Who are the candidates for the four statewide education boards? 

By: - October 13, 2022 3:19 am

GOP Board of Education nominee Linda Lee Tarver at a Sept. 27, 2022 press conference in Lansing | Laina G. Stebbins

Updated, 3:26 p.m., with MSU President Stanley announcing his resignation

As the Nov. 8 election approaches and buzz swirls around the top-of-the ticket races, statewide education races at the bottom of the ballot could also prove consequential. 

Those races include the state Board of Education, University of Michigan Board of Regents, Michigan State University Board of Trustees and Wayne State University Board of Governors. 

Sarah Reckhow, an associate professor at Michigan State University on politics, told the Advance that while these boards act in a mostly advisory capacity and may not impact day-to-day education policy, they are still important to pay attention to because of their oversight of major institutions. 

“Electing good people who care about good governance for the institution matters,” Reckhow said. “If you have people who kind of don’t share your values … you can have some really problematic and disruptive governing issues in the institution.”

Michigan is the only state that uses statewide elections to elect members to boards at public universities.

Michigan political parties nominate candidates for these boards and the state allows voters to cast a straight-party ticket. Reckhow notes that most of the education board candidates have little name recognition.

So in most elections, the party that does better at the top of the ticket — this year, it’s the gubernatorial race between Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Republican Tudor Dixon — usually wins more of the education board seats.

This year, partisan control is on the line for the MSU board, depending on who wins the two open seats. Both the WSU and U of M panels could be deadlocked 4-4 if Republicans win both seats.

The State Board of Education will remain under Democratic control, even if Republicans win both seats on the ballot.

State Board of Education meeting, Aug. 9, 2022 | Screenshot

Here’s a look at the contests for the four statewide boards:

State Board of Education 

The Board of Education (BOE) is charged with setting curriculum standards and is also in charge of appointing the state superintendent. Otherwise, the board mainly serves in an advisory role when it comes to the education system in Michigan. 

For the last two years, the board has had a higher profile with heated debates, particularly amid right-wing anger over COVID health measures in schools, critical race theory and LGBTQ+ issues. Republicans on the board have been supportive of such criticism from conservative public commentators.

Dixon has called for state Superintendent Michael Rice’s resignation over LGBTQ+-inclusive videos. This month, the Board of Education rejected a resolution from GOP member Tom McMillin also calling for Rice to step down. He has not resigned. Dixon also wants the governor, not the BOE, to be able to pick the superintendent, which would take a constitutional amendment.

There will be eight candidates on the ballot on Nov. 8 vying for two eight-year terms on the BOE. 

On the current board, there are five Democrats and two Republicans. There is also one vacancy following the resignation of Democrat Jason Strayhorn in July. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is set to appoint a replacement to finish his term that lasts until 2028. 

The current president, Democrat Casandra Ulbrich, is not running for reelection. 

Pamela Pugh | Facebook

The two Democrats running are incumbent Vice President Pamela Pugh and Mitchell Robinson. 

Pugh is from Saginaw and has served on the board since 2014. She has more than 24 years of public health experience and launched InPact at Home, led by the University of Michigan, a program to offer free online workouts to students. Pugh is also a member of the Healthy Schools Network Board of Directors and the Board of Directors for the National Association of State Boards of Education. 

Pugh told the Advance that she is prioritizing “making sure that we have equitable and adequate funding for our children;” pushing for the “respect and appropriate pay for our educators;” “making sure that we have healthy, safe and supportive environments” in classrooms and schools; and assessing “the over usage of testing for high stakes decisions, such as measuring a child’s academic performance, retaining a child and the third grade, how teachers are evaluated.”

Robinson resides in East Lansing and has been a teacher for more than 40 years, serving as a classroom teacher, district supervisor and school administrator in New York, Connecticut and Michigan. He currently teaches at Michigan State University where he is the music education chair and coordinates the music student teaching program. 

Robinson also helped establish the MMC Music Education Test in Michigan and additionally served as the assessment developer for the Michigan Model Arts and Education Assessment.

