Sparta group seeks to form Monroe County ‘Christ-centered school’

By KAREN PARKER | County Line

Although the spring school-board elections may be over, it appears our neighbors in Sparta still are in disagreement over the matter. 

One person at the center of the controversy is Emily Diefenbaugh, treasurer of the Sparta Citizens for Real Progress (its chairman is Sarah Curtis). The group’s stated goal was to defeat the Sparta School District’s operating referendum, which it managed to do by a narrow margin. 

The group’s activities have continued. Based on a half-page ad in the June 11 Monroe County Herald, its goals include establishing a “Christ-centered school,” presumably an alternative to the county’s current public schools. A “Solemn Assembly” event is slated for Tuesday, June 21, at the Sparta American Legion. Not only is Diefenbaugh a leader for Sparta Citizens for Real Progress, but also she serves as vice-chair of the Monroe County Republican Party. 

In an email, Doug Rogalla, chairman of the party, denied any knowledge of the scheduled meeting. He did add, however, “I do believe that public schools need to spend more time on education rather than indoctrination, that Christian schools are a better alternative.”

Rogalla did not make it clear if this were a personal view or a party view, but Wisconsin Republican legislators were the recipients in 2020 of more than $600,000 from the American Federation for Children (AFC), which was founded by rightwing Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos, who served as Secretary of Education under former President Donald Trump. 

Republican legislators who have benefitted from the AFC’s generosity have introduced bills to roll back funding for public schools and expand public funding for private schools through school vouchers — an effort Betsy DeVos, who has said that “government really sucks” and pronounced public schools a “dead end,” aggressively supports. 

As we reported a few weeks ago, Sparta Citizens for Real Progress’s relationship with Copperhead Consulting of Iowa suggests its interests went much further than simply defeating a referendum, although Copperhead does note on its website it has successfully aided in the defeat of more than a dozen referendums throughout the Midwest. Sparta Citizens for Real Progress paid Copperhead Consulting $7,620 for its advice on how to defeat the referendum.

The stated goal of Copperhead Consulting, according to its website, is to end public education. Correspondingly, the Sparta Citizens for Real Progress recently distributed a “yellow sheet” detailing the sins of the current Sparta School Board and its alleged violation of the 8th Commandment (“Thou shalt not steal,” Exodus 20:15), which suggests the group  is closely aligned with the goals of Copperhead Consulting. 

Paul Dorr, who heads the Copperhead group, said on his website that he rarely shares the same goal as his clients, who mostly just want to fight rising taxes for public schools, while Dorr wants to eliminate them entirely. Public schools will, as he says, “one day be gone, and restore education back into the hands of families, the parents and the Christians.” 

It’s hard to know if those who donated to the group knew any of this. But they are likely to find out next week if they attend the “Solemn Assembly,” where guest speakers will be Matt Trewhella of Mercy Seat Church in Milwaukee and Wayne Sedlak of Reformation Hope Church in Brookfield. Neither appears to have traditional religious credentials, but they both have websites selling all sorts of gear that would appear to rightwing evangelicals. Trewhella advocates resisting any law that he deems “violates God’s law,” even if it includes violence. He has targeted women’s healthcare clinics and medical facilities that he believes are murdering Wisconsinites with Covid-19 healthcare treatment. Sedlak appears to share much of the same philosophy.

A number of letter writers to the Monroe County Herald have questioned who is behind the Sparta Citizens for Real Progress. It is not exactly a state secret. The law demands that any time over $2,000 is spent on a political campaign, it must be reported,

That knowledge is public record and was released by the Sparta School District.

The largest donor at $10,000 was Gene Treu, facilities manager at Mathews Bow in Sparta. After that was John Lodico, a Sparta chiropractor, and Gary Ascher, CEO of Coverra Insurance, both of whom contributed $2,500.

Another $2,000 came from Adam and Shiane Hayden, the Sparta Culver’s restaurant owners. Shari Powelson, a Coverra employee, pitched in another $2,000. 

While most of the large donors were Spartans, smaller donors included residents of Cashton; Tallahassee, Fla.; and Terri Revels of Tomah, wife of the Monroe County Sheriff Wes Revels.  

Thanks to an accommodating legislature, any school formed by the Citizens for Real Progress could be funded by school vouchers of more than $8,000 per student. These are state tax dollars, but unlike public schools, elected representatives would not track the activities of the school, which would have absolute control over the facility and the curriculum. 

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