Candidates Make Final Pitches for East Lansing Board of Education Seats

Friday, October 28, 2016, 11:40 am
Karessa Wheeler

At the last of three candidate forums, all seven people vying for the three open Board of Education seats made their final appeals to voters.

The forum Thursday night was hosted by the District Parent Council and was held at the auditorium of MacDonald Middle School. It was moderated by the Honorable Richard D. Ball, 54B District Court Judge, and was attended by around 40 people.

Over the course of two hours, Judge Ball posed five questions to the candidates, who also gave opening and closing statements.

The first question was how do they plan on preparing for Board meetings and how would they become and stay informed about issues before the Board.

Current Trustee Erin Graham said the Board receives their packets regarding the meeting agenda the Friday before their bimonthly Monday meetings. She spends the weekend reading the packet and asking questions of the administration. She often goes to members of the community for input, as well.

“I am a researcher myself so I look at a lot of different data and teach my students how to do research,” she said.

Trustee Kath Edsall said she relies on her experience not only as a School Board member for four years but also in her roles on various advisory boards to guide her preparation for meetings.

“I think I’ve got the routine down,” she said. “I dig deeper than just the packet and reach out to people.”

Mike Conlin, an economics professor at MSU, said he doesn’t believe Board members can be completely informed about all the issues but instead each member should focus on the areas where they have particular expertise. In addition, he also does research professionally and has recently reached out to the Ingham County Intermediate School District to learn more about their pre-kindergarten programming. But in reality, he would hope to bring his experience with education funding to the Board.

“I’ve spent five years figuring out Michigan’s (educational) funding structure and it is crazy complicated. That is the skill set I bring to the Board,” he said.

Hillary Henderson, the third sitting Board member up for re-election, said she starts by doing research online and then goes to the administration, principals and teachers. Finally she looks to her constituents to see if they have any input.

“I have this drill down,” Henderson said.

Deputy Superintendent of Schools Kyle Guerrant said he would start by taking advantage of training for new Board members that is offered by the Michigan School Board Association. Then he would work to engage students more in the issues before the Board.

“Lots of these issues directly affect students and I would like to get their input more often,” he said. “When you listen to students, it’s hard to go wrong.”

Nichole Martin, a field support analyst for the State’s child welfare program, has experience planning and running meetings in her job and believes it takes a lot of effort to understand the policies of the school system. She would also like to see students more involved.

“A lot of the policies will take a lot of time to dissect and understand why it was put in place and why we should change it,” she said.

Bob Clark, an employee with the Michigan Education Association, would focus on creating a culture and atmosphere that welcomes people to come forward to the Board, bringing information.

“This is a collaborative effort that requires respect and trust in each other that we are making the right choices,” he said. “Being willing to go out and ask for information is the hallmark of a good education.”

The second question asked the candidates how they would add more diversity to the District’s teaching staff so it better reflects the student body.

Edsall, who has had eight children in the District, believes there were more African American and Hispanic teachers when her oldest, now 24, went through the school system. She believes that past administrations did not make diversity a focus and there is now a large gap.

“We need to reach out and make sure we are increasing our applicant pool, to put our job postings out there so we can more accurately reflect our student population,” she said.

Conlin believes this has been an issue since he and his wife moved into the District eleven years ago. He would support increasing resources to track diversity and increasing classroom resources.

Henderson believes the current Superintendent, Dr. Robyne Thompson, is actively working to recruit a more diverse teaching population but it is a national problem without an easy fix.

“If you are diligent and keep trying and adding to our resources and recruiting, you will get there,” she said.

Guerrant believes the District needs to ensure that its policies of recruitment and retainment are designed to specifically attract and keep diverse teaching candidates. He supports more recruiting at colleges such as Wayne State University.

Martin feels having a diverse teaching staff is important to support children of color and that one difficulty is policies that force education students to work a full year at no pay as student teachers. The schools need to offer the student teachers support and incentives to stay in the District.

The biggest problem is low teacher pay, said Clark. The Board has to make contracts with unions that are attractive to teachers and allow them to earn enough to live in the community. Having a diverse teaching population challenges kids to see and understand more of the world, he said.

The entire community needs to make teachers of color feel welcomed into the schools, Graham said, stressing that it is more supportive to have an entire cohort of teachers of color instead of only a single teacher per building. She would support appointing a task force to study ways to recruit more applicants of color, perhaps by reaching out to historically black colleges and universities.

The best use of the now-empty Red Cedar Elementary School was the third question of the night.

Conlin opposed closing Red Cedar, saying it has cost the District $50,000-$100,000 to maintain an empty building for two years. He does not believe the District can support six K-5 elementary schools and would like to see the District partner with the Ingham ISD for special needs students.