He said he is running because he is “tired of teachers and school board members being targeted with fabricated ALEC [the right-wing group the American Legislative Exchange Council] talking points about CRT, furries in school bathrooms, and “liberal indoctrination,” according to his campaign website.   

Robinson said on his website that he does not believe in school vouchers and he believes that testing should be valued as part of a holistic approach to bettering education experiences. He also said he “would support not only a moratorium on the approval of new charters, but much stricter oversight and accountability measures for existing charter schools.” He wants to revamp the teacher evaluation process; improve salaries and working conditions for public school teachers and prioritize in-person learning. 

Mitchell Robinson

Robinson has been endorsed by the Michigan Education Association, Michigan AFL-CIO, Muskegon County Democratic Party Black Caucus, LGBT&A Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party, Network for Public Education (NPE) Action, Anishinaabek Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party, MEA Democratic Educators Caucus, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwright and Michigan AFSCME People. 

On the Republican side, there is Tamara Carlone and Linda Lee Tarver. 

Carlone is from Howell and is a certified public accountant and has been an education advocate for 22 years, according to her website. She originally became involved in education activism after she felt her children who were students were receiving a “biased” education. 

Carlone is also a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Michigan Republican Party Coalition and the Michigan Conservative Coalition.

Carlone’s website lists out what her goals would be if elected: “Stop the Leftist, Marxist, Communist indoctrination and return academic and intellectual integrity to our schools;” “make sure all books in front of our students are factually accurate, and free of smut and bias;” “stop the systemic discrimination against Conservative Professors, Teachers and Students at our schools and colleges;” and to “stop LGBT educational mandates and boys in girls’ sports.”

Tamara Carlone

Carlone’s endorsements include many former and current Michigan Republican officials. She has been endorsed by Tom McMillin and Nikki Snyder, two current GOP board members.

Tarver is a businesswoman from Lansing and a former Michigan Civil Rights commissioner. Tarver serves as the national director of the Republican Assembly, and has previously served as the former Ingham County GOP chair and advisory board member for Black Voices for Trump.

A longtime GOP activist, Tarver claimed, without evidence, that there was voter fraud during the vote counting at the former TCF Center in Detroit after the 2020 November general election. She also was involved in a lawsuit urging state lawmakers to interfere in the 2020 election results after former President Donald Trump lost. 

In 2019, Tarver was part of a group of Republicans who sued Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in an attempt to block the independent redistricting commission mandated by voters.

According to her campaign website, she is running for MIchigan Board of Education because “corrupt liberal leaders and politicians have perverted and destroyed the educational system in Michigan.”

The third-party candidates running include: Donna Gundle-Krieg, a Libertarian candidate from Mancelona; Bill Hall, a Liberterian candidate from Courtland Township and a lawyer who also ran for attorney general in 2006; Ethan Hobson is the U.S. Taxpayers Party candidate from Hale; and Mary Anne Hering is also running as a Working Class Party candidate and she doubles as a teacher. 

University of Michigan Board of Regents  

There will be seven candidates on the ballot for the University of Michigan Board of Regents. The current partisan makeup of the board includes six Democrats and two Republicans. 

The duties of the board include overseeing the university, its expenditures and they are charged with hiring and firing the university president. 

This year, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel was fired over allegedly having a relationship with a subordinate. In July, the board hired Santa Ono.

Democrats Katherine White (L) and Michael Behm (R) | Courtesy photos

The Democrats running are Michael Behm and Katherine White. 

Behm is an incumbent who has served on the Board of Regents since 2014. He is also an attorney from Grand Blanc who has been a member of the Board of Trustees of the Flint Institute of Arts, volunteered for Big Brothers Big Sisters and was a founding member of the Flint Youth initiative. 

Behm told the Advance he prioritizes making college more affordable and increasing the value of a University of Michigan education. Behm also said safeguarding efforts to maintain the university hospital and its services, including women’s health services, is very important to him. 

Behm added he is focused on accountability and working with Ono to make the university more transparent and accountable — especially following the sexual assault and harassment cases against former Dr. Robert Anderson, former provost Martin Philbert, and the recent ousting of Schlissel. 

