ELi Asks the 8 School Board Candidates Why They’re Running

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ELi recently reported the names of the eight candidates for three open East Lansing Board of Education trustee positions.

The election will be on Nov. 3, on the same ballot as the Presidential Election. Mail-in ballots become available on September 24.

To help inform readers intending to vote, we reached out to the candidates to ask:

  1. Can you share is a little about your background (work and/or community engagement) and how it has prepared you to be a Trustee?
  2. What motivated you to run for this position?
  3. What two issues do you think most urgently need to be addressed and how would you address them?

We gave them all the same strict word counts and held them to it. All provided answers, all by the deadline. The written responses and their self-supplied photos are shown below in the order in which we received their responses.

Contact us if you have additional questions you would like us to ask the candidates.

DEBBIE WALTON (above)

I began volunteering in the East Lansing Public Schools in 2009 when my son entered Kindergarten at Donley Elementary. Since then, I have volunteered in many capacities including: creating STEM events at the elementary and middle school levels, initiating a “Needs Closet” at MMS, providing music enrichment to Special Ed classes, and tutoring Algebra at ELHS. I’ve also served as President and Vice-President of the Donley, MMS, and District Parent Councils. Through this work, I have built strong relationships with teachers, administrators, and families across the District. Now I hope to join the Board so that I can help our District provide exceptional, rigorous academics to every member of our diverse student body. Professionally, I have two degrees from MIT, and I am a former NASA engineer. Given this technical background, I believe that I am well-suited for making impartial, data-driven decisions to benefit our entire community. 

I love East Lansing! When I moved here 17 years ago, I found an incredibly welcoming, vibrant, diverse city, and I fell in love with this place and its community. I began volunteering in the schools as a way to support our teachers and help enrich the educational experiences and opportunities for all of our students. I want to be on the School Board to contribute in an even more profound way to this community that I love. I want people to know that East Lansing Public Schools provide top-notch academic opportunities, that our arts and athletics are phenomenal, and that our students leave here ready to be active and engaged citizens. East Lansing Public Schools should be a point of pride for the entire community, and I will work tirelessly to make that potential a reality. 

The most urgent issue facing our district is how to maximize the value of online learning and how to safely and quickly return to in-person school. We need to embrace the notion that this pandemic provides a unique opportunity to rethink our approach to education. The best thing we can do right now is allow our teachers broad creative latitude to engage students academically and support their emotional health in whatever ways they consider necessary. We should provide Professional Development that doesn’t merely teach the technical aspects of moving online, but rather supports alternative teaching methods such as flipped classrooms and project-based learning. And we need to begin planning immediately to find ways to keep our students and teachers safe as we transition back to in-person instruction as soon as possible.

A second urgent issue in our district is the reality that our parents have to work too hard to advocate for their children’s needs. From our special needs and high-achieving students needing more support, to the myriad scheduling issues at the Middle and High School, requiring advocacy from parents sets up an inequitable system in which resources are allocated primarily to those who have the time and ability to fight for them. We need to implement systems to identify students who require additional support, work creatively to build in-district options for those students (as well as partnering with MSU and LCC), and communicate these options in a clear and timely manner to our families.

MONICA M. FINK (above)

I am a veteran and mother of two (ages 7 and 19), I have been involved in ELPS since we moved here in 2013. My roles within ELPS include:

  • breakfast and lunch Monitor at Marble Elementary
  • co-founder and president of the Marble Equity Team
  • active member of the Marble Parent Council, the District Parent Council, and Black Parent Union at the High School
  • Marble room parent
  • Involved member in Safe Routes to School

Additionally, I’m active in securing grants and donations for Marble Elementary students and staff. I have provided input to the ELPS Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment and the K-8 Science Committee for the new science curriculum as well as the ELHS Mathematics Department regarding the proposed textbooks and instructional materials. I provided input with an equity lens for the District Continuity of Learning Plan. I also serve on MacDonald Middle School Return to School Work-group.

My belief in quality public education and my personal investment in preserving, promoting, and improving the quality of our school system are the reason I am running for the East Lansing School Board. I have served and advocated for the educational needs of our children, staff and families for my entire adulthood. I am committed to continued advocacy for an equitable, inclusive, and respectful educational experience for all students, families and staff. 

I believe our diversity-enhanced schools are vibrant opportunity-places that call us to meaningful and exciting work. We ask a great deal of our educators to nurture and grow our children without providing appropriate support. This, in addition to unexpected demands our staff are facing due to Covid-19 make this a time for us, as a community, to double down on our supportive efforts for continuous education and inspiration, while continuing to make a positive impact on our children.