Henderson agrees that there isn’t the population to reopen Red Cedar currently but would love to see pre-kindergarten programming with a combination of federal, state and tuition based programs. She also believes this would alleviate some of the overcrowding at Pinecrest Elementary School.

Guerrant said he has seen districts across the State go into deficits by trying to keep buildings open when financially they should be closed. He would support repurposing the building for early learning opportunities.

Martin also would like to see birth to pre-K programming at Red Cedar, and would support looking into an alternative education program.

“I know some people are leery about alternative education but I think it would fit well there and help some of our students who get lost,” she said.

Clark proposes that the District rent Red Cedar to other school districts and community groups to at least “pay for itself just to keep the lights on.” He also believes it will be useful while the other five elementary schools are upgraded if the upcoming bond effort is successful.

Graham is concerned about the populations of students coming from MSU housing programs. Spartan Village will remain open for another 3-5 years and the new family housing, 1855, already is 62 percent with 84 school-aged children.

“Glencairn doesn’t have the space for that. We don’t know how high that is going to rise,” she said, adding that she would not be in favor of selling the building and would rather wait for a facilities committee to complete its work before deciding the fate of Red Cedar.

Edsall believes it was a mistake to close Red Cedar over the recommendations of advisory committees and the Superintendent, and now there are overcrowding issues and students in the English Language Learners program and those living in poverty are not receiving the quality of service they deserve. She did not make a specific proposal for Red Cedar but has suggested it be reopened as an elementary school sooner rather than later.

The fourth question asked about closing the achievement gap between those who are struggling and those who need additional challenges.

Henderson said the Board has addressed the achievement gap by designating Donley Elementary School as a Title 1 school, allowing for smaller classes and more federal support. In addition, they have added additional Advanced Placement classes in the high school.

Guerrant believes the biggest way to reduce the gap is through early childhood learning. When students come to kindergarten with an educational deficit, it will only continue to grow, he said.

Martin told the story of her daughter’s increased focus in 3rd grade following the implementation of flexible seating – couches, beanbags, rocking chairs and swivel chairs – which met her need not to have to sit at a desk all day. Similar measures could be implemented in other classrooms as well. She would also advocate for more parental involvement in the education process.

Clark would rely on the teachers to know a multitude of learning styles to best reach the students at both the top and the bottom of the scale. He would like to see more community involvement, such as tutoring struggling students.

Graham said all students need to be thought of as intellectuals and all students need to be challenged academically. She prefers the term “opportunity gap” to take the onus off the students and would like the District to use resources to provide "rigorous and equitable learning opportunities.”

Edsall objected to the question, saying it “pits our students against each other and that isn’t who we should be as a school district.” Instead, she supports working with a multi-tiered system of supports which make sure each student is achieving and being challenged to move up and succeed.

Conlin believes the key to closing the gap is smaller class sizes and additional teaching resources such as paraprofessionals in the classroom. The Board’s role is to ensure schools have enough money to make those resources available to all schools.

The final question asked how to reduce overcrowded classrooms, with consideration of Schools of Choice and permeable boundary policies.

Long-term use of Schools of Choice students to balance a District’s budget is not a smart solution, said Guerrant, because they are not likely to stay with the District. He said the community needs to “have a conversation about what Schools of Choice should be used for.”

Martin, whose family uses the permeable boundary policy to attend a school within the District other than their neighborhood school, believes moving programming such as Great Start Readiness Programming from Pinecrest to Red Cedar would address the immediate needs of overcrowding at that school. She also believes Schools of Choice slots should be supplemental to the budget and space should be left for people to move into the District.

Clark compared the Schools of Choice to a “bounty system” that harms surrounding school districts and overcrowds East Lansing schools. The entire State needs to look beyond property taxes for funding schools and address more effective ways to meet costs.

Graham would support reducing the number of Schools of Choice open slots each year to give schools “wiggle room” in case of new move-ins during the summers. She believes the key is contracting with teachers to ensure we have “safe, supportive learning environments.”

School populations were relatively stable until the reconfiguration and the closing of Red Cedar, Edsall said. Moving the Red Cedar students into other schools threw off the balance and also artificially inflated the numbers of permeable boundary students.

Conlin says he has often mentioned that the schools can and should use better methods to forecast enrollment several years into the future. He believes the District has the data but not the skill set to evaluate it in the right way. He would like to see a new system of estimating student counts and also focus on building smaller schools in the future.

Henderson said permeable boundary requests need to be reined in for those families who “school shop throughout the District. Our schools should not be competing against each other.”

The candidates ended the evening with closing statements explaining why they should be elected or re-elected in the Nov. 8 election.

For more information on the election and candidates, please click here.