East Lansing Public Schools Trustee Debbie Walton has resigned from the Board of Education. The school board will now move to appoint a replacement as the district continues to grapple with concerns among parents, students and teachers about school safety, discipline and district leadership.
Walton’s resignation comes amid a shake-up in the board leadership caused by the recent resignation of the presidency by Kath Edsall. At Monday’s meeting (Feb. 13), the board undertook election of three officer positions. The result was solidification of leadership power of the three members who ran as a slate in the November 2022 election: Edsall, Terah Chambers and Tali Faris-Hylen.
Edsall rose in power to become president, resigned from that position, and then got reelected to an officership, all in the space of about a month.
As ELi reported, Edsall had been voted president by the board on Jan. 9, at the first meeting of this year.
At the second meeting, on Jan. 23, Edsall angered some students, parents and teachers by seeming to discount their concerns about safety in the schools. A petition sprung up to demand her resignation as president.
At the heavily attended third school board meeting of the year, on Jan. 30 – specially convened because of all the turmoil – Trustee Monica Fink made a motion to remove Edsall as president. Trustee Amanda Cormier seconded the motion and, rather than facing the vote, Edsall resigned as president (remaining on the board).
A motion by Fink at the Jan. 30 meeting to remove Chambers as vice president failed to garner a second.
Walton went on to suggest the board immediately undertake a vote on who would replace Edsall. But Edsall forestalled the idea, saying that vote should happen at the next meeting, set for Feb. 13.
But this week’s meeting didn’t start with a vote on a new president after all.
This week’s meeting (Feb. 13) was held again in the high school auditorium, anticipating another crowd too big to fit into the board meeting room, where meetings are normally held.
The dias was set up for only five members, with name plates indicating that Cormier and Walton were not expected to attend. Chambers began the meeting with the announcement that Cormier was absent because of a “long-known” conflict for this date.
Chambers then said that – contrary to what Edsall indicated at the Jan. 30 meeting – according to the board’s bylaws, when Edsall resigned, “I immediately became president.” That’s because, at that time, Chambers was vice president.
Chambers said she understood she could still be removed from the post of president by a board majority. She asked if anyone wanted to remove her.
Fink then made such a motion. But again without a second on removing Chambers from her officership, Fink’s move failed.
Chambers then made the announcement that Walton, who had been serving as board treasurer, had resigned “for personal reasons.” (Contacted by ELi, Walton confirmed the resignation but declined to say more about the reasons.)
Chambers’ ascension to the role of president left the vice presidency vacant and Walton’s resignation left the role of treasurer vacant. Chambers noted the bylaws allowed her to appoint individuals but said she would prefer elections. The board consequently undertook more officer elections.
For the vice president position, Faris-Hylen nominated Trustee Elizabeth Lyons, with Edsall seconding. Fink alone voted “no” on that election, giving Lyons the seat on a 4-1 vote. Fink said she was voting no because Lyons had been assigned work on the board’s intergovernmental committee last year and “did not do anything with it.”
As Lyons had been serving as secretary, next came a vote for a new secretary. Edsall nominated Faris-Hylen, with Chambers seconding the motion. That vote went 5-0.
For the treasurer position, Lyons nominated Edsall with a laugh, saying, “You’ve done it before.” (Edsall served as treasurer to the board in the previous term.) Faris-Hylen seconded the nomination of Edsall.
“For me,” Fink said about Edsall’s nomination, “for my asking you to step down as president [at the last meeting], it’s gonna be a no.”
Edsall was elected treasurer on a 4-1 vote.
|Trustee||Before Jan. 30 meeting||At Feb. 13 meeting|
|Kath Edsall||President||Treasurer (voted in 4-1)|
|Terah Chambers||Vice President||President (ascended automatically because of Edsall’s resignation)|
|Debbie Walton||Treasurer||resigned; will be replaced by an appointment made by majority of remaining board|
|Elizabeth Lyons||Secretary||Vice President (voted in 4-1)|
|Tali Faris-Hylen||Secretary (voted in 5-0)|
|Amanda Cormier||(absent only from Jan. 30 meeting; expected to return)|
Monday’s meeting was suspended because of the shootings on Michigan State University’s campus – but not before many people came forward again to talk about safety and discipline.
The meeting agenda for Feb. 13 had included plans for Superintendent Dori Leyko and Assistant Superintendent Glenn Mitcham to present results of a survey related to school safety. They were also due to present an updated plan for district safety and to take actions on budgetary items and the school wellness policy.
The meeting was stopped near the end of public comment because of notifications of an active shooter on MSU’s campus. The high school soon went into shelter-in-place along with the rest of the city, and the remainder of the meeting was ultimately canceled.
But before the suspension of proceedings, designated student representative Gabe Benavides told the board he appreciated the action taken on safety concerns but “every decision that has been made has been short-term. It’s all been reactive.”
Then, in advance of public comment, Chambers read a statement about the board’s policy that says the board will not interact with the public except insofar as to correct misrepresentations, a policy Chambers said board members often find “frustrating.” The policy in fact states, “Board members may ask questions of the speakers but are not required to answer questions or make statements in response to a public comment.”
During public comment, several people came forward to the microphones to criticize the board for their approach, saying the board is failing to engage its constituents.
