GOP education message falls short as Democrats sweep Michigan’s statewide education board seats

By: - November 10, 2022 8:10 am

Detroit Public Schools Community District students at Ronald Brown Academy | Ken Coleman photo

Despite a strong push from Republicans to make the State Board of Education (BOE) races a referendum on LGBTQ+ issues, how racism is taught and past COVD-19 health policies, the party failed on Tuesday to pick up either seat on the Democratic-led board.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (left) and GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon (right) | Andrew Roth

Republicans also tried to make education — such as funding for vouchers and banning books — a key 2022 election issue, with GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon leading the charge. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won in a rout with a 10.5% margin of victory — bigger than her 2018 win.

Both of the Democrats vying for two, eight-year terms on the panel have been elected, Vice President Pamela Pugh and newcomer Mitchell Robinson. The board will maintain a 5-2 Democratic majority.

The state board 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. 

The six open seats on university governing boards also went to Democrats in the election.

Pugh, who garnered 25.2%, according to unofficial returns, 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. 

Robinson, who won 24.2%, resides in East Lansing and has been a teacher for more than 40 years, currently teaching at Michigan State University where he is the music education chair and coordinates the music student teaching program. 

Pugh reacted with gratitude on social media to the news.

Democrats Pamela Pugh (L) and Mitchell Robinson (R) | Courtesy photos

“Thx y’all! We did it for the children,” she tweeted. “With much gratitude.” She then offered congratulations to Robinson and said she couldn’t wait to serve with him. 

Robinson was equally eager.

“Looking forward to strengthening Michigan’s schools, defending our state’s teachers, and making sure *every* child gets a great education!,” he tweeted.

Currently, the state board has five Democrats and two Republicans. There is also one vacancy following the resignation of Democrat Jason Strayhorn in July. Whitmer is set to appoint a replacement to finish his term that lasts until 2028. 

The current president, Democrat Casandra Ulbrich, did not run for reelection.

Pugh and Robinson’s wins mark an almost clean sweep for Democrats to statewide offices — with only GOP-nominated Supreme Court Justice Brian Zahra winning on Tuesday — as voters rejected hardline Republican candidates Tamara Carlone and Linda Lee Tarver. 

Carlone, a certified public accountant from Howell, listed among her goals if elected was to, “Stop the Leftist, Marxist, Communist indoctrination” of students.

Tarver, a businesswoman from Lansing, has falsely suggested the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump, She also was involved in a lawsuit urging state lawmakers to interfere in the 2020 election results after Trump lost.

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

Just last month, the board rejected a Republican resolution to remove state Superintendent Michael Rice over videos designed to help teachers learn about students’ different identities and how to avoid outing students.

Michigan political parties nominate candidates for these boards and the state allows voters to cast a straight-party ticket. When one party has a good election at the top of the ballot — as Democrats did Tuesday, with Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson all winning reelection — that often trickles down to the bottom of the ballot.

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

University of Michigan Board of Regents 

The two open seats on the University of Michigan Board of Regents will go to incumbent Democrats Michael Behm and Katherine White.

The board will continue to have a 6-2 Democratic majority.

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

The duties of the board include overseeing the university, its expenditures and they are charged with hiring and firing the university president, something that they did earlier this year with the dismissal of former President Mark Schlissel, who was fired over allegedly having a relationship with a subordinate. In July, the board hired Santa Ono.

Behm, who won 24.6%, 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.

White, who took 25.2%, has served on the Board of Regents since 1998. She is 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. 

Behm and White defeated Republican candidates Lena Epstein, who chaired former President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign in Michigan and unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2018, and Sevag Vartanian. a financial analyst from Novi.

Michigan State University Board of Trustees 

Democrats Renee Knake Jefferson, an incumbent, and newcomer Dennis Denno were elected to the two openings on the Michigan State Board of Trustees, which oversees the university, its expenditures and is in control of hiring and firing the university president. 

The board will have a 6-2 Democratic majority.

The new board will be tasked with finding a permanent replacement for former MSU President Samuel Stanley Jr., after he announced earlier this month he would step down after votes of no confidence from the university’s Board of Trustees from MSU’s Faculty Senate and the Associated Students of Michigan State University. 

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

Last month, the board appointed Provost Teresa Woodruff as interim president.

Jefferson, who won 24.9%, was appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2019 and is a law professor at the University of Houston who previously taught at Michigan State University. 

Denno, who earned 24.4%, is from East Lansing and has owned a political polling and surveying company for 22 years. Denno ran on a platform to make budget priorities a focus and to ensure MSU employees are paid $15 an hour. 

They defeated Republicans MIke Balow, a U.S. Navy veteran, and Travis Menge, an orthopedic specialist. 

Wayne State University Board of Governors

Democrats Danielle Atkinson and Marilyn Kelly, an incumbent, both won election to the Wayne State University Board of Governors, which leads the university’s finances and oversees the president. 

The board will have a 6-2 Democratic majority.

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

Kelly, who won 24.9%, is from Detroit and has served on the Wayne State Board of Governors since 2015. She was previously 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.

Atkinson, who garnered 24.9%, 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. 

They defeated Republicans Craig Wilsher, an adjunct professor at Schoolcraft College, and Oakland County parent Christa Murphy.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jon King
Jon King

Jon King has been a journalist for more than 35 years. He is the Past President of the Michigan Associated Press Media Editors Association and has been recognized for excellence numerous times, most recently in 2021 with the Best Investigative Story by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Cleary University. Jon and his family live in Howell, where he also serves on the Board of Directors for the Livingston Diversity Council.