Reopening schools this fall should be done as safely as possible, in the least disruptive way, with as much fluidity as possible. While we have a responsibility to ensure we create a welcoming, nurturing and safe environment for all our students, staff and families, I don’t believe this is possible if we were to open schools 100% in person. I believe a hybrid approach that meets stringent safety protocols is the best way to ensure maximum safety, flexibility, and a non disruptive learning environment for our staff and families. Until implementation of robust safety protocols can be met, the safest approach to reopening is online only. We have to come together as a community to make sure that we are providing as much support to our leadership and families as possible if we are going to thrive in this new era of schooling.

American schools have struggled with racial inequity since before the 1954 Topeka landmark case of Brown v. Board. I appreciate the efforts of this school board to address these issues. This work needs to continue with progressive, aggressive, mindful and targeted practices that require the voice of people of color to ensure that the important conversations that address the issues that happen almost exclusively to Black and Brown children happen through an antiracist lens. Children of color seeing themselves in authority figures they encounter in school will promote pride, feelings of being understood, and combat the real and consequential implicit biases of those with privilege and power.   

GREGORY HESS  (above)

My background is mostly in public sector Information Technology. I think that fits in well with the new-found appreciation for I.T. in education that the COVID-19 Pandemic has created. In addition, I have taught classes at the collegiate level for two different community colleges and I currently am a teaching assistant at Michigan State University where I am seeking my PhD in Computer Science. My wife has also been in public higher education, working at admissions at Montana State University and now at Michigan State University’s James Madison College. While this is in higher education, we see students having just left K-12 and I have worked on several groups whose goals were to help facilitate that bridge, especially in STEM, from K-12 education to higher education. These experiences have taught me that we need close collaboration between the two in order to attract and retain students in STEM.

My primary motivation to run for this position, I admit, is that my daughter started Kindergarten last year at Donley. It is a great school with amazing teachers and initially I volunteered as I could. With the challenges of COVID, however, I came to believe that my experience and expertise could bring greater benefit on the board. The single largest difference in a child’s education is the teacher they have and I want to be part of a solution in finding ways to attract and retain the best teachers – this one thing can have the biggest impact on our children’s education. Aside from that, I think I have seen a kind of ‘drifting’ of the parents and education system and I would also like to be part of the team that finds ways to help the system and parents collaborate. 

My biggest two issues is a tough question – they encapsulate so many issues.

First and foremost – the education system has to do the best job possible educating our children and preparing them for either higher education, trade jobs, or even just life in general. Everyone, I think, would agree on that but it encapsulates so much. Questions have come about in the past decade in terms of the focus of higher education over trades in the student body. There have also been several studies about how students are segregated by perceived ability and encouraged in directions early on, either in a formal or informal process. Lack of common life skills has been more recently pointed out as well as lack of sufficient knowledge about under-represented minorities. All of these, and more, need the attention of an active body, as well as parents and administration, to keep East Lansing as a world class education system for our children.

The second issue really reinforces the first – the first issue is operational – being the best system for our children. The second issue is the process in how we achieve that. Looking at things like equity in compensation, merit based bonuses, accurate and fair measurements of outcome, the vetting and hiring process of new teachers, ongoing performance of established teachers and soliciting feedback on the communication and collaboration with the parents, making sure they are partners in this, are all ways where process and support our desired outcome.

JOSHUA R. BARBER (above)

I come to you a humble and concerned father. My background is in the service industry. I graduated from The School of Hospitality Business at MSU and served as the General Manager of the Okemos Olive Garden for seven years before I left to become a full-time father. I am now currently working as a courier for the Clinical Center Pharmacy at MSU where I am part of an amazing team that is taking care of some of our most vulnerable citizens and neighbors throughout this pandemic. Although my background is not rooted in education, I understand leadership, service, safety, and have a strong passion for education. I understand it is our outstanding public-school system here in East Lansing that makes this a great place to live and raise a family.

I was motivated to run by my son. He has allowed me to truly see what is most important in this life. His bravery, his kindness, his generosity, his tenacity. He has put on a brave face during this pandemic and now he was left out of Kindergarten due to his parents work schedules and absence of realistic options. I want to help. I want to help others that have not had a voice in this process. I want to help get our children back to in-person learning. I want to be a voice for those that have none.

There is one primary issue right now. We have no options other than virtual learning for our children in this community. I would address this by providing a voice for those parents that have had to sit back and allow the decisions of the few outweigh the needs of the community. I would push for options. At home virtual learning may work for some right now, but we need options for working families and children with special needs that cannot be met on an iPad. Essential workers have braved this pandemic in many capacities and now I am asking for some brave individuals within our education system to work with parents. Please help us to start getting students into the classrooms on a voluntary basis to ease the transition. I would work with neighboring districts to find best practices. This is not impossible as some have made this out to be. For those that still want to go virtual for now, that options should still be available. There are families out there that need other options and they need a voice. I will be that voice.

