Contentious school board elections create new divides in communities across Michigan
Heated Whitehall District Schools school board meeting on June 21, 2021 | Allison R. Donahue
Residents of the Forest Hills School District lined up out the door last month for the first FHPS school board candidate forum, waiting to get past security and have their state I.D. checked to make sure they live in the district.
That’s an unusual level of security for a school board candidate forum — but this year, running for the school board has been anything but typical. The group hosting the forum brought in the security in case the forum got out of hand.
It didn’t. But the dozens of raucous school board protests that have happened over the last few years in Michigan have given some reason to be cautious.
Local races have become significantly more politicized than in recent election cycles, said executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards Don Wotruba, especially as national political leaders have focused on divisive and partisan issues in schools.
Michigan has about 1,400 school board races in the Nov. 8 election, according to Wotruba. Before the next election cycle, “communities need healing,” he said.
“It saddens me to see school board races being done that way. I think it will be a detriment in the long term,” he added. “People already thought that school board races were too political, just because of local politics, and this is going to scare all but the most committed away from running for school boards.”
During most school board election seasons, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, candidates campaigned on specific issues within the district: the budget, transportation, test scores and more, Wotruba said.
This election season is different. National and statewide political groups have gotten involved in local school board elections this season by leading candidate trainings, endorsing candidates, sharing talking points and providing resources and funding.
Vladimir Kogan, an associate professor of global politics at Ohio State University, said public interest in school boards ebbs and flows. Usually the public is more involved in their local school board when controversial issues are discussed by national leaders.
Kogan noted that national and local interest in local school boards increased after former President Barack Obama adopted the Common Core state standards for K-12 curriculum and when former President Donald Trump denounced the “1619 Project” on the history of racism in the U.S.
“I think this is a continuation of that,” Kogan said. “It’s different national players and local players, but I think it’s just the latest variant of things that have happened for a long time in local politics.”
Republicans and right-wing groups have been focused this election on “parental rights” — over whether transgender girls should be playing on the sports team that aligns with their identity; books that some deem “pornographic,” which often discuss LGBTQ+ or racial issues; and conversations about gender identity, racism or sexual orientation with students.
GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon, who’s facing Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Nov. 8, has made these issues the centerpiece of her campaign.
Having so much attention focused on parents and education in top races has changed the face of local elections, as well.
Many candidates and education advocates say school board elections — which are nonpartisan races — statewide have become more political than they have ever experienced, especially from far-right candidates.
“Once it’s tied to a political party, we just don’t think that’s a good model,” said Wotruba. “We don’t want people running on platforms related to political parties. We don’t think that’s going to serve our local schools very well.”
Here are a few key school board elections the Advance has been watching:
In Forest Hills, a community just outside of Grand Rapids, there are 10 candidates running for three open positions for a six-year term and three candidates running for one special election to fill a two-year term ending in 2024.
The candidates have largely been split into two groups in Forest Hills.
The Chalkboard Four – which includes Doug Lee, Robert Cribbs, Kevinn Donovan and Holly DeBoer, have the support of Forest Hills for JUST Education and have been endorsed by far-right parental rights group Moms for Liberty and the two Republican State Board of Education members, Tom McMillin and Nikki Snyder.
The candidates supported by Support Forest Hills Public Schools, which says on their site they “exist to protect the integrity of Forest Hills Public Schools and the Board of Education role” are CJ Michaud, Malorie Ninemeier and Ed Aboufadel.
The other candidates include two incumbents, Mary Vonck and Suzanne Callahan, the current school board president; Jessica Johns; Jackie Nickel; Justin Sheldon; and Brian Spratke.
FHPS is one of the top-performing public school districts in the state, serving over 9,000 students, with test scores landing the district in the top 5% statewide.
In October 2021, Forest Hills for JUST education launched an effort to recall five of the sitting school board members over a bus driver shortage and critical race theory, a college-level theory that examines the systemic effects of white supremacy in America and is not taught at FHPS. The recall effort failed.
But it did convince Forest Hills resident Becky Olson, who co-founded Support Forest Hills Public Schools, to fight back against the far-right talking points that have infiltrated the discussion.
The FHPS school board election has been one of the more heated in the state, with accusations of stealing and vandalizing yard signs and spreading misinformation. It has also featured disputes over “critical race theory,” an academic discipline that focuses on structural racism in society. Although it is not taught in most public schools, it has become a key talking point for far-right critics of k-12 education.
Support FHPS members say they are worried that the Chalkboard Four are using hot button issues to distract from other efforts by national and statewide groups to influence local education policy.
In April, Lee hosted a petition signing event at his coffee shop, which was decked with a “Patriot Ice Cream” sign that month, to gather signatures for three right-wing petitions: Unlock Michigan II, which would strip local health department powers during emergencies; Secure MI Vote, which restricts voting rights; and the Let MI Kids Learn school voucher initiative.
