Tue. Mar 2nd, 2021

School board members across Michigan face threats, recall …

School board members across Michigan face threats, recall …

John Wisely
 
| Detroit Free Press

Some of the emails are thoughtful. Others are pleading. But many don’t waste time on pleasantries.

“Some of them are very threatening; they’re cruel,” said Beth Pyden, one of four school board members in Chippewa Valley Schools facing a recall attempt over their votes last year to delay the return of in-person learning. “A lot of them start with ‘I demand … ‘ “

School board members across Michigan and around the country have been tasked with deciding when and how to return students to classrooms amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Their decisions have been as varied as the communities they serve.

In a polarized political environment where feelings run hot on both sides, they acknowledge they aren’t going to please everyone. The decisions often mean alienating a group of parents or a teachers union or fellow board members who may disagree. 

More: Grosse Pointe school board race takes a nasty turn

More: Some Michigan schools set to reopen after 10 months, but others still waiting

Viral videos from around the country show angry parents shouting at school board members, pointing fingers and issuing demands and threats of recall or worse. 

Added scrutiny

The decisions place added scrutiny on school board trustees. They are typically parents in the community elected to serve in jobs that pay nothing, or some nominal amount, but still demand time commitments for meetings and other school-related events.

School boards have long been disrespected. Mark Twain famously dissed them saying: “In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made school boards.”

School board members say that during COVID-19, they’ve been called worse. But school officials say getting good people to serve on boards is important, especially in Michigan, where local control of education has long been protected.

“We’ve done some surveys over the last four years about why people don’t run for school board,” said Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards. “The No. 1 reason is they view school boards as too political. Not Republican and Democrat political, but just the internal politics of a town in the school district, and people don’t want to mire themselves in those fights.”

Michigan has more than 500 local school districts, all of which have school boards. Michigan also has hundreds of charter schools, which can have their own boards as well.

Wotruba’s group was still assembling statewide data, but as of the candidate filing deadlines in most recent elections, many school board members chose to stick it out.

“We didn’t see a higher than normal number of people stepping down from their seats,” Wotruba said.

Unfilled seats

Wotruba acknowledges getting people to run for the school board has proved challenging in recent years.

“We were seeing a trend where, as we approached election, 10% of seats went unfiled for, where no one threw their hat in the ring,” Wotruba said.

Wotruba’s group launched an advertising campaign, using public radio to encourage people to “Get on board.” He said some people are willing to serve, but they are put off by the idea of raising money and engaging in a competition that can take on the nastiness of state and national campaigns.

“If we have a vacancy for appointment in a school district, it might have five to 10 people apply for that vacancy,” he said. “That very same seat, if it were open for an election, sometimes nobody files for it. So they think that service on the board isn’t bad, but think about it, they ran in this past election. Think about this past election.”

Virtual divide

Among the most divisive decisions school boards have faced is in-person learning. Families that want it, want it badly. 

Many schools have tried to provide it. Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has argued families that want it deserve the chance to get it.

Last year, the Detroit Federation of Teachers signed a memorandum of understanding with the district agreeing to return to classrooms with safety protocols in place. The deal also provided teachers with $750 of hazard per for each marking period.

But some Detroit teachers objected, saying in early January that schools should remain in virtual learning for the remainder of the school year.

“The question of reopening should not come up again this year,” said Ben Royal, a teacher who heads a group within the union known as the BAMN caucus. “Students, teachers, school support staff, and parents need to get acclimated to remote education, and a constant reopening and re-shutting down only further endangers our city while doing nothing to improve the quality of education.”

Time commitment

Sarah Prescott said she ran for the Northville Board of Education because she wanted to help her community.

As a lawyer, she’d seen mismanaged school districts sued for their mistakes and she wanted better for the district her three kids attend.

In her first term on the board, Prescott said she prepared for meetings, took an active part in them and later went home feeling she’d done a good job. From there, her focus shifted to raising her kids and running her law practice until it was time to prepare for the next meeting.

“I could seal it off,” she said. “COVID erased all those borders. It’s always with me. I’m always working on it, thinking about it, caring about it.”

Prescott said she’s probably invested more time in board service in the last 12 months than she did in the previous four years combined. Reading the science on the virus, checking to see what the state was urging or requiring, watching how neighboring districts were dealing with COVID-19, all have taken lots of time.

She said her district worked hard to get decisions right, but she saw other neighboring districts working hard, too. She blames state and federal leaders for “leaning into local control” and forcing every school district in America to try to become experts in addressing a pandemic.

“It’s a million different micro labs to test out what would work,” she said. “What we just did could have been done in a more organized way at a higher level to bring some meaning and sense to it.”