Lastly, Behm said he is focused on the future of the university in terms of climate change efforts and investing more into the Flint and Dearborn campuses. 

White also is an incumbent who has served on the Board of Regents since 1998. White is also a patent attorney and law professor at Wayne State University and a brigadier general in the Army National Guard who was inducted into the Michigan Military and Veterans Hall of Fame. She is a member of the corporate board of directors for Old National Bancorp and Alta Equipment Group Inc. 

White has been endorsed by Fems for Dems, IBEW Local 58, Michigan AFL-CIO, Michigan Education Association, Michigan AFSCME Council 25, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights and the Muskegon County Democratic Party Black Caucus.

On the Republican side, Lena Epstein and Sevag Vartanian are running. 

Matt DePerno and Lena Epstein celebrate on stage after winning GOP endorsements during the GOP convention on April 23, 2022 | Allison R. Donahue

Epstein is the co-owner and general manager of Southfield-based Vesco Oil who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2018, losing to U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Waterford Twp.). Epstein previously served on the Detroit Historical Society and the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan.

At the Michigan Republican Party’s early endorsement convention in April, Epstein announced to the crowd that she would be president of the United States “in 15 years.”

In May, she helped organize a protest with other Republicans of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci, who helped lead the nation’s COVID-19 response under two presidents, gave U of M’s commencement address.

Before she won the GOP nomination in August, documents surfaced in her divorce court battle that revealed she was arrested in September after it had been suspected she assaulted her boyfriend in front of her children while under the influence of alcohol. 

Epstein is running to keep tuition affordable, protect and defend free speech on campus, to better have budget management and oppose mask mandates, according to her campaign website.

Sevag Vartanian

Vartanian is a financial analyst in Novi who has worked in the finance industry for over 30 years. 

On his website, he said U of M “needs new leaders who can preside over a new era of accountability after the sexual abuse scandal.” Fiscal discipline is another priority, Vartanian said, arguing that with “a $17 billion dollar endowment, Michigan needs to re-examine how best to invest in the future of the University and lower cost for its students.”

He said the university also “must move toward a more inclusive campus environment where conservative opinions and values can be freely expressed by students and faculty.”

Third-party candidates include Sherry Wells, who is representing the Green Party; Eric Larson who is representing the Libertarian party; Kathleen Oakford, who is representing the Natural Law Party and Joe Sanger, who is representing the U.S. Taxpayers Party. 

Michigan State University Board of Trustees 

There are currently two openings on the Michigan State Board of Trustees, but seven candidates will appear on the ballot. The partisan makeup of the board at present is five Democrats and three Republicans. 

The Board of Trustees is in charge of overseeing the university, its expenditures and is in control of hiring and firing the university president. 

The election also comes after a rocky several years amid the Larry Nasser sexual abuse scandal and after conflict arose during the new school year between MSU President Samuel Stanley Jr. and the board after members called for his resignation. On Thursday morning, Stanley announced he will step down. That means the next board will choose his replacement.

Democrats Renee Knake Jefferson (L) and Dennis Denno (R) | Courtesy photos

The two Democrats running are Renee Knake Jefferson and Dennis Denno.

Jefferson is an incumbent appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2019. Jefferson is a law professor at the University of Houston who previously taught at Michigan State University. 

Jefferson has been endorsed by the Michigan Democratic Party, Michigan AFL-CIO, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, AFSCME Council 25, MDP LGBTQ&A Caucus, Fems for Dems, American Federation of Teachers Michigan, Progressive Democrats Women’s Caucus, MEA Democratic Educators Caucus, Michigan Building Trades, and Muskegon County Democratic Party Black Caucus. 

Denno is from East Lansing and has owned a political polling and surveying company for 22 years. Denno is running to make budget priorities a focus and to ensure MSU employees are paid $15 an hour. 

Denno has been endorsed by Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley; state Rep. Cynthia Neeley (D-Flint); Michigan AFL-CIO and MEA’s Democratic Educators Caucus.

