School Board Considers Preservation of “East Lansing Values,” Reviews Superintendent

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Superintendent Dori Leyko at Monday's virtual meeting.

At this week’s East Lansing Public Schools Board virtual meeting, the trustees made several important announcements, discussed how to revise policies while maintaining “East Lansing values,” and then (out of the public eye) reviewed Superintendent Dori Leyko’s performance.

The Board also accepted the proposed budget for the next school year (2020-21), which presumes a pandemic-caused reduction in state support of about $700 per pupil per year, one of the largest reductions ever seen. The district will pull about $1.1 million out of fund balance (savings) to manage, leaving about $5.5 million remaining in the fund balance.

Review of Superintendent

The plans for reviewing Superintendent Leyko changed multiple times over the past weeks.

As ELi previously reported, Kath Edsall, School Board Treasurer and Chair of the Personnel Committee, read a statement at a May 11 School Board meeting, announcing that the committee had opted to not review Leyko because of the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic.

But President Erin Graham questioned if the Personnel Committee had the authority to make that decision for the full Board.

ELPS Board President Erin Graham at Monday’s virtual meeting.

As a result, a special closed-door meeting of the entire Board was held on May 26 to discuss a legal opinion, issued by Thrun law firm, on the issue. The Board revealed few details upon returning to open session. The process raised issues of transparency, particularly because the public was never even notified of the initial Personnel Committee meeting.

In the end, Leyko’s review on Monday was conducted in closed session at her request, as is permitted by the Open Meetings Act. The written evaluation was prepared by Edsall in advance but not shared with the public until after the closed session was completed. At that point, the document was shown in a scroll conducted so fast ELi could not screenshot it.

ELi finally procured the evaluation results Tuesday afternoon; you can see them here. According to Edsall, the numbers represent the average of ratings submitted by the Board members in advance.

Leyko was assessed on a scale of 1 to 4 (not 0 to 4), and the numbers in red represent the average of the trustees’ scoring. Leyko received a 3.63 overall rating and received her highest marks in human development and political awareness.

Edsall told ELi via email, “This evaluation cycle has been incredibly confusing and as the personnel chair, I take responsibility for that confusion at the district level.”

She explained that she had circulated an evaluation form to Board members in advance of the meeting. Prior to the meeting, Edsall said, the Board had not discussed the results among themselves or with Leyko. Edsall says there is no additional documentation for this evaluation.

New School Policy Book?

On Monday night, the Board discussed in open session the best approach for undertaking major revisions to school policy. ELi previously reported on the Policy Committee’s initial discussion on the possibility of purchasing a policy handbook from Thrun law firm. The Board is also considering paying for material and guidance from Neola. One concern is that the Board’s policies are not all compliant with state law.

Terah Chambers, School Board Vice president and Chair of the Policy Committee, sought feedback on the issue from the entire Board. She said the main factors under consideration were cost, time commitment, and the values captured in the policies.

If the Board opts to go with Thrun’s offering, the new policy book will cost $7,000 and it will be fully compliant with Michigan law. Thrun can provide annual updates for $2,500 per year. (For context, note that the school district’s general fund budget is about $40 million.)

Thrun’s handbook provides some degree of simple customization options to accommodate schools “in places as different as Escanaba and East Lansing,” according to a Thrun representative. However, if ELPS’s Board wants to make changes beyond the customized choices, it would have to ask Thrun for additional feedback, which could cost extra.

Chambers said that in the last two years, ELPS spent less than $1,000 on policy feedback from Thrun. At last month’s Policy Committee meeting, Thrun suggested ELPS could negotiate the price and receive free consultation through webinars.

ELPS Board Vice President Terah Chambers at Monday’s virtual meeting.

The consensus of the Board seemed that leaving the Policy Committee to revise the entire body of existing policy “would take years” to nail down appropriate language, consult with Thrun, and gain the approval of the Board. Even if the committee tackled multiple policies each meeting, it would not be enough.

The main concern regarding Thrun’s handbook that emerged was its possible inability to represent what some Board members referred to as “East Lansing values” — apparently meaning a commitment to diversity and inclusion consistent with platforms typically promoted by those who are left-of-center politically.

Chambers also named restorative justice as an important concern. She stated that Thrun’s book might not be as progressive as the Board might want. She believes that ELPS has developed “truly important policies that need to be preserved in the transition” to new material.

Chambers also expressed concern that even if the School Board purchased Thrun’s book, the Policy Committee would still spend considerable time revising Thrun’s prepackaged policies, which, in turn, would also cost money.

Other Announcements

The meeting began by acknowledging the retirement of the of the following ELPS personnel: Cecilia Anderson, Susan Christian, Cynthia Goff, Dean Hanton, Dawn Hull, Mark Jenkins, Michele Lambert, Dan Morrison, Victoria Pline, John Plough, Neneng Spielberg, Karen Wallace, and Vince Watson.

Leyko announced that over the summer, families can expect meal distribution at ELHS on Thursdays between noon and 1pm. Commencement for ELHS students is still scheduled for July 19, and plans are being developed.

As per Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s guidance, students should expect to return to in-person classes on August 25. But the ELPS return-to-school work group is considering what in-person classes will look like and how they may need to be adapted if public health problems become worse again.

Leyko plans to continue to send biweekly updates over the summer. She said that ELPS families should expect to use SeeSaw for grades K-2 and Google Classrooms for 3-12 when school resumes.

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