She said there has been some acrimony, but most of the people she has encountered have been civil and candid about wanting the best for their kids.

Despite the frustrations, she doesn’t regret her service. Prescott chose to seek reelection in November and finished with the highest vote total. In January, she became board president.

“I think there are probably a lot of people who look at it and say, ‘God, who would want to do that?’ ” she said. “I look at it and say, what an awesome way to engage in your community especially as a parent.”

‘All hell broke loose’

Huron Valley Schools in western Oakland County returned students to classrooms in September two days a week. In October, they studied moving to four days a week.

“Before we made the decision in October to go back four days a week, we had a five-hour board study session on a Saturday,” Board President Tom Wiseman said. “The following Monday, we had another five-hour board meeting where we decided that we were going to go back face-to-face, four days a week and  we’re going to do that on Nov. 9. Then, all hell broke loose.”

COVID-19 cases in Oakland County spiked and the health division downgraded the county’s status. The board balked at expanding the face-to-face learning, Wiseman said. 

“So instead of going back to school face-to-face, we went back to remote and at that point in time we went to remote for the entire district,” he said.

By December some parents were protesting outside the high school urging the board to reopen the schools.

Like Prescott, Wiseman said he doesn’t regret his time on school board.

“It’s a great way to give back to the community,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that the closer you are to decision-making from a local standpoint, the more effective you can be. I would absolutely encourage urge people to run for the school board.”

Recall effort

In Macomb County’s Chippewa Valley Schools, many parents were upset that the district was slow to offer in-person learning and last year launched a recall effort. 

The petitions cite as reasons for the recall board member votes in August to begin the school year in a remote-only environment and another vote in November, which returned elementary school students and special-needs students to remote-only learning after they’d been allowed into classrooms in October.

“Both yes votes were contrary to the plan that was presented to parents all summer long and the recommendations of government officials, doctors and other experts in the field,” the petition language reads.

The Macomb County Election Commission in December rejected the recall petition language on clarity grounds, but in January, modified language was approved.

In addition to Pyden, the recall targets Board President Frank Bednard, Vice President Denise Aquino and trustee George Sobah.

Once the petition language was approved, organizer Terry Prince began looking for ways to gather signatures in the middle of the pandemic. He estimates he needs 12,000 signatures from registered voters in the district to force a recall election. 

The group scheduled a drive-thru petition signing event over the weekend at Burning Tree Golf Club in Macomb Twp. Prince said he recognizes the effort is difficult, but he and others believe it’s worth doing.

“We had over 45 volunteers on a Zoom call last week and we have 70 volunteers on our email list,” he said. “We’ve been hearing from some political groups offering to help us as well. This isn’t political for me, but I’ll take all the help I can get.”

Pyden said she has been subjected to online harassment and being bashed on social media. 

“I can imagine many of the people who are sending the threatening emails and doing the bashing online, I can 100% guarantee they would not tolerate that if that was coming at their family or their children,” she said. 

Pyden said it has been a difficult time to serve. She has come home from board meetings in tears and some of her family members have urged her to quit. But she doesn’t regret the votes she cast that prompted the recall.

“It’s hard when you care so much,” she said. “That someone would think that there is any sort of ulterior motive when you’re just trying to keep 15,000 plus kids and 2,500 employees safe in a worldwide pandemic.”

Pyden said she believes it’s best to err on the side of caution.

“We’ll never know if we did too much, but it’ll become really clear if we didn’t do enough,” she said.

As far as the recall effort, Pyden said she’s at peace with it. 

“I’m just going to let the voters decide,” she said. 

Despite the frustrations, Pyden said she would encourage others to run for school board, though she would caution them to be thick-skinned.

“We need good people on school boards,” she said. “School boards are truly the most grassroots of political organizing. They truly make the biggest difference because school has affected every single person in the community at one point or another.”

No district had a more acrimonious school board election in November than Grosse Pointe. Eighteen candidates ran for five seats in a race that featured dark money ads, the censure of a candidate and accusations of racism and law-breaking.

The new board took office in January and so far has gotten along despite the heat of the campaign, said Colleen Worden, one of the candidates who won office.

“We’re a pretty civil board so far and I think it’s going to stay that way,” Worden said. “We recently voted 7-0 to go back” to face-to-face learning.

She said she has seen some of the acrimony and people who want to serve do need thick skin. But she doesn’t regret getting involved.

“I would highly encourage someone to get involved at this level,” she said. “It’s really interesting. It’s compelling. It’s really the best volunteer work you’ll ever do. I think it’s very rewarding.”

Contact John Wisely: 313-222-6825 or jwisely@freepress.com. On Twitter @jwisely

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Published at Mon, 22 Feb 2021 13:25:00 +0000

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