ELIZABETH GUERRERO LYONS (above)

I graduated from Michigan State University with a B.S. in Human Ecology with an emphasis on youth. I continued my education at MSU and received a Master’s in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education and my doctorate in K-12 Educational Leadership. I worked as a coordinator for pre-college youth programs at MSU for three years and then moved to the Undergraduate Office of Admissions, where I worked closely with high school students and their parents. I then transitioned over to the College of Human Medicine Office of Admissions, where I have been working for the last 10 years as the Director of Diversity Recruitment. I began volunteering in the East Lansing school district when my daughter started school at Glencairn and my son at Donley in the Y5 program. I have been active in the Glencairn PTO meetings, served as a room parent, and coordinated the staff appreciation week.

I am running for the East Lansing Board of Education because I believe in an engaging, relevant, and active learning environment that celebrates the diversity of our students, teachers, and community. I believe I have the personal and professional experience to be an effective advocate and leader for our East Lansing families, students, and teachers, along with critical thinking and problem-solving skills. It is imperative that a school system continuously works on building a sense of belonging, promoting equity, and protecting our students’ wellness and mental health. If elected, I will lead by a family-driven and community-focused approach.

Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion- I believe it is essential for the school board to clearly define what diversity and equity mean and have policies that reflect this understanding. The historical trauma felt by many communities has been compounded in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the countless other Black and Brown lives that have been taken. It is crucial to continue to create healthy space that can promote truth-telling conversations among educational leaders and administration. We must put policy in place to change systemic structures that prevent and hinder our children’s success in the classroom. Along with these steps, I think this is the time to look at our curriculum while making sure that our teachers are given training to teach and continually enhance culturally relevant coursework.

Mental Health/Trauma-Informed- I believe more than ever our children’s mental health is strongly linked to educational outcomes. We should do everything we can to support healthy mental health for our students. Over the past several months, our students have gone through and continue to go through very tough times due to the pandemic. These circumstances have compounded already existing issues that many of our families and teachers were dealing with, both in and out of the classroom. We have to make sure our teachers, school staff, and administration receive support, including access to quality training and other resources to support students.

MATTHEW J HEOS (above)

I have lived in East Lansing most of my life and attended ELPS along with my siblings. My daughter and niece are rising second graders and my nephew is in early 5s this year in ELPS. I attended MSU for undergrad where I earned a BA in Telecommunications with a cognate in social studies, and my law degree is Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. I serve as a Parish Counselor at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Lansing. My law practice is in East Lansing where I work to resolve issues for my clients. My education and experience can have a positive impact on our district since I can effectively work with multiple points of view to create consensus. To preserve the core democratic values of our society, a renewed focus on civics is needed to create a balanced individual with the tools to be a positive force.

The pandemic has exposed the inequality in our society. Our schools should be a place where those differences are minimized, if not eliminated. Complacency about the quality of our district cannot continue. Adapting instruction to different learning styles, providing for special education needs, and a safe and supportive climate for learning are issues which have been identified and need to be further developed. Equity of experience among pupils is paramount for a successful society. The Covid-19 pandemic has drawn sharp focus on the need for equitable access to online learning. We can adapt to this challenge if we can focus our resources in an equitable way. My motivation for seeking a position on EL School Board is to be part of the solution for these issues and be ready to identify future issues.

Some students need in-person instruction and we must find a way for them to get back in the classroom first. Special education is not necessarily compatible with distance learning and this could be done in a safe way during the pandemic. I would like to see the administration develop a plan to address this issue first. Students from K – 5 need in-person instruction also but there is not a consensus on how to proceed. I would like to see the administration develop a plan to get K – 5 students back in school with appropriate safety precautions because we cannot let our students fall behind. Students in grades 6 – 12 are better suited for distance learning because they have more experience using computers. This age group is more at risk from Covid-19 so it makes sense for them to return to in-person learning once the pandemic is better controlled. 

This is a good time to review the implementation of Matt’s Law which required school districts to combat bullying in our schools. What good is the law if we do not implement and enforce it? ELPS needs to track bullying incidents and report discipline and referrals that result from the incidents, but we have fallen short. School should be a place free of humiliation and intimidation so that we can maximize each student’s potential. 2020-21 should be the year that we get this right and it will be a priority for me if I am elected on 11/3.

