Chris Martin will again take a seat on the East Lansing Schools’ Board of Education following a 4-2 vote by the trustees Monday night.
Martin will fill the vacancy left by the unexplained resignation of Debbie Walton from the board on Feb. 13.
Voting in favor of Martin’s appointment were the four officers who hold a steady majority in voting: President Terah Chambers, Vice President Elizabeth Lyons, Treasurer Kath Edsall and Secretary Tali Faris-Hylen.
Those in favor of Martin said it was important that, given his previous experience on the board, he understands the board’s role and responsibilities. Chambers described Martin as “someone who can start on day one” in full capacity. Edsall’s comments were along the same lines.
Voting against were Trustees Monica Fink and Amanda Cormier.
“I think that if we are being honest,” Fink said, “and listening to what our students, staff and community are saying, they say they want change.”
Cormier agreed before casting the only other “no” vote.
The process used for filling the vacant position was decided out of sight of the public.
The school board last met on Feb. 13, the night of the shooting at Michigan State University. Earlier that day, Walton had turned in her resignation, starting a 30-day deadline for the board to appoint a replacement to fill out the rest of Walton’s term, which goes to the end of 2024.
With the meeting cut short by the city-wide shelter-in-place order, the board did not discuss the process it would use to appoint the replacement. Instead, some or all board members made decisions outside of a public meeting about how to carry out the process. How the process was decided was not explained Monday night (Feb. 27).
After the Feb. 13 meeting, some or all of the board decided to call for applications with a deadline of Feb. 24. The Feb. 17 announcement of the call asked interested parties to send a letter to Faris-Hylen including information about the applicants’ background and experience.
The agenda for Monday’s meeting indicated the board would use the meeting to interview all nine people who applied.
Chambers’ remarks on the matter soon made clear the board had also settled on four interview questions, which they had shared with applicants in advance.
The four questions asked why applicants were applying, their relevant experiences and skills, what they see as the role and responsibilities of an effective board member, what issues they saw as important for the board to address, and whether they could manage the time commitment.
In introducing the topic, Chambers said the board could elect to vote that night on the position or to put it off. She repeatedly said she did not know how the process would turn out.
“I am a little anxious tonight, because I don’t know what will happen,” Chambers said. “Democracy is messy and the community is entitled to witness the process even though it might be uncomfortable.”
Just a few seconds after the interviews were completed, Faris-Hylen made a motion to appoint Martin. Edsall seconded the motion.
Candidates called for change, inclusion, transparency, diversity and more attention to the concerns of parents, students and teachers.
Nine candidates applied, but Chambers said Tracy Edmond Sr. had withdrawn because of a scheduling conflict. This left Martin, Michael Feldpausch, Gary Holbrook, Rufus Jackson, Velora Kimball, David McConnell, Daniel Myers and Dionnedra Reid.
Each candidate was allotted a 10-minute period in which to answer the previously-distributed questions and to respond to any questions from the board. The candidates took the podium in alphabetical order by last name. Not all used the full 10 minutes.
Feldpausch, who ran unsuccessfully for the school board in November 2022 (coming in eighth of 10 candidates), said he was not there to promote a partisan agenda and believed the board should serve parents, students and staff to maximize educational outcomes. He took note of the board’s legal responsibility toward the curriculum. He said he believes the current board “has one philosophy and agenda” and that “mine does not match.”
Holbrook has been running a very active Facebook ELPS parents, students and staff discussion group. He said fairness compelled him to put his name in the hat, since “If I’m going to make a ruckus, I should be prepared to help with the load.”
Holbrook said he believes the board’s role is to set policies that keep the superintendent in specific lanes and to be accountable to the community. Holbrook said he believes there is more work to be done on social justice and instituting evidence-based solutions to the district’s problems.
Jackson named his deep roots in East Lansing as a reason he was interested in and qualified to be serving. “Honestly,” he told the board, “I just think I can help you guys. I think you need a perspective that is different. I think you need someone who will be collaborative.”
He named as important issues the mental and physical health of students and said he thought the district needs to make sure every student has the tools to be a successful adult, regardless of ultimate educational plans.
Kimball said she wants to be on the board because she has a “strong passion” about the importance of education. She named as a goal increasing the diversity of the teaching staff and talked about her professional work in healthcare as informing her interest in data-based approaches to care. She said she thought board members should “remain politically neutral” and focus on what is best for all students, keeping equity in mind.
McConnell told the board he wants to be inclusive “of all voices in our community.” He sees the role of a school board member as supporting the administration in making progress toward goals named in a strategic plan. He said the district “needs to maintain the momentum” on inequity and social justice and needs to address concerns about transportation and food.
Meyers said he thought his 30 years as a litigator would help him be mindful of the responsibilities and limitations of being a board member. He said he thought the board’s job is to ensure quality education, equal opportunity, sound finances and confidentiality of student information, and he said transparency and data are important regardless of “the ideology of the day.”
Reid said she raised three children in the district and has spent two decades mentoring at-risk girls through her nonprofit organization while also working for Ingham County to help vulnerable families. She said she has also been a union steward fighting for her coworkers. She said she wants to ensure all students get the education, mental health support and materials they need to succeed. She said she has been “shocked to see how many students don’t have the necessities we take for granted.”
Martin didn’t mention he left the board to run for another office.
Serving on the school board as an elected member from 2018-2022, Martin did not mention in his presentation that he chose not to run for school board again because he set his sights instead on the 54B District bench. That campaign was thwarted when he was disqualified because he failed to meet the state requirements for running for that office, leaving former City Councilmember Lisa Babcock unopposed on the ballot. Martin appealed but lost the appeal.
Presenting Monday night, Martin spoke of his career as a school teacher who then became a lawyer, first working as a public defender and then as a prosecutor for seven years. He now works as an administrative law judge (an appointed position). He described himself as an extrovert and a problem-solver, and he praised Dori Leyko for her work as superintendent.
Asked about what big issues he would tackle if appointed to the board, Martin said he “edited the question” and instead talked about guiding principles. He spoke of attending to the needs of students, including those who need “to feel safe and secure” and those who need their material needs addressed to learn. He also called for educational equity and social justice.
Having overlapped with Martin for two years on the school board, Fink asked Martin pointedly whether he would change “how you choose to collaborate with board members” if named to serve again. He responded he thought he had a positive relationship with everyone he served with.
Martin also told Fink he is committed to transparency. In ELi’s experience, Martin has been more attentive to this than the average board member. For example, he made a point during the pandemic shut-downs to provide ELi advance notices of public district meetings that were otherwise difficult to know about.
After the majority chose Martin in the 4-2 vote, Chambers encouraged all those who had applied to consider running for school board in the next round, in 2024.
Watch for upcoming further ELi coverage of the Monday, Feb. 27, four-hour school board meeting.