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GOP lawmakers seek citizenship requirement for technical college board members

The move would would prevent a single person from being reappointed to the Gateway Technical College Board

Clouds and a blue sky are seen behind the Wisconsin State Capitol
The Wisconsin State Capitol on Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Republican lawmakers want to require board members overseeing Wisconsin technical colleges to be U.S. citizens, a change that could block a single person seeking citizenship in Racine County from being reappointed to the Gateway Technical College Board.

Laws governing the technical colleges and the boards overseeing them date back to 1911. Lawmakers at the time required local technical college boards be made up of a school superintendent, two employers and two employees, but they left out any mention of citizenship.

State Rep. Amanda Nedweski, R-Pleasant Prairie, says she believes that was an oversight. Nedweski, along with other lawmakers, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has introduced a bill to require technical college district board members to be U.S. citizens.

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During a public hearing last week, Nedweski described tech board positions as being very powerful because they can vote on matters like raising property taxes or borrowing money.

“Elected representatives of municipal, public school boards, state and federal governing bodies for Wisconsin must all be U.S. citizens,” Nedweski told colleagues. “Due to their levying and borrowing authority, this legislation simply requires Wisconsin Technical College Board members to also be U.S. citizens.”

According to the organization that represents technical college board members, just one person would be affected by the change.

Zaida Lange-Irisson has been on the Gateway Technical College Board of Trustees since 2019 and currently serves as the board treasurer. Lange-Irisson is a legal resident and is working toward becoming a citizen.

She started as a student in Gateway’s English Second Language program, earning a technical diploma in cosmetology and electrical engineering followed by an associate’s degree in electrical engineering. Lange-Irisson currently works for Generac Power Systems, based in Waukesha.

Lange-Irisson declined an interview for this story, but shared a statement saying she believes in the power of technical education to impact the lives of students and is honored to serve on the board of trustees.

In written testimony given to the state Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, Wisconsin Technical College District Boards Association Executive Director Layla Merrifield described Lange-Irrison as a DACA recipient, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The federal policy indefinitely delays deportation of people brought to the U.S. as children.

“She is actively pursuing U.S. Citizenship, and is qualified to become a naturalized citizen,” Merrifield wrote. “However, she has been told to expect a 4 to 6 year wait for the federal government to process her application.”

‘All the arrows pointed to reappointment’

Racine County Board of Supervisors Chair Thomas Roanhouse reappointed Lange-Irrison to a three-year term on the Gateway Technical College Board of Trustees earlier this year. He told Wisconsin Public Radio her credentials speak for themselves.

“I just looked at it, and all the arrows pointed to reappointment, and there weren’t any reasons why she should not be reappointed, far as I was concerned,” Roanhouse said.

Roanhouse said it’s difficult to find good people interested in serving as public servants in unpaid roles like on technical college boards. He said everyone he spoke to about Lange-Irrison said she “was doing a bang-up job.”

As lawmakers discussed the tech board citizenship bill, Rep. Alex Joers, D-Middleton, questioned why Republicans would introduce a bill affecting a single resident.

“I’m a little concerned that we’re going to this very high level of statute change just for this one person,” Joers said.

Nedweski responded by saying the bill is “also for the future,” saying the issue was brought to her attention by another college board member who went through the citizenship process.

That person is fellow retired business executive and fellow Gateway Technical College Board Trustee Ram Bhatia, who has served on the board since 2005. Bhatia also serves on the Village of Mount Pleasant Board of Trustees.

Bhatia told WPR technical board members have the same taxing jurisdiction as elected officials and nomination papers for public office require citizenship.

“So my point is, if you cannot even sign the nomination paper, you cannot run for political office because you are not a citizen, then how can you have the right on the taxation?” Bhatia said. “That’s as simple as that.”

The Wisconsin Technical College District Boards Association has registered its opposition to the bill with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission. Merrifield’s testimony asks lawmakers to amend the legislation to permit permanent legal residents to serve on district boards.

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