School Board Candidates State their Cases for Election at Forum

Thursday, September 29, 2016, 10:20 am
By: 
Karessa Wheeler

Above, L-R Clark, Conlin, Edsall, Graham, Guerrant, Henderson, and Martin

Seven candidates for the East Lansing Board of Education introduced themselves and strove to stand out from the group at a voter’s forum Wednesday night.

Some, such as MSU economics professor Mike Conlin, focused on his personal expertise as the reason to elect him to one of the three open seats. Others, such as current Board Secretary Hillary Henderson, emphasized their experience on the Board.

And at least one candidate sought to clarify controversies from the recent past.

“I have been connected very closely with Red Cedar and continue to feel there could be elementary school programming at Red Cedar. The biggest thing was that we moved students into inferior facilities, doing interventions in hallways and portables. I have enjoyed my four years very much and believe we accomplished much in equity and inclusion,” said Board Trustee Kath Edsall.

Each candidate gave opening and closing statements, and also answered six questions from the audience that were selected by two members of the hosting group, the League of Women Voters of Greater Lansing. Moderator Jenny Alverez told candidates beforehand that the only questions allowed would be those that addressed issues relating to the entire District and not to a particular school or candidate.

First to speak was Robert Clark, a field assistant with the Michigan Education Association. Clark told the audience of around 90 people that his work with MEA has given him “the inside track to the concerns that teachers have.”

“Sometimes an outsider’s view can be helpful,” said Clark. “Sometimes we don’t always see eye to eye but I can be a moderator and a stabilizing force… There is no reason why we can’t be the standard for the State of Michigan if not the nation.”

Kyle Guerrant, Deputy State Superintendent of Schools, spoke next. He also focused on his work experience as an asset to the Board but added that he is a lifelong resident of East Lansing and a graduate of East Lansing High School. He was the first candidate to mention the closing of Red Cedar Elementary and stressed he was “committed to keeping our current buildings in a K-5 configuration and exploring the best use of the Red Cedar building.”

“That has been elephant in the room in our community for a few years,” he said.

Nichole Martin is also a lifelong resident and told the audience that her work as a social worker in the State foster system gives her the ability to “understand the needs of different demographics and help me understand what is needed in our community.”

Erin Graham, professor of history and women’s studies at MSU, was appointed to the Board in 2015. She stepped forward for the open seat after volunteering in her children’s schools and noting the low teacher morale, controversy over the sexual education curriculum and a “clear need for constructive dialogue.”

“As a Board member, I have worked on setting priorities, elevating teachers’ voices and fought hard for a fair contract. We have the first three year contract in over a decade,” she said, adding that she has also focused on the achievement gap, encouraged the District to partner with MSU and led the push for lead testing in all the schools’ drinking water.

Henderson first ran for the Board when she had a graduating senior, a kindergartener and a rising kindergartener, wanting to “maintain the same excellence that my eldest had for my youngest.” She remains committed to the current configuration of elementary school buildings and hopes to open Red Cedar with some kind of preschool program.

Conlin offered his experience as an economist and a builder as a way to diversify the Board and create a strong fiscal plan for upgrading the District’s aging infrastructure. He would work to reduce class size by hiring more teachers and paraprofessionals through funds made possible by re-evaluating the District's budget.

“We can reverse this trend with wise economic and financial plans. We can develop an economically sensible plan for the bond,” he said. “I want to help craft a community bond that increases resources for all children.”

Edsall, a veterinarian and mother of 8, ran for the Board four years ago on a basis of equity and inclusion of all students. Since then, she has focused on ending disparities between children and on meeting the needs of the children whose needs were not being met.

The first question asked the candidates how they would bring the community together to meet common goals. Clark said the Board needs to have transparent policies with “no room for misunderstanding or favoritism.” Conlin focused on increasing resources to benefit the most disadvantaged students. Edsall understands the parental desire to advocate for one’s own children but believes it is her job to make sure all children’s needs are met.  “No one is losing out when we are meeting the needs of those whose needs have gone unmet,” she said.

