Michigan GOP gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley attends a right-wing rally at the state Capitol, Feb. 8, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins
Updated, 10:25 a.m., 3/15/22, with Kelley’s comments
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley stood in front of the Forest Hills Public Schools board of education last month, taking jabs at Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and making sweeping promises to change the state’s education system if he is elected later this year.
“Day No. 1 with Gov. Kelley, the pandemic will be over in Michigan. We will cancel all mandates related to the COVID-19 pandemic permanently. We will make sure that our school districts are no longer teaching critical race theory, social emotional learning or diversity, equity and inclusion because we can see the DEI crowd is not very inclusive,” Kelley said during the crowded Feb. 21 school board meeting.
But some of Kelley’s comments didn’t apply to Forest Hills, which hasn’t had a mask mandate in place since Feb. 14. There also are virtually no pandemic measures in place in the state.
Critical race theory (CRT), a graduate school-level concept focused on the history and ongoing effects of white supremacy in the United States, also is not being taught at any Forest Hills schools. The issue has become a right-wing rallying cry in the midterm elections, with Republicans introducing legislation to ban teaching it in Michigan and other states.
A Freedom of Information Act request, filed by a conservative parent group Forest Hills for JUST Education, found that there is nothing in the curriculum that falls under CRT. The school does offer social emotional learning and a Global Learners Initiative (GLI) aimed at expanding students’ “knowledge, understanding and empathy for the global society in which we live.”
And Kelley doesn’t live in the Forest Hills School district, located just outside of Grand Rapids, and doesn’t have any students who attend the district. He lives about 26 miles west in Allendale Township.
Forest Hills wasn’t the first school board meeting he’s attended since launching his campaign in January 2021. He also attended meetings at Lansing area schools, St. John’s Public Schools and Grand Ledge Public Schools, and Grand Rapids-area districts, Rockford Public Schools and Greenville Public Schools, as well as a May 2021 anti-mask protest at Southfield High School.
That may be one way to try and stand out in a large field of 12 Republicans in the gubernatorial primary election in August. Other challengers hoping to face Whitmer in November include right-wing commentator Tudor Dixon, chiropractor Garrett Soldano, businesswoman Donna Brandenburg, Michigan State Police Capt. Mike Brown, Pastor Ralph Rebandt, veteran Evan Space, financial advisor Michael Markey Jr. businessman Kevin Rinke and multi-millionaire Perry Johnson.
Kelley, a former Allendale Township planning commissioner, has been a controversial figure after he was spotted at the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Even before he was eyeing the state’s top executive position, he was called to step down from his position on the Allendale planning commissioner over his relationship with one of the men charged for the alleged plot to kidnap and kill Whitmer and his protests defending a Civil War statue in Allendale.
He also attended a rally calling for a so-called “forensic audit” of the 2020 presidential election at the state Capitol and told a crowd of supporters last month that if election workers see something they “don’t like happening with the machine,” they should “unplug it from the wall.”
Kelley has been at numerous protests at county health departments fighting mask mandates and vaccine mandates for hospital employees, posting a TikTok video outside the Ottawa County commissioners meeting in September 2021 that “our patience is wearing thin with you” and “you don’t even know yet what this is going to look like if you guys keep trying this tyranny.”
There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary on the school board’s February meeting agenda. There was a discussion of property taxes, the district’s school of choice plans and a motion to approve a $1,000 sign-on bonus for cleaning and food staff.
But, like many school board meetings across the country over the last two years, the meeting took a sharp turn to broader politics during the public comment period. School board members in Michigan and across the country have been subjected to an onslaught of insults and threats during the pandemic.
“It surprised me, and specifically with Ryan Kelley’s presence, how it seemed to feel like an election rally,” said Kristen Plafkin, a mom with students at Forest Hills. “It seemed so disrespectful and out of place for him to be there, not having a student in the district and not even speaking to the things that were actually happening in our district. There wasn’t one thing he said that was specific to Forest Hills. There were a lot of general statements like it was an election rally.”
Becky Olson, another Forest Hills mom who attended the meeting last month, said it was “by far the worst” she’s been to and gave some credit for that to Kelley’s presence.
“It definitely seemed like there were people in attendance who were there just to support him, hear what he had to say or reiterate the things that he had to say,” Olson said.
Kelley responded to a request for comment late Monday night, a week after the Advance initially reached out. He said he goes to school board meetings outside of his own district because he is running for governor and is hoping to represent all of Michigan’s school districts.
When asked if he believes his presence at these meetings disturbs the apolitical nature of the school board, he said, “Short answer: no. I’m standing up for what’s right.”
Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB), notes there isn’t anything against state law that prohibits candidates from using school board meetings as a place to make stump speeches.
“Most decisions that school boards make really are not in the political realm, so that would be my only concern as candidates come to do a stump speech. I don’t want school boards to be turned into a political forum,” Wotruba said.
Wotruba said the number of people traveling from outside the school district to attend board meetings has increased over the last two years.
This makes it difficult to gauge how parents in the community actually feel about certain issues when a large number of public comments are from people who live outside the district, Plafkin and Olson said. Wotruba echoed their concerns.
“Michigan’s Open Meetings Act is an Open Meetings Act for anybody,” Wotruba said. “But it does make it difficult for board members to decide if these are people that voted for them and put them here? Or is this a group that actually out numbers our own citizens that care about this issue? That makes it harder. … There’s just not a legal recourse to prevent people from doing that.”
It isn’t that Forest Hills parents want to ban outsiders from attending school board meetings, but Olson said it feels like their school is being used as a pawn for the political agenda of people like Kelley.
“If I had to count on one hand the number of actual speakers whose children do attend our school district, I couldn’t even fill up one hand,” Olson said. “There’s tremendous pride in our district. So to pull people from neighboring counties and from across the state to try to drive home political talking points and an agenda, we can see right through that.”
At the school board meeting, Kelley was joined by James Stewart, a right-wing podcast host from Manchester near Ann Arbor, which has been the home of many anti-mask protests at schools.
In a TikTok posted on Stewart’s page, Kelley said the pair was at the Forest Hills school board meeting “standing up for parents’ rights.”
“We know they’re teaching critical race theory here. They’re not allowing parents in the school,” Kelley claimed. “James drove up here all the way from Manchester … to speak on behalf of these parents.”
The Forest Hills school board has had its fair share of pushback from political groups and conservative grassroots organizations, from a failed recall effort to unseat five school board members last year to protests against mask mandates to dozens of challenges against books that discuss race and sexuality.
Kelley also criticized school mask mandates, even though Forest Hills had already dropped its policy.
But Kelley said “that’s not a victory by any means. That’s moving with the political winds because we’re in an election year.”
Kelley has previously said he’ll get rid of the Department of Education if he’s elected.
Some local parents want politicians to stop using school board meetings as “campaign stops.”
“This noise and chaos that I saw firsthand at that board meeting does not need to trickle back to our children and needs to stay away from our teachers,” said Plafkin.
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