On the Republican side, there are MIke Balow and Travis Menge. 

Balow is from Plymouth Township and previously served as a church president of the youth football team and his neighborhood association president. Balow previously graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1994 before serving as a surface warfare officer. 

He calls himself a “lifelong Patriot” on his website and said he is against remote learning and mask mandates.

Republicans Michael Balow and Travis Menge

Balow spoke to the Advance about his priorities if elected. He said he hopes to “bring some more balance to the board.” He said he is focused on “like putting policy in place, approving the budgets, hiring the right president,” and where the board should get involved, they should. 

Menge is from Grand Rapids and is an orthopedic specialist. Menge is running to focus on reducing tuition costs, increasing education value, bolster transparency and accountability, and to grow the university’s reputation as a “global leader in education, science, research, and technology.” 

Menge has been endorsed by multiple members of the Michigan congressional delegation and both former and present MSU Trustees including current GOP members Pat O’Keefe, Dan Kelly and Melanie Foster.

Third-party candidates running include: Robin Laurain, the co-chair of the Green Party of Michigan, and Claranna Gelineau and Max Rieske who are both part of the Libertarian Party.

Wayne State University Board of Governors

There are seven candidates running for the Wayne State University Board of Governors for two seats. As the board currently stands, there are six Democrats and two Republicans. 

The board leads the university’s finances and oversees the president. 

Democrats Danielle Atkinson (R) and Marilyn Kelly (L) | Andrew Roth and courtesy photos

The Democrats running are Danielle Atkinson and Marilyn Kelly. 

Kelly is an incumbent from Detroit who has served on the Wayne State Board of Governors since 2015. Kelly previously has been a Michigan Supreme Court chief justice and has also served on the Women’s Bar Association, the State Attorney Discipline Board and the State Bar of Michigan.

A few of Kelly’s priorities, according to her campaign website, include boosting graduation rates, increasing the use of technology in education and boosting diversity among staff and students. 

Kelly has been endorsed by the Michigan Democratic Party, the Michigan AFL-CIO, the Michigan Federation of Teachers, the Michigan Education Association, the Second Congressional District of the MDP, the Eleventh Congressional DIstrict of the MDP, the Democratic Party of Grand Traverse County, the Democratic Party of Otsego County, the Democratic Party of Iosco County, the Democratic Party of Alcona County, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters & Millwrights, the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, Birmingham Bloomfield Democratic Club, the Michigan Teamsters Joint Council 43 and the MDP LGBT&A Caucus.

Atkinson is from Royal Oak and is the national executive and founder of Mothering Justice, a policy advocacy organization aimed at helping women of color have more equitable lives. 

She has led statewide campaigns to increase the minimum wage and ensure paid sick leave for workers and is frequently a speaker at progressive rallies for abortion rights, economic justice and civil rights.

Republicans Christa Murphy (R) and Craig Wilsher (L) | Courtesy photos

On the Republican side, there are Craig Wilsher and Christa Murphy. 

Wilsher is from Wayne County and has been a law enforcement officer for 27 years. Wilsher is an adjunct professor at Schoolcraft College and formerly taught at Ferris State University. 

Wilsher’s priorities include: making tuition affordable, increasing fiscal responsibility of the university and supporting the Wayne State University police department. 

Murphy is from Oakland County and says on her website that she wants to bring a “parent’s perspective to higher education.” She said her priorities are: “Focusing on lowering tuition rates for students, problem solving to help more students graduate, no backroom deals and secret committee meetings and reforming curriculum to prepare students for REAL LIFE.” 

Third-party candidates running include: Bruce Jaquays, a libertarian postal worker from Lansing; Marc Joseph Sosnowski who is representing the U.S. Taxpayers Party and Susan Odgers from Traverse City who is representing the Green Party. 


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Julia Forrest
Julia Forrest

Julia Forrest is a contributor to the Michigan Advance. She has been covering Michigan and national politics for two years at the Michigan Daily and OpenSecrets. She studies public policy at the University of Michigan.