets ran stories telling readers the School Board didn’t want to offer free lunches anymore, without mentioning the board was switching back to a pre-pandemic program that gives free lunches to children who meet income guidelines. In other words, poor kids would still get free lunches.
The board has now gone back to the universal free lunch approach, meaning even rich kids will get free lunches paid by the federal government.
“A lot of people have referenced that we are not feeding kids,” said Clark. “That was never a discussion. It was not included in the action. We were simply returning to a plan we were using before pre-pandemic.”
James Sebert, Superintendent of Schools, said the administration’s position was that the School Board should go back to the universal free lunch for all program because doing so “will help families who may not qualify for free and reduced lunch but are also experiencing situational poverty due to the pandemic.”
Greg Deets was one board member who switched his vote. “Upon reflection I made the earlier votes without really looking at the implications. I wasn’t really informed, and I apologize to that,” he said. “It’s a reminder to me that our votes are really far reaching. The truth is that many of our students are hungry throughout the school day, and we have the ability to do something about that. Many families are just above the threshold for applying for reduced lunch.” Some families who would qualify don’t because “sometimes pride gets in the way.” He said he received about 500-600 emails.
School board member Bill Baumgart said that some kids would go unfed without universal free lunch because all of the parents don’t apply. He said teachers supported the rescinding of the vote. “I didn’t pay as much attention as I should of. We voted nine to nothing because that was probably an easy thing to do. In retrospect I wish I hadn’t,” Baumgart said. He claimed he didn’t change his vote because of the “mob scene,” which he called “terrible.”
Board member Amanda Roddy said she wasn’t switching her vote because of the mob but rather because of “the conviction of my personal beliefs.”
The Spoiled Comment
One comment taken out of context drove a lot of the negative news coverage and subsequent fury, a reference people being “spoiled” by universal free lunches for all.
“Wisconsin school board blasted for saying kids might get ‘spoiled’ by free lunch,” read the headline in the New York Post. The Huffington Post snarled, “Wisconsin School District Rejects Universal Free Lunches So Kids Won’t Get ‘Spoiled.'” Daily Beast huffed, “Wisconsin School District Ditches Free Meals So Students Don’t ‘Become Spoiled.'” The Daily Beast story started with this line, “In a cruel move that has shocked many parents, the Waukesha School District Board opted earlier this year to end its federally funded program to give free meals to all student…”
But what did the board member really say? Here is the FULL quote from that board member, per Patch. Many stories mentioned only the “become spoiled” part without providing the full quote:
“I had three kids, I had them and so I’m going to feed them. I feel like that’s the responsibility of the adult,” Karin Rajnicek, a board member said. “I feel like this is a big problem, and it’s really easy to get sucked into and become spoiled and think, it’s not my problem any more, it’s everyone else’s problem to feed my children.”
On Aug. 30, Rajnicek gave a lengthy, emotional speech at the special meeting, describing various hardships her family had suffered throughout the years and saying that her comments “were taken out of context.”
She noted that there are 300 homeless students in the School District and 35% of students are at or below the poverty level but “they can always have something to eat.”
She said the media purposely took her words out of context. “The spoiled I referred to is me, it’s all of us, if we rely on the system when we can provide for ourselves. If we don’t start saying no to our government handing out more money, we will never get out from under,” and programs will no longer exist for those who truly need them, she said.
“All we did was go back to the program we had in place before the pandemic,” she said. “This is one big game of telephone that might cost some of us our businesses.”
She said board members received thousands of emails, texts and voicemails “every 30 seconds trying to silence me and all of us” and her “five-star business” was flooded with bad reviews. She had to install security cameras at her home and get “legal help to try to dig my business out of this home.” She needed police presence. “Most of this is political,” she said.
The district had previously indicated the June change was partly made out of a concern that declining applications could affect other funding, a point that didn’t make it into many news stories.
The district noted, “Deciding not to participate in the SFSP does not mean we are not providing for our neediest students. The District will be returning to the National School Lunch program (free/reduced lunch program) that has served students across this country for decades. We will still continue to have universal free breakfast at the schools that meet the program qualifications. We will continue to work directly with families on an individual basis.”
The district said a lot of free breakfasts ended up “in the trash,” and summer participation indicated lowering demand for free meals.
The district also noted that although the news stories stated that the District was the only one in the state choosing to leave (note the semantics) the universal free lunch program, that does not mean it’s the only one that doesn’t participate in it. There are districts (or just their high schools) in the state “that don’t participate in any federal lunch program that will likely not participate in the SFSP (universal free lunch),” says the district.
Another important detail, left out of many, if not most, stories. According to the Associated Press, “In addition, as was practice before the pandemic, young students in grades lower than high school who come to school without a packed lunch, money or an accepted lunch program application, may be given cheaper meals of cheese sandwiches.” That’s in addition to the fact they can still apply for nutritious free lunches if their families apply for the pre-pandemic program. The Journal Sentinel reported that guardians would be charged for these, but it would ensure that no kid goes hungry.
But you wouldn’t know any of this if you were a reader of this online story by WISN-TV, which reported: “Some parents want Waukesha schools to reconsider a decision to turn down federal funding for free school lunches.” Nowhere in this story does it bother to mention that low-income kids would still qualify for free Waukesha school lunches.
WTMJ-TV ran an online story from the Associated Press that similarly did not mention that low-income kids would still qualify for free Waukesha school lunches (media outlets sometimes shorten AP stories to fit their own news holes, but they shouldn’t do so in a way that twists stories by removing key context).