DORIAN PRIER (above)

I am a parent to an East Lansing High School sophomore. I am a former middle school science teacher. My experience as a teacher gives me a unique perspective because not long ago, I was a public school employee and can empathize with some of the challenges teachers face teaching our community’s students. I have a Master of Education in Educational Administration, so I also understand the challenges facing district administrators. I am currently a union representative for the Michigan Education Association. In my work, I have to use my knowledge of school board policies, educational/professional issues, cultural competency, and current school-related legislation to help my members navigate the educational system. This work can be essential to a school board as it develops and facilitates the implementation of policy.

When I was teacher, I had to use my own money to buy resources to ensure that my students had the best learning environment possible, regardless of what part of the zip code in which they lived. I am running for school board to support the education professionals that teach our kids. I want to make sure that our Superintendent has the resources to provide the best support to those on the front lines serving and loving on our kids each day. I want to support the East Lansing Public Schools’ ideal of the school community as a family. In addition, I want to support the race, equity, and inclusion initiatives that ELPS has already implemented and challenge the district to continue to do that work as the demographics of the area change.

To build world citizens, ELPS must increase their focus on race, diversity, inclusion. One thing I would address is the lack of diversity amongst the administrators and teaching staff. ELPS should institute a program to recruit administrators and teachers of color. This can be accomplished with intentional recruiting in urban centers and at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Research has shown, that students of color achieve when the education professionals look like them. In addition, ELPS students should be required to take a course on race, diversity, and inclusion prior to graduation. When we educate all students, the learning should be about ALL students.

Also, I think that ELPS has got to develop more connections with ALL stakeholders. Often, schools become monoliths where the community does not feel welcome. Many parents and community members want to support their local school district and to be a part of their kids’ school lives, but they have small children, work, or have a non-traditional family dynamic. ELPS must develop more community initiatives to bring more people into the ELPS family. One way, would be town halls with ELPS school board members. Community members can come to Board meetings and make statements, but don’t have an informal venue to ask questions of their Board members and put forth ideas. Another, would be the reestablishment of the Board newsletter and posting it on the ELPS website. This is an easy way to communicate what’s going on outside of formal meetings. Great communication flows two ways.

NICHOLE MARTIN (above; running for reelection)

I am an EL native, who graduated from ELHS in 2000, I received a dual BA in Criminal Justice and Psychology from Carthage College and an MA from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, in 2004 and 2006, respectively.

With over twenty years of experience in the areas of behavior therapy, developmental needs, program design and development, educational planning, academic support building, community collaboration and fundraising, I currently work as a Child Welfare Business Analyst, assisting in monitoring child welfare progress.

I have been involved in the community, in a variety of ways including but not limited to the EL Basketball Club, Donley PTA, EL Soccer Club, ELHS Hall of Fame and a member of the Junior League of Lansing and the National Association of Career Women.

My husband, Scott, and I have been married for 13 years and have two wonderful daughters, Taylor (12) and Tristin (8).

Four years ago, I ran with a focus on building collaborative relationships among board of education members, administrators and district employees, striving to create a better awareness and emphasis on mental health resources, access to creative technology solutions, collaboration with local businesses, and working to honor diversity and cultural understanding among students, teachers, administrators, and community. I believe as a district we have worked to improve in all these areas during my time with the board. I believe we have more to do and it continues to be my mission to work collaboratively as a board trustees with all stakeholders to improve upon the progress we have made. My tagline has always been “Committed to Community, Dedicated to Progress” and that remains my focus; to learn, collaborate, adjust, and strength the collective educational community in East Lansing.

I believe we need to feverishly continue addressing the mental health, SEL and overall school connectedness of our students and staff as we work through virtual learning. As a district, we have begun to chip away at the stigma surrounding mental health, however it continues to be considered a topic that is routinely coupled with negative connotations. Mental health includes how we think, feel, and behave based on our emotional, psychological, and social well-being and fluctuates throughout life. The way we think, feel, and behave in times of triumph and adversity is related to our mental health and the coping mechanisms we have learned to utilize. As we navigate through virtual learning and through the transitional stages of returning to in person learning, we must be intentional about creating healthy relationships to connect people, note concerns and destigmatize the way many students and teachers are likely feeling as we continue to maintain distancing through the beginning of the year.

Secondly, I believe district work should continue to create a culture of belonging for each students, staff, families, and community members at large. There is a need to maintain the district’s overall focus on equity and inclusion using awareness, developing acceptance, and building resilience on issues of social and racial justice. Our community can no longer wait for a convenient time to address the daily disparities between our students. I look forward to the development a district racial equity policy to help continue to address this work from the top down.

Find out how to vote via the City Clerk’s dedicated webpage.

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