Photo: courtesy of East Lansing Publlic Schools
If there was one thing that all seven candidates agreed on last night at the Glencairn Neighborhood Association candidates’ forum, it is that none have any intention or desire to close Glencairn Elementary School.
All candidates told the approximately 40 people in attendance that they support keeping all five current elementary schools open, with current Trustee Kath Edsall advocating for opening a sixth as well.
In fact the only major point of disagreement was what to do with the currently-closed Red Cedar Elementary School. Edsall believes the district could support six elementary schools and that would benefit special education services and traditionally underserved populations.
Trustee Erin Graham also believes the Board needs to address the overcrowding and inadequate facilities across the District and wants to investigate the solutions.
Trustee Hillary Henderson, the third candidate seeking re-election to the three open seats, said there isn’t the population to support six elementary schools. Candidates Kyle Guerrant, Mike Conlin and Robert Clark agreed.
Candidate Nichole Martin did not specifically mention any plans for Red Cedar but commended the teachers, students and staff who moved from Red Cedar to Glencairn two years ago for making “a diverse community that has evolved from the strife.”
The seven candidates also agreed that the Board has been moving in the right direction toward upgrading the District’s sex education programming. Clark, who works for the Michigan Education Association, said the curriculum needs to be “more inclusive, scientific and comprehensive.” He also would like to see them show what a healthy relationship is. Edsall agreed, stating that the policies and programming need to be inclusive of all students, including LGBTQ and teach appropriate consent for both boys and girls.
Graham is pleased that the new Sex Ed Advisory Board now includes students to make sure the content of the courses are relevant and also said the Board is planning to include programming for special needs kids.
Henderson supports the “Yes Means Yes” initiative to teach positive consent and believes the Board is working to be more inclusive. Guerrant, as Deputy Superintendent for Schools for the state, has worked with districts across Michigan and believes parents are often more progressive about teaching sex education than schools, and that schools need to meet the needs of more than just heterosexual children.
Conlin believes the Sex Ed Advisory Board needs to have a diversity of views as well as the ability to discuss the issues. Martin wants the Advisory Board to be held accountable for their job.
The candidates were then asked about an upcoming bond issue to upgrade the elementary facilities. Currently there is a bond committee studying the needs of the schools and planning to report back to the Board of Education in late November.
Edsall warned the group that the current buildings were built for a different climate and “there are not a lot of bones left.” She would also like to see improvements to the schools’ drop off and pick up areas.
Graham said she would prefer to let the bond committee finish its report before she makes any decision about how to use the bond money. She would like to see “a bond that serves the whole community and works for our community and that will pass. We need the bond to pass.”
Henderson advocates for waiting another year before bringing the bond before the voters. She agrees that the buildings all need upgrades but fears the voters will not pass it in March. Guerrant agreed that “it would not be bad to push it back.”
Conlin’s main concern with the bond is that if voters approve building all new schools, the schools need to be small in order to maximize the ability of the District to use all of its space. “If you build them big, you are increasing operating costs and have empty space and that costs money that we won’t be able to invest in teachers,” he said.
Martin would prefer to see the bond fund entirely new schools because remodeling is a risk in such old buildings. Clark would also want the Board to be very careful about building too big.
When asked what the Board can do to support teachers, Graham said the teachers have the first three-year contract in a decade and that the administration recently took on a higher percentage of the health care cost increases. The Board needs to continue to listen to teachers and show that “we are valuing their voices.” She would like the board to push back on state policies such as standardized testing that de-professionalize teaching.
Henderson said the Board needs to listen to teachers’ ideas on programming and take care of them financially. Guerrant would like to work toward teacher retention and also increase support staff such as school social workers to allow teachers to focus on teaching and avoid burnout.
Conlin supports giving the teachers more resources but he believes that the Board must find a way to increase the general fund so that giving one teacher a resources doesn’t take away from another one. Martin said teachers are underpaid and undervalued and that the Board should do more to recognize the work that they do.
Clark believes increasing professional development would support teachers, as well as increasing their budget for classroom supplies and decreasing class size. Edsall is proud that the current board has worked with teachers on what curriculum they would like to see and also wants to focus on de-professionalizing teaching.
The candidates were also asked to explain their vision of the District in ten years. For Henderson, this meant increasing pre-kindergarten options and upgrading the facilities to attract more families to move into the district. Guerrant wants East Lansing to “be regarded as the best place to be.” He would also increase pre-K classes and look closely at where the District is placing Schools of Choice students.
Conlin would like to see East Lansing follow the model of Haslett Schools in partnering with Michigan State University to create special education pre-kindergarten, but warns against a large pre-K program because there isn’t the need and the District would end up subsidizing wealthy families just to get them into the District.
Henderson envisions increasing education options from birth through pre-K through Great Start Readiness Program. She also wants to increase the mental health supports throughout the District.
Clark would like the District to collaborate more with MSU and local community groups to make sure students’ needs are met in and outside of the classroom. Edsall and Graham would like a greater focus on the opportunity gap that exists between high-achieving students and traditionally underserved student populations. Graham would also like the schools to work toward restorative justice and increase the number of teachers of color in the District.
The final question of the night was “how do you intend to work collaboratively after the debacle of Red Cedar?” The first candidates to answer were those seeking a first term on the Board.
Guerrant said the Board’s job is to take input from the community and then find common ground in which to discuss issues. The Board needs to operate in a clear and open way, he said. Conlin said the Board functions best when they do their research, try to educate each other and are willing to communicate with each other. Martin said the board needs to work collaboratively and do a better job educating the public as to the true needs of the schools. Clark said the Board needs to reflect the values of the community and treat each other with respect.
The current Board members – Edsall, Graham and Henderson – all pointed out that the board has been in agreement on almost every issue except Red Cedar. “There were very few votes that we did not agree on,” Edsall said.
Graham believes that the Board needs to move ahead and engage in dialogue with the community and others on the Board. Henderson said that the Board could do a better job of communications and will continue to learn from each other.
The nearly two hour long forum ended with Glencairn resident Meegan Holland, organizer of the forum, thanking the candidates for their time.
“I am so impressed with the caliber of our slate of candidates,” Holland said.
For more information on the election and candidates, please click here.