Backed by former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the latter aims to create the Student Opportunity Scholarship Program to pay tuition and fees in K-12 public or private schools, homeschooling materials and online learning programs for students with financial need, and to make contributions to the program tax deductible.
Here are the candidates:
Doug Lee, Cascade Township., small business owner
Robert Cribbs, Grand Rapids, salesman
Kevinn Donovan, Ada, businessman
Holly DeBoer, Grand Rapids, former daycare manager
CJ Michaud, Grand Rapids
Malorie Ninemeier, Grand Rapids
Ed Aboufadel, Ada, Grand Valley State University mathematics professor
Mary Vonck (incumbent), Grand Rapids, engineer
Suzanne Callahan (incumbent), Grand Rapids, businesswoman
Jessica Johns, Grand Rapids, co-founder and director of a local nonprofit
Jackie Nickel, Grand Rapids, martial arts school owner
Justin Sheldon, Grand Rapids, Professor at Grand Valley State University
Brian Spratke, Grand Rapids, software engineer
Lee also included an option at his coffee shop for patrons to donate to an “anti-CRT” fund. It’s unclear where the donations to this fund went. Lee did not respond to a request for comment.
The JUST Education group has also pushed book bans, although they decline to refer to it as a ban, releasing a list of dozens of books to challenge.
On Oct. 6, the group posted on Facebook: “Sorry to burst your bubble, groomers, but we the parents are taking back our schools!” with a link to a video titled “when groomer school boards get confronted.”
Over the last year, far-right activists have launched attacks on LGBTQ+ people and allies, falsely accusing them of corrupting young people. They’ve expanded the attack to educators who talk about sexuality and gender identity in their classrooms or provide LGBTQ+ resources to students.
This is something Dixon and top Republican leaders across the country have campaigned on. In April, Dixon tweeted that she believes educators who talk to children “about sex” are sexual groomers. Dixon is up against incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Nov. 8.
Support FHPS and their candidates say they are doing what they can to prevent it from becoming a political battlefield.
“We hope voters will lean on the nonpartisan tradition of these elections to keep objective, data-driven candidates in office, particularly in our high-performing district,” Olson said. “We need to maintain the excellence most of us moved here to experience.”
Moore, and the two incumbents running for re-election, Ogden and Mahoney, have joined efforts in their campaign as “Team M.O.M,” who are all endorsed by the Michigan Education Association.
Moore said she wanted to join Ogden and Mahoney after watching them handle the last couple years on the school board, which included a heated protest at a meeting in June 2021 over the high school’s student-led Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club.
Cross, a Whitehall parent and the senior pastor at Living Word Michigan, was one of the leaders opposing the GSA club, saying the material sent to students from the club was “pornographic.” Cross also argued last June that the GSA club receives special attention from the district compared to the religious club he leads, the Men and Ladies of Honor.
“I can’t even express how angry we were at that,” Cross said during a radio interview with Host Justin Barclay on Oct. 19. “… It got ugly.”
Here are the candidates:
Tim Cross, Whitehall, pastor
Christopher G Mahoney (incumbent), Whitehall, police officer
Melissa Moore, Whitehall, executive director at Read Muskegon
Douglas M. Ogden (incumbent), Whitehall, pastor
Tom Ziemer, Whitehall, business owner
Book banning, CRT, transgender student athletes and barring gender identity discussions from the classroom are all part of debates happening about 50 miles northwest of FHPS at Whitehall District Schools on the Lake Michigan coast.
Whitehall has five candidates vying for three, six-year terms on the school board; Melissa Moore, Doug Ogden, Chris Mahoney, Tim Cross and Tom Ziemer.
After protesting at the school board, Cross is now running in partnership with Ziemer, the self-proclaimed “conservative candidates.”
On Oct. 16, Cross joined Dixon, GOP attorney general nominee Matt DePerno, GOP U.S. House nominee John Gibbs and Ryan Kelley, a former GOP gubernatorial candidate and accused insurrectionist at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, at a church in Muskegon for a Unite America rally, where they discussed “school boards/curriculum/CRT.” Gibbs is facing Democrat Hillary Scholten in the 3rd Congressional District and DePerno is trying to oust Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel.
Moore said the amount of money that has been sunk into this election is unprecedented in Whitehall school board races, and the M.O.M. candidates have had to spend more than expected to keep up with the rallies, the large street signs, the mailers and the text messages sent from Cross and Ziemer.
“It’s enough for me to do what I can to fight for what I believe in,” Moore said.
In a 2018 survey by the National School Boards Association, 75% of responding members said they spent less than $1,000 on their school board campaigns.
Moore said she wants to help return Whitehall back to its small town charm and patch up the political divisiveness that has crept into the sleepy lakeshore community.
