PAC Involvement in ELPS Board Election Questioned

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Friday, October 31, 2014, 7:31 pm
Alice Dreger

The involvement of Neighborhoods 1st, a local Political Action Committee (PAC), in the East Lansing school board elections is raising questions, including questions about the slate of four candidates endorsed by the PAC: Yasmina Bouraoui, Karen Hoene, Nell Kuhnmuench, and Jeff Wrey. As ELi has previously reported, Neighborhoods 1st has been refusing to answer questions about who is on its board, leading to suspicious about the PAC’s motives for these endorsements.

Joe Borgstrom, one of the four candidates not endorsed by the PAC, tweeted me earlier today to ask why ELi hasn’t looked into Neighborhoods 1st’s involvement in the school board election, as we have the parking lots ballot issue. (The other three candidates are David Gott, Kyle Guerrant, and Kate Powers.) So today I set out to investigate this issue. In the process, I finally managed to learn more about Neighborhoods 1st, as well as about the remaining tension over the schools’ reconfiguration.

Borgstrom’s issue about the PAC is that “so much money has been dumped into this race” by Neighborhoods 1st. He says, “PACs are a big part of what’s wrong with our political system today. . . .PACs are for organizations who want to aggregate money and dispense it in large chunks without a whole lot of transparency as to who is making the decisions to back what. We're also talking about a specific PAC which has claimed to have six board members, but only discloses two. Then you back candidates who also profess the need for more transparency? That doesn't make a whole lot of sense.”

In my interviews with Don Power, one of the leaders of Neighborhoods 1st, I’ve been led to believe the PAC has a board of eight, not six. As I reported earlier, campaign filings have revealed that in addition to Power and Jim Anderson, who have disclosed their leadership of the PAC, the treasurer is Jonathan Harmon of Holt. Today when I pressed Power, specifically asking him to respond to Borgstrom’s charge that PAC members are “still hiding in the shadows,” he told me there isn’t an executive board of eight, but a group of “people who participate a lot.”

Among those who “participate a lot” are, according to Power: Ralph Monsma, Ray Vlasin, Jim Robertson, Alice Martin, Mark Sullivan, and Jeffrey Astrein. Power said he also had “a couple of retired bankers” who prefer not to have their names revealed. (I asked if one was Vic Loomis, as they served on City Council together, and Power said no.)

When I asked Power how exactly the PAC selected whom to endorse for school board, he indicated that he and Anderson “saw the conflict that happened over [the closing of] Red Cedar [Elementary School], and we didn’t want to see that conflict happen any more. So we looked for people who are good strong supporters of the educational system, who are all parents, who have all participated in the schools in some fashion.” Power’s remarks suggested he and Anderson decided whom the PAC would endorse.

Yasmina Bouraoui, one of the candidates endorsed by Neighborhoods 1st, told me that she “did not seek their endorsement” but was contacted by the PAC and told they were going to endorse her. (She told me she sees no problem being supported by a citizen-initiated PAC that is not a front for corporations.)

When I spoke to Anderson, Power’s co-leader of the PAC, I pressed him to tell me how the PAC chose four candidates to endorse. Did they, for example, interview all the candidates and have the full board of eight PAC leaders discuss whom to endorse? Anderson would not tell me except to say they did not interview all the candidates. He added that the executive board was really more like an advisory group than a board.

I asked Anderson to respond to Borgstrom’s comment that members of the PAC are hiding in the shadows. Anderson answered, “If Joe Borgstrom wants kids to do their homework, he should do his. Everything we’re about is public record and all he has to do is go dig a little bit for it.” But when I told Anderson there was nowhere, to my knowledge, that one could look up who the eight (or six?) leaders are, he would only say that it was all public.

I explained to Anderson that I took Borgstrom’s point to be that information about the PAC was difficult to obtain—who the full set of leaders are, how many there are, how they selected candidates to endorse—but he continued to insist that it was all public record. When I asked him where I could look up answers to such questions, he said, “You’re making me wish I hadn’t even tried to be responsive to your phone and email inquiry.”

I then told him that I had looked up the most recent campaign information for Neighborhoods 1st and found that the County Clerk has just sent the PAC an “errors and omissions” letter indicating that the PAC has made a large number of math errors in its filings. At this, he hung up on me.

When I spoke to Power earlier, I asked about the rumor that the slate of four are looking to reopen Red Cedar as an elementary school, but are not being forthcoming about their intentions. Power told me, “I never heard any of them say directly that’s what they’re running for.” He said he wanted candidates who “will look at the district and make appropriate choices for all the schools.” He acknowledged “there’s a rumor that these four immediately upon election will reopen Red Cedar,” but said “that is trash-talking. We hope they will look at the district and make appropriate choices for all the schools.”

I also asked Kath Edsall, a current school board member who is endorsing the same candidates as Neighborhoods 1st, about whether she thinks these candidates intend to try to reopen Red Cedar. She called this an “actual lie being told,” i.e., “that the candidates I have endorsed are planning to close Glencairn and Whitehills in order to re-open Red Cedar.”

Edsall continued, “This is a lie and comes from the same group that closed Red Cedar by telling lies, by refusing to compromise, by disregarding any logic and by refusing to consider input from our biggest stakeholders. But despite all of that, retaliation is not in my nature. I would not wish the pain I have endured over the closure of Red Cedar on anyone. Sadly, it is also the same old smoke and mirrors. By keeping the focus on Red Cedar, Glencairn and Whitehills, they hope that the significant weaknesses of the other four candidates won't be noticed.”

Edsall says she endorses the slate of four because they are the candidates “who are interested in building bridges within the community and with MSU, who understand the achievement gap and what it will take to improve it, especially at Donley, who hope to bring expanded preschool opportunities to the district, to raise achievement by raising expectations for all of our students, to address our elementary facilities in a fiscally responsible manner and who are interested in fully supporting our new superintendent.”

Edsall says, “Whether Red Cedar re-opens or not, keeping Red Cedar closed should not be the rallying cry for electing our school board. The issues facing our district are so much more complex and demanding of thoughtful analysis and planning to address.” She sees no problem with the candidates being supported by a PAC.

I pressed Bouraoui on the question about whether she would seek to reopen Red Cedar if elected. She answered, “If a discussion about Red Cedar schools is brought to the board, I am going to participate and consider all options available to our students to provide the best possible education for our students. That discussion is not the reason I am seeking election.”

ELi’s Schools editor, Rebecca McAndrews, asked all of the candidates to answer a list of questions, including a question about the schools’ reconfiguration. To see the questions and responses, click here.

The latest campaign disclosures by Neighborhoods 1st show that donors include Ruth Beier ($200), Donald Power ($100), Jeffrey Michael Astrein ($100), Mary Lou Terrien ($100), Jonathan Harmon ($100), James Anderson ($3,450), Alice Martin ($100), Raymond Vlasin ($200), Maureen McCabe Power (Power’s wife; $2,793), Richard Brotsch ($100). Donations in kind are indicated as coming from Eliot Singer ($250), Liesel Carlson ($300), and Brian Reinerth ($100).

Image courtesy City of East Lansing.

Note: This article was corrected on November 1 at 12:26 pm to correct the spelling of Yasmina Bouraoui's last name in the first paragraph, and at 3:36 the line "She told me she sees no problem working with a PAC that is not a front for corporations" was changed to "She told me she sees no problem being supported by a citizen-initiated PAC that is not a front for corporations." © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info