Like one-third of the Wisconsin city’s residents, Sarah Volgman lives outside the city limits. But when the White Plains teacher steps out of her car, the only audible sound she hears is the oncoming traffic on a bustling road. The residents of Waukesha are a good step down in economic status, but, otherwise, they seem like any average municipality. And that’s why many people in the city are attributing its recent troubles to some traditional Middle American values.
Waukesha, population 75,000, is trying to put its recent upheaval in perspective as it struggles to get through the next few months following an election defeat that — if continued or given an unwelcome blessing by federal law — could put the city at the center of a bruising fight over local voting rules.
“We’re different from Milwaukee because we’re conservative and religious and we’re pro-life,” said Volgman, who grew up in the city. “My big concern is we get categorized as poor. We’re not like that.”
A drive through Waukesha, a largely suburban area of Wisconsin, confirms the residents’ pride in their town’s identity.
The well-to-do Hillside neighborhood looks like a bed and breakfast with horse-drawn buggies delivering the lower-class residents in rusted-out cars to the neighbors’ vacation homes. Hometown businesses are the lifeblood of the city, including the Family Dollar stores and lunch places that bustle with off-duty law enforcement officers on lunch breaks.
The pull of the suburbs prompted a push for an unincorporated area of town known as Red Wing, which is further away from the city, but on the city’s outskirts.
But when the entire county backed the move in an effort to dilute the city’s voting power, the migration meant fewer funds for schools. Since 2012, the district has lost more than $25 million, some of which has gone toward boosting teacher pay and boosting class sizes by 20 students. The school board is facing a levy of less than $22 million to raise money for teachers’ pay and teaching supplies — a drop of more than $3 million compared to what schools in the county were raising last year.
“We’re trying to keep the large district educational, but doing that means it’s not big enough to make up for the cut in state money,” Superintendent Kyle Szakat told The Washington Post.
Waukesha’s problems reflect other areas of the country plagued by traditional cultural divides, including red states in the South that have voted to cut federal funding for public education, and blue states in the Midwest that have so heavily favored public education in recent years that school districts are struggling to maintain basic services.
Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly disagreed with much of the community’s portrayal.
“We’re not what you see on TV,” he said. “People are getting painted in a false direction.”
Waukesha has a proud tradition of rural ranching, though Reilly said a greater emphasis on business was a reflection of more prosperous times for the area’s farming community. Earlier this month, Waukesha’s City Council approved moving forward with plans to build a new fire station for the city. It may not have come at a perfect time — as a financial crisis for the city looms ahead if a federal court rules the city must change its voting practices because the neighborhood communities are illegally concentrated.
“I grew up in Waukesha, and I know there are misconceptions. I think if people come here, they’ll see it’s a place of great hospitality, I’ve seen some different things, but I think if they come here, they’ll get a good impression,” Reilly said.
He added: “I think in a strange way, it’s rebranding our town. I’m trying to change the perception and say, ‘You’re not going to find all of these corrupt people and you’re not going to find a lot of people who go downhill.’”