Graham believes we need to have a dialogue around our shared values and draw on the resources of MSU to work with the teachers. Guerrant emphasized increasing trust between the community and the Board and to ensure the teachers and administration receive the support they need. Henderson said the Board needs to listen to the community, the teachers and the administrators as well as look at the research. Martin also mentioned listening to the community and also collaboration with outside resources.

The second question asked the candidates their position on Schools of Choice and how we can balance overcrowding in the schools.

Fiscally, without Schools of Choice, East Lansing could only afford three elementary schools, Conlin noted. He said the Board must maximize the resources put in the classroom but more importantly, need a better way to forecast future enrollment and project class sizes.

Edsall said, “There are several issues here. Do we accept Schools of Choice? How do we treat them? Claims have been made that we have been overloading the buildings with Schools of Choice students. Before my term on the Board our net increase was 178 Schools of Choice students. Since then, it was 90 students. Last year, it was 19 students. The goal was to keep enrollment level. Look at what students are currently in each building and how we can bring the sizes up to the teacher contract level. A year ago, that was a significant number. Class sizes have since leveled out. We couldn’t correct for that until this year.”

Graham said overcrowding and Schools of Choice were two different issues but she would like to maintain a stable enrollment to continue Schools of Choice and to do a good job of estimating our numbers to open the right number of slots.

Guerrant said this is an issue across the State but that East Lansing has 28 percent of its population coming from outside the District. The Board needs to manage Schools of Choice slots better and also address the issue of permeable boundaries which allows families in one East Lansing elementary school catchment District to request enrollment in a different school.

Henderson said Schools of Choice slots are meant to fill in blanks from one year to the next, not to fill whole classrooms or whole buildings. “We are not doing a very good job of forecasting. We cannot take Schools of Choice up to the limit because of the move-ins we have in certain catchment areas,” Henderson said.

Martin said Schools of Choice is a huge concern of hers and that the District needs to leave slots open for people to move into the District. Clark said the Schools of Choice represents a larger problem with State funding and that it can’t be used to “cherry-pick” students or districts.

Candidates were then asked about increasing diversity in teaching staff. All agreed it was necessary to have a more diverse teaching staff, with Clark calling it a “moral imperative.” Edsall, Graham, Henderson and Guerrant stated the problem is larger than just the District, with state and federal policies that have made teaching a less attractive profession for minorities. But Martin believes that the local Districts play a role as well.

“We have to make an effort to attract a diverse population. We have to create an environment that is welcoming and show them they are needed,” Martin said.

Next they were asked whether they would support a balanced calendar, which means classes would be held throughout the year, with regular, reoccurring breaks of one or two weeks. All candidates said that is an issue that needed community input, but Guerrant, Martin, Clark and Henderson are supportive of the idea. Conlin mentioned that you would need to have staff and teacher support for the idea as well. Edsall said it would be very difficult to do without an upgrade to the elementary school buildings that would include air conditioning.

The fifth question concerned the role of Board in technology planning and execution. Guerrant said the Board sets the vision with input from administration and teachers. Henderson and Martin agreed that the role was to make sure the money set aside for technology needs to be spent wisely. Clark and Graham said the Board needs to ensure socially disadvantaged students have equal access to technology. Edsall and Conlin stressed that the Board would need to continue to provide funds as technology turns over and needs to be replaced, prompting the likely need for a renewal of the tech bond.

The final question was how the Board can support students and reduce suspensions and expulsions through restorative justice. Henderson said the Board has been “making strides” toward restorative justice. Martin believes giving children positive behavior supports is key. Clark said reducing class size and adding paraprofessionals would help. Conlin deferred to Graham and Edsall, who said she pushes back at every disciplinary hearing and they have gone from four to six hearings a year to one last year.

Guerrant recently traveled to the White House to work on restorative justice and said black and Latino students are 2.5 times more likely to be expelled. He wants to see an end to “zero tolerance” policies in schools around the State and do a better job of collecting data on suspensions as well as expulsions, especially in the lower grades.

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

- Correction: When first published, this article inadvertently omitted Edsall's response to the Schools of Choice question.  Her response has been included in this updated version.