Last week’s school board election revealed the evolution of the city’s political landscape. Incumbents Amy McGlynn and Harry Campbell lost to political newcomers Jon O’Connor and Maureen Slade. For GRPS administration it certainly made the path rockier (more on that in another post). Looking over the results, four themes stand out.
The Return of the West Side
The West Side has long been known for its distinctive political culture. The West Side has produced strong leaders such as Claudia Bajema for the schools, but it has also led the way in skepticism about downtown (or SE) power, reflected in its votes on the taxation — the West Side is where taxes notoriously go to die. And when it comes to schools the West Side has been especially militant about the local control of its schools as the battles over West Leonard and more recently Stocking have both demonstrated.
Yet surprisingly for much of the decade, the West Side has lacked a consistent voice on the School Board. In 2006, Jerry Krupiczewicz garnered the west side votes but little else, and lost to Amy McGlynn. In 2009, a better supported Ken Weiss ran strong in the First and much of the Second Wards, but like Krupicewicz did not compete in the Third Ward, and so lost out to Serenita Lennear.
Political newcomer, Jon O’Connor followed the pattern, winning the precincts of Weiss and Krupiczewicz but doing so with far more significant margins: a 900 vote margin in the First, and more than 700 in the Second. Most importantly he took the conservative-leaning neighborhoods along Oakleigh by nearly 400 votes — these were a key part of McGlynn’s 06 win. This not only indicates a dissatisfaction (honestly, any west sider should be able to carry these precincts), but demonstrated the fact of campaigning. Unlike previous campaigns, O’Connor ran a campaign, and it shows. A second feature has been his innocuous persona: he’s young, engaging, and by coming from the business side of things not perceived immediately a tool of the unions; in short, he represents a less contentious form of the West Side politics, not unlike tat of recently elected City Commissioner David Shaffer. While the Third Ward did not embrace O’Connor, he held his own, losing to McGlynn by less than 70 votes.
The (continued) rise of Reform
If O’Connor represents a kinder and gentler West Side, Slade’s victory was a clear win for the Reform party.
Slade won handily, the top vote-getter across the board. Even here, patterns emerge. Throughout much of the Second Ward and elsewhere she won with close to an absolute win, at times taking as many as 7 of every ten votes (e.g. 2-47, Marywood; or 2-7, East Hills). Strikingly, she finished far above her district-wide percentage in the Heritage Hill – East Hills – Eastown neighborhoods. This victory coupled with the broad Second Ward victory underscores the the impact of her campaign team, drawing on the strength of former neighborhood activist, GR teacher, and City Commissioner Ruth Kelly.
In terms of GRPS, Slade brings a significant set of skills. The broad-based support suggests a significant movement in the community away from the administration. The broad acceptance is at the least, a recognition of the singular skills she brings to the schools (and what, by implication the current set-up lacks with its proposed controversial blending of computer and human instruction time). The neighborhoods of the Second Ward (zip: 49503, 05) have generally been most invested in the alternate schools of GRPS, notably the Montessori school, and City HS.
The Fall of McGlynn
Perhaps the most surprising result was the defeat of McGlynn. A centrist, if reliable supporter of the administration, she had been engaged on the Board. In her previous election McGlynn drew heavily from across the city in those suburban precincts on the edge: the far western ones bracketing Oakleigh NW (lost big to OConnor), those neighborhoods east of Ball NE, and in the SE in the traditionally conservative strongholds east of Plymouth/Kalamazoo SE. The former PTSA leader had represented the values-based conservative element in the city, and appropriately an ally of the GRPS administration. Yet she fell 1600 votes short. Here, turnout was central. Her total (5960) was almost as many as voted in 2006 (6100). However the larger turnout, driven by the millage and school controversies put a low-key campaign at a disadvantage. Between controversies such as the blended instruction model — despised by many traditionally-oriented parents, and with a westsider in the running McGlynn lost support among her key constituencies around Oakleigh (3-27, 3-25 — these are big precincts with big turnouts). On the NE side, only 2-46 — the far suburbs by Meijer Garden– supported her. What support she had remained in the SE side, where again the old Dutch neighborhoods continued in her support (a pick-up for her were the precincts around Alger Heights).
While some part of her defeat must rest with her own campaign, a significant part also lies in the loss of constituencies. Their numbers may not have been enough to have returned to the Board, but their absence certainly doomed her campaign.
And the Third Ward?
As home to the African American community, the Third Ward was friendly territory for incumbent Harry Campbell, particularly in the neighborhoods on either side of Eastern, south of Franklin (3-16, 3-17, 3-24, 3-32). And as noted, the SE was one of the key support for McGlynn.
If the West Side and the Reformers in the Second Ward won, the Third Ward again lost. For many years, the Third was where “Serious Leadership” arose, but now the neighborhoods appear to be struggling for a different voice. The remarkable voice now missing, is that shaped by the Dutch community and its Christian schools. For many years there was a reliable member on the Board who could provide both insight, and serve as a bridge between the public and private educational communities. Since the departure of Gordon VanHarn, that voice has fallen silent. Given the sorts of challenges that the board and the schools are facing, this absence is a public loss.
When taken as a whole, the results point to a key aspect of our civic life: the increasing divergence in how the various parts of the city look at its schools. It is not simply that “Reform” candidates won, but that neighborhoods expressed themselves so decisively in opposition. Moreover, these lines have racial and class dimensions, making the issues all the more pressing.