Shari Brooks, an East Lansing resident and mother of an ELPS student, said the board says it wants collaboration with the community but fails to engage even when invited to do so. She asked for transparency and accountability, including on civil rights data. Brooks said the district was operating under “a cloak of invisibility.”
Several people also came forward to decry the district’s failures to accommodate students with physical, emotional and cognitive disabilities, from doors that are challenging to open to lack of assistance for hearing impaired students who need technology that provides live closed captioning.
One woman said the district sometimes actively ignores the accommodations named in students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP) plans.
Two mothers came forward to question the process used in the suspension of their sons. Another noted that the “code of conduct” policy is 85-pages long – so long, she said, no family can possibly digest it in a meaningful way.
Speaking to the case of her son’s suspension, Brandy Branson said the communication from the district had been abysmal, including in terms of not informing her how she could get homework to keep her son progressing academically and not providing clarity on an appeals process.
Katelyne Thomas, a special education teacher for the district, came forward to decry the suspension of one of her students, weeping as she told the board that the district’s policies are hurting vulnerable students who need school resources to survive. She described herself as deep “in sorrow and in anger” at the situation. (She noted she had the family’s permission to discuss the case.)
Thomas said the suspension resulted in “loss of community” that was critically important to this child. She referred to ELi’s recent interview with a school safety expert who said the provision of mentorship and caring adults in a school can help greatly reduce frustration and aggression among young men who are struggling.
The mother of the student Thomas was speaking about also came forward to explain that her son’s suspension was problematic in process and seriously harming him, coming a year after his brother had been murdered. Holding back tears, she pleaded with the board to allow her child to come back to the people who care for him and know how to help him – people like Thomas.
Former school board member Nichole Martin – who lost her bid for reelection in 2020 to Walton, Fink, and Lyons and who works in the area of child welfare – came to the microphone with her husband and two daughters to speak about the bullying her children are experiencing at the hands of other girls at elementary school and high school.
Martin’s family members urged her to continue through her tears. She said her younger daughter (whom she identified as cisgendered, like her other daughter) has been questioned by a janitor about why she’s in the girls bathroom and misgendered in an obnoxious fashion by a substitute teacher.
When she was on the board, Martin had served on the district’s Mental Health Advisory Committee. But, Martin noted, the committee has been meeting only a couple times a year, including during the pandemic shut-downs. Even in the face of all the recent stressors in the district, Martin noted, the committee’s scheduled March meeting has not been moved up.
“Our district was on fire,” Martin said of recent events and, in terms of response to mental health stress, “it was business as usual.”
Martin also noted the page for the Mental Health Advisory Committee indicates serious problems in terms of record-keeping. And, she said, the “student wellness policy” on the board’s agenda no longer contained mention of mental health. She reminded the board that much effort went into all of this because of two suicides in close succession among ELHS students several years ago.
Brad Lutz, a father of children in the district, said the district’s communications continue to be scattershot and confusing. Asked about this after the meeting, Chambers said the board is planning to look into hiring a communications specialist.
Lutz also asked for better approaches to mental health and deadlines on plans for more safety. He is not in favor of a School Resource Officer (an assigned East Lansing Police Department officer) in the district because he doesn’t think it will enhance safety and would turn into a system for seeking student “compliance through the threat of force.”
Jared Roberts, another district father, said discipline is a “disaster” in the district and educators are in despair. He does want an SRO added and said the survey results made clear the majority of respondents agree with him. Roberts said the reason to have an SRO is because of “cataclysmic shooter events.”
This was shortly before the alerts started about the shooting at MSU.
The board will now go about appointing someone to Walton’s vacated seat.
On Tuesday morning, ELi asked all board members for comments on how they want to see the appointment of Walton’s replacement handled. Three responded: Faris-Hylen, Chambers and Fink.
Faris-Hylen sent the board policy on appointments for vacancies and wrote, “Past practice has been to create the application, review applications, interview candidates, and choose the candidate to fill the vacancy all within public meetings within the next 30 calendar days. More specifics have not been determined yet due to the specifics of last night,” meaning the interruption of Monday’s meeting caused by the shooting at MSU.
Chambers wrote, “We will use an open process that includes public interviews, as described in the Policy that Trustee Faris-Hylen shared.”
In her response, Fink began by noting that the ELPS Board policy states, “Individual Board members do not speak on the Board’s behalf without Board approval. Unless authorized, public communications by individual Board members about District matters must clearly indicate that the Board member is not speaking on the Board’s behalf.”
Fink then noted she was speaking for herself and said she was having trouble finding a policy for “what metrics we should use for selecting a board member.”
“I would really like to see us identify metrics, standards, or something to base our decisions off of,” Fink said to ELi by email. “I would also like to see a healthy diverse application pool that all Board members have access to review.
“My hope, for our Board, District, and Community, is that we see an outpouring of interest,” she wrote. “I am looking forward to different perspectives on how we can collaborate intentionally to help empower our students to achieve all of their goals through an equitable and inclusive lens. I am hopeful to see how we as a board can leverage our strengths to better support our community in the immediate and ongoing future.”
Update, Feb.17, 12:30 p.m.: Applications are now being accepted for the seat vacated by Walton. Read more.
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