A controversial Salt Lake City school board member — who called teachers “lazy” and drew attention for attending meetings with his head tucked into in a blanket while playing solitaire on his computer — has been unseated by a newcomer focused on helping west side students succeed during the pandemic and after.
With additional votes counted Wednesday, incumbent Mike Nemelka fell behind by a widening margin of nearly 32 points. His opponent, Jenny Sika, collected 66% of the vote to his 34%.
When reached by The Salt Lake Tribune, Nemelka brushed off the results and said he wasn’t invested in the race, saying he didn’t campaign or put up yard signs. “If they want someone else, that’s fine,” he said. “I’m not going to worry about it.”
For the past year, Nemelka, an 80-year-old retired special education teacher and former Marine, had pushed back against the growing division and animosity among the members of the Salt Lake City school board. Then he found himself at the center of it.
Nemelka had first spoken out in January when the board decided behind closed doors to force out the now-former superintendent. At the time, he called the decision “not fair” and “idiotic,” suggesting that a few members wanted to punish the superintendent for not firing a principal who drove students home while they were drunk instead of calling the police.
Those events caused a stir, and the district’s dysfunction has remained in the spotlight since.
In July, Nemelka faced strong pushback himself for calling teachers “lazy” for wanting to continue with remote instruction during the pandemic. He also insisted that educators afraid of returning to the classroom should just quit. And, while speaking, he sat wrapped in a blanket while playing card games on his computer, which was visible on the live video of the virtual meeting.
Another member insisted at the same meeting that the discussion wrap up at exactly 6 p.m. And several yelled at each other while on screen.
Several parents and teachers spoke out against the conduct. But Nemelka has remained steadfast in his position and continued to push for in-person teaching. The district has been the only one in the state to start this fall with its students entirely online — which most parents in the west side district that he represents have asked for.
The drama has continued, too, with the public release of messages sent between members of the board that showed several of Nemelka’s colleagues mocking him or purposefully leaving him off of emails. Last month, he filed a complaint against three members involved in the communication, calling for their resignation over the at-times vulgar messages. He told The Tribune then that “being on the school board is the biggest crock I’ve ever seen.”
“They just can’t make a decision,” he added Wednesday. “They talk for hours and hours. And they’re holding back a whole year of students by teaching online.”
He served for one term, first elected in 2016 to replace Michael Clara, who also came under fire for speaking out while on the board.
Local school board seats typically don’t garner much attention. And, collectively, there were less than 3,000 ballots submitted in this race. But the turmoil of the school board, particularly sharpened by the pandemic and public fighting, has drawn interest. And several have campaigned for Sika to bring some calm to the board with the other members most entangled in the dysfunction not up for election this year.
Sika, 39, said Wednesday that she initially ran on a whim but has since felt a responsibility to represent her community and make sure the board unites to help students.
“I don’t know if it’s the water in the area,” she said, “but I felt there was a lot of division with the members.”
Sika, who is Polynesian and owns a construction company, said she also believes students of color, especially those on the west side or who come from nontraditional families, often get ignored. And the equity gap has worsened with the pandemic, she said.
She is raising eight kids, five of whom came to live with her four years ago when their mother — Sika’s sister — was unable to care for them. Sika has also gained custody of three others in similar situations. They range in age from 5 years old to 23, and she has children in kindergarten through high school this year in the district.
“I became an instant mother overnight,” Sika said.
Now, she hopes to use her seat on the school board to advocate for them and others like them on the west side. She wants students of color to be pushed to compete academically, noting that they have historically been relegated to being athletes and not scholars.
“They just don’t see a lot of familiar faces from our community on the education level,” Sika said. “That needs to change. They’re smart. They need to be encouraged.”
Improvements can be made even while the district continues with remote instruction, she added. A few of her own kids are struggling with learning online, but most are succeeding. They just need attention from teachers and to be given a reason to achieve. And, she believes, the district must keep working on equal access to Wi-Fi and laptops — which can be a major contributor to success.
There’s no right or easy answer, she noted, for schooling during the pandemic. But she knows that many parents on the west side that she’ll be representing want their kids to stay home while transmission remains high, including a group that started a petition for online schooling this fall.
The zip codes in her district have been the worst hit in the city. And Sika has experienced the virus firsthand in her family.
Both she and her 17-year-old son got COVID-19 about three weeks ago. And Sika’s 80-year-old mother, who lives in the same house, had it in July. It was contained to them, not spreading to others in their home, and they have all since recovered.
“It was very excruciating for me, though,” Sika said. “And I really understand all sides of this issue. I think a lot of people around here just want to be heard.”
Recently, she added, with the fighting on the board, some residents have felt disenfranchised. She said that has to change.
The Salt Lake City School Board, which has seven members, had three other seats up for election on Tuesday. Kristi Swett, an incumbent, ran unopposed for her spot over District 7. And Joél-Léhi Organista, an instructor at the University of Utah and the current president of the Education for Liberation Network, also didn’t have an opponent for District 1 where the incumbent chose not the run.
District 5 went to newcomer Mohamed Baayd, a self-described business owner, veteran and father, who won with 70% of the vote.