“It’s hard in a small town. We all know each other. … I think people tiptoed around for a longtime not wanting to somehow end relationships with people they may have known since high school,” Moore said. “But I think since the extreme views of those two candidates have come out and people have realized what a danger that is to everything Whitehall Schools has built.”
Across the state in the Detroit exurbs of Livingston County, the Hartland Consolidated Schools Board of Education race has nine candidates vying for three seats and two candidates competing for a partial term ending in 2024.
Hartland also has a slate of candidates running together. The “Clean Slate” consists of Glenn Gogoleski, Greg Keller, Bob Merwin and Michelle Blondeel.
According to The Clean Slate webpage, the group’s “focus is on academics and achievement for our children, not social engineering and the social justice causes of those HCS personnel who work with them.” It lists concerns about transparency, parental rights and “the threat of boys in girls’ sports and restrooms.”
In April 2019, Gogoleski, the most public of the Clean Slate candidates, posted on Facebook a picture of a flag representing the “Three Percenters,” which, according to the Anti-Defamation League, is a militia movement based on the idea of a small number of dedicated “patriots” protecting Americans from government tyranny.
Gogoleski wrote in the comments of the post, “I’m afraid the s**t is going to hit the fan sooner than later” and “keep your powder dry,” a saying referring to gun powder and the need to keep it ready for later action.
Like the other districts, there is an opposition group in Hartland: the Hartland Truth, which has shared support for Bugni, Gentile, Glabach and Hemeyer.
Gentile, who is endorsed by the MEA, echoed Moore’s concerns about the divisiveness impacting the community.
Gentile wrote in a League of Michigan Voters survey that “if we don’t start to calm the division within the community, I believe it may elevate quickly into a crisis for our schools.”
Here are the candidates:
Glenn Gogoleski, Hartland, entrepreneur and business owner
Greg Keller, Hartland, salesman
Bob Merwin, Hartland, small business owner
Michelle Blondeel, Hartland, automotive supplier
Vic Bugni (incumbent), Hartland, executive director of instructional services at Saginaw Intermediate School District
Ed Gentile, Hartland, director of talent acquisition at Teradata Corp.
Meghan Glabach (incumbent), Hartland, health care executive
Michelle Hemeyer (incumbent), Hartland, restaurant owner
Thomas Dumond (incumbent), Hartland, civil engineer
George Skendi, Hartland, mechanical engineer
Trish Mrozek, Hartland
In Grosse Pointe Public Schools, which serve nearly 7,000 students, there are 10 candidates running to fill three seats. The affluent community north of Detroit is a former Republican stronghold.
Candidates Ginny Jeup, Sean Cotton and Terry Collins are three candidates running on similar rhetoric from far right activists against certain books, gender identity and parental rights.
Clint Derringer, Timothy Klepp and Valarie St. John are the candidates running who have been endorsed by the MEA.
Cotton owns the local newspaper, the Grosse Pointe News, which commonly publishes opinion pieces against Cotton’s opponents, though he doesn’t list that on his campaign site. Shortly after he bought the paper in 2020, the editorial section published many columns against critical race theory.
In a letter sent to the Michigan Press Association in March, a number of local journalists say Cotton has “employed a malicious pattern of unethical journalism and an unwillingness to comply with even the most basic of journalistic standards.”
Candidate Ginny Jeup was embroiled in controversy this month when the Michigan Caucus of Rank and File Educators, a group independently vetting school board candidates, claimed she didn’t have proper teaching credentials.
Jeup, who claims to be a former educator, pushed back on Facebook, sharing her Massachusetts teaching certification from 1993. Jeup did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Here are the candidates:
Ginny Jeup, Grosse Pointe, small business owner
Sean Cotton, Grosse Pointe Farms, newspaper owner and attorney
Terry Collins, Grosse Pointe Park, finance supervisor
Clint Derringer, Grosse Pointe, program manager at Stellantis
Timothy Klepp, Grosse Pointe Park, partner at IBM Consulting
Valarie St. John, Grosse Pointe Park, public health consultant
Joseph Herd, Grosse Pointe Woods, retired deputy chief
Christopher Lee, Grosse Pointe, orthopedic surgeon
William Broman, Grosse Pointe Farms, patent attorney
Je Donna Dinges, Grosse Pointe Woods, small business owner
In November 2020, days after President Joe Biden won the presidential election and beat former President Donald Trump, Jeup filed an affidavit in a lawsuit filed in a Michigan federal court by Trump’s reelection campaign, alleging problems in the processing and counting of ballots in Detroit.
Jeup said in the affidavit that she was not allowed reentry into the TCF Center where she was serving as a poll challenger.
Jeup has also said during a Michigan League of Women Voters forum last that she is willing to ban “pornographic” books, even though many conservative school board members are shifting away from using the word “ban.”
“If there is a problem in the schools, I will be the person that they can come to … and discuss where things might be going awry,” Jeup said. “If there is a book that is pornographic, we certainly need to ban that.”
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