East Lansing School Board Deadlocks; Fails to Choose New Member

Tuesday, November 14, 2017, 7:57 am
Karessa Wheeler

Top row: Terah Chambers, Jamie White, Debbie Walton. Bottom row: Todd Swales, Rufus Jackson, Chris Martin.

With a consistent 3-3 vote, members of the East Lansing Board of Education voted down every one of the six candidates for the one vacant seat on the Board Monday night. The decision now rests with the Ingham County Intermediate School District (ISD).

Following a round of interviews with the Board, Terah Chambers, an Associate Professor of Education at MSU, was the first candidate nominated by Trustee Erin Graham and seconded by Trustee Karen Hoene. Those two were joined in voting for her by Board President Nell Kuhnmuench.

“I believe Dr. Chambers is unequivocally the most qualified candidate. I can’t believe our luck that she is willing to step into this role. She has shared her professional expertise with our board and additionally made time to come to each board meeting and make time to be active in Glencairn School. She has solid knowledge of roles and responsibilities of a board member. It is very clear to me that she has a unique set of lived experiences that is currently lacking from the board. She has my full and unwavering support,” Hoene said.

Voting against Chambers were Trustees Nichole Martin, Hillary Henderson and Kate Powers.

“The role that Terah, Dr. Chambers, is playing currently isn’t finished and I feel like she wouldn’t necessarily be able to contribute as much as she has,” Martin said, citing Chambers’ current seat on a work group that is assisting the District in implementing the bond to rebuild the elementary schools.

Before the interviews, ten residents stood up and spoke in support of Chambers, noting her experience in education, willingness to listen and commitment to students of color. No other public comments were made in support of other candidates.

“Working with her on the ‘Yes Bond’ Committee, I was blown away by her commitment and her experience. I cannot imagine a better candidate,” said resident Shari Rose.

Andrew Brisbo was the first candidate to be interviewed by the board but he immediately withdrew his candidacy, saying that he believed there were more qualified candidates than himself. In addition, Stephanie Grimes had submitted a letter of interest in the vacancy but her name did not appear among the candidates Monday night.

The vacancy was created by former Trustee Yasmina Bouraoui who resigned her seat last month for personal reasons.

Before accepting nominations from trustees, Kuhnmuench asked each member to indicate their top choices. Henderson spoke first and stressed that she was looking for a candidate who understood the role of the Board of Education, and who would serve as a “cheerleader for the district”. She then named her top three candidates as Rufus Jackson, Debbie Walton and Jamie White.

Graham indicated her support for Chambers, saying that “Dr. Chambers brings the kind of skills that most school boards only dream about.”

Powers put her support behind Jackson, an insurance agent and football coach, saying he brings a different perspective to the board and has been active in the District for a long time.

Hoene followed, stating her “full and unwavering” support of Chambers. Martin, citing a “grievous lack of diversity” on the board, supported Jackson.

Kuhnmuench, speaking last, emphasized that all the candidates were qualified and should consider running for the next board election, in which four seats will be open, in less than a year. But for this seat, her first choice was Chambers.

After the vote to confirm Chambers failed, Martin nominated Jackson. Powers seconded the nomination.

“I feel like there are interpersonal skills in the district that are missing,” Martin said. “He has touched countless lives and people respond to him. We need someone who can help fill that gap.”

Powers, Martin and Henderson voted for Jackson while Kuhnmuench, Graham and Hoene voted no.

Henderson then nominated Debbie Walton, currently President of the MacDonald Middle School Parent Council, and an active volunteer at Donley, Whitehills and MacDonald Middle Schools as well as the District Parent Council. Powers seconded again and the vote remained 3-3.

Before voting against Walton, Graham said she hopes Walton runs for the open seats in 2018 but felt that she could not compromise her vote because of the high qualifications of Chambers.

Henderson then nominated attorney Jamie White, saying that he “hit on” the roles of School Board members in his comments and that she feels very strongly about those roles. Martin seconded but the vote remained 3-3.

The same pattern followed for candidates Chris Martin and Todd Swales. By the time Swales was voted down, emotions in the room were high.

“I am confused about how you can throw any other name out there but you won’t even consider (Chambers). No one can argue that Terah is not highly qualified,” Hoene said.

Powers responded that her vote doesn’t have anything to do with Chambers but that she didn’t have what Powers was looking for in a Board member.

Henderson said she was “highly offended” that Graham, Hoene and Kuhnmuench came to the meeting with their decisions already made in favor of Chambers. Hoene responded that she had done her research, read every single letter sent in favor of candidates and considered them all for nearly a week.

Graham also responded: “I actually find that offensive that you are willing to take anybody here other than Dr. Chambers. I think this is some sort of anti-intellectual statement. This is someone who teaches, teaches throughout the country,” Graham said. “It is very offensive that she is somehow in an ivory tower and can’t join the community.”

The meeting ended around 10:30 p.m. with Kuhnmuench stating that she would speak with Superintendent Dori Leyko about how to move the process to the Ingham County ISD. The process by which the ISD chooses the candidate was unclear last night.