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Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

The Silent Campaign

Fallen_Tree_Background_by_mysticmorningThat would be the race for the fourth and fifth school board position.

Tomorrow (Tuesday) Grand Rapids residents will elect five members to the school board from list of seven. Four are incumbents: Tony Baker, Wendy Falb, John Matias, and Maureen Slade; the other three are Jose Flores, Jamie Scripps, and Milinda Ysasi.

Without an angry or anxious community, school board races can be dull. For now, the drama has left the stage. At present the school board and the GRPS administration are enjoying success: the most recent teacher contract, powered by far better than expected First Friday numbers makes an upbeat mood; new programs are being launched and civic stakeholders are smiling; and the superintendent is recognized among the best in Michigan.

Of course, there’s work to be done, but it is of the more policy-oriented sort: how does the district begin to get traction on student achievement; how do we raise up students in the face of financial headwinds from Lansing, and the continuing impact of poverty in our community?

When the conversation turns to policy, the challenger’s road becomes steeper, still it’s not as if the candidates have been helping themselves.

Some campaigns have risen to the challenge: Baker and Falb have the strongest public identity, and are closely identified with the current state of success. Matias, too, has some visibility, and enjoys the non-endorsement from the GREA — for the conservatives in the city, this is about as a good a sign as any.

Maureen Slade’s campaign is far more low key. For an incumbent, her vision for GRPS remains remarkably under-developed. One may fairly ask if, at 71, she wants a four-year term. Among the challengers, one can pose a similar question to Flores. This is another campaign by a seasoned school administrator that nonetheless has little in the way of actual visibility. As valuable as he could be as to input, there is little evidence that this campaign is serious.

Two other campaigns are definitely serious, though with weaknesses.

Jamie Scripps brings a strong policy focus, and has won endorsements from some progressive organizations. Still, she  has struggled on the basics of campaigning. Hers has been a puzzling low key race, in part one suspects, because of her “outsider” status.

If Scripps struggles with the outsider status, Milinda Ysasi is the opposite: her ability to solicit endorsements is impressive, speaking well of her relationship building and of her progressive creds.  Of course, unless one were on her Facebook page, one would never know. What is also clear from the Facebook postings is how her campaign has only recently gotten its act together.

The relative silence of Scripps and Ysasi is a shame. Both deserve far more public recognition. As it is, in the mid-term election, the Scripps name may have the advantage if only because it will seem more familiar (i.e. Anglo-Saxon) to the electorate.

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Pulling on a Political Scab

Something is under James White’s skin. Perhaps it is only the robo-call by school board president Wendy Falb, but the irritation may run a little deeper.

The schools and the City need to work hand in hand, so it’s no surprise that as the Third Ward race heats up, school board members take sides:  Maureen Slade, Rev. Nathaniel Moody and recent member Jane Geitzen for Senita Lenear; Tony Baker, Wendy Falb, and Jon O’Connor  for  Michael Tuffelmire. I the support for Tuffelmire fears a potential polarization, or more accurately an alienation. In response to Falb’s robo-call, City Commissioner Whites took to the press.

(Falb)  “runs the risk of polarizing her own board, the parents and the community” by actively campaigning for the opponent of her former board colleague, Senita Lenear, in the city race.

At first glance this a peculiar accusation, since White himself is also on board with the Lenear  campaign. As White further explains in the article, the endorsement threatens the necessary working together of city and schools.

“The school district must work closely with and gain support from city, county, state, and federal sources.
“It is unwise to do harm to those relationships by embroiling the school district in the political arena where it has never been before.”

Never before? Even reporter Monica Scott finds herself wondering

Mr. White thinks that the GRPS board has gotten more political and said he didn’t like the direction it is going in. Do you think the board is more political now or the same as in previous years?

Given the sort of controversies that have roiled the school board over the years, the present board is far from the divisive mode of even a few years ago. What is characteristic about the board is its general public unanimity, in part because of the strength of Superintendent Neal. If anything, the addition of John Matias promises to keep the board functioning in a productive fashion.

However there is little danger of a rift breaking out between the schools and the city. Here, White’s complaint sounds stretched, but underneath there are a couple of very real issues at work.

First, is the question of class.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Family Language

Monday night, the GRPS School Board chose John Matias as the new member. And from his interview  it was easy to see why. He demonstrated a rather well-integrated understanding of what the task was before GRPS. Of all the candidates, he showed the greatest familiarity with what was happening in the schools. More than a simple familiarity, he also conveyed an appreciation for how the schools themselves are made up of communities. For him, the sadness in the Transformation Plan was the impact it would have on the communities those schools represented. And he’s right.This is the needle that the schools are trying to thread — the need to be sensitive to parents who have invested in the schools, and the administrative discipline necessary to deliver on the promise.

On MLive the commentators thought that perhaps  Matias was  the pick going in, that this was something of a show. Formally, this was an odd comment, given that Matias’ Hispanic roots never made to the press. And looking at the panel, three others had far more public resumes with the kind of civic visibility.  Their presentations, however, were hampered in various ways, often by simply the manner of speaking — too jocular, too fast, or too stiff.

Now what will Matias actually bring to the table? If his manner and experience is any indication, it will be plenty. First, he has a conciliatory style that will certainly be an asset as the Board continues to wrestle with the challenges. Second, he will likely bring a greater voice to parents in the system. At present, the Board tilts to the professional class, folks whose children are in or have been in City High School. Matias knows that community, but his work at Burton with parents gives him access to other parental voices. These are the voices of those who may be poor but have big dreams for the children. They’re strivers. These are the real future of GRPS, those who believe.

And as any conversation with parents reveals, there continues to be a disconnect, particularly in the Hispanic community — another plus for Matias. Often the parent voice gets framed as objection, or a defensive huddle. Matias calmer voice and manner suggests another possible path to go. It is the language of family. It is the possibility of listening.

When the school board chose John Matias they chose to listen. And whether they realized it or not, they chose to also change how they will speak.

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Known by the Company They Keep

The numbers alone indicated the interest in Grand Rapids Public Schools. The quality of the candidates spoke volumes about  the community’s assessment of the present condition of the schools. Basically, it’s all good.

Missing from the pack were those with obvious chips on the shoulder. Or those with the anti-tax crowd that once populated the board. There were not the candidates of “no” or of opposition to the direction of the schools. This is due in large measure both to the board, and the GRPS superintendent, Teresa Weatherall Neal.

Last Monday, the Board whittled down the list to six finalists, and looking at them one can begin to see the outlines of what the Board’s concerns are for the schools.

Our six candidates include:

Tracey Braeme, assistant dean at Thomas Cooley Law School, but more importantly, daughter-in-law of long-time head of the Grand Rapids Urban League Walter Braeme. Her obvious strengths are connections with one of the GRPS core constituencies, and with it a real feel for the questions of poverty and race.

C.J. Shroll, a current business consultant, but he brings more than 20 years of workforce development at Grand Rapids Community College — he was also instrumental of the Advanced Tech Center on the campus. The first appeal here is obviously how to improve Grand Rapids Public School graduates.

Paul Ippel, recently retired head of Network 180. The connection with the justice system and with rehabilitation makes his background especially attractive as the schools face the challenge of dropouts. One of the ongoing needs in Grand Rapids continues to be that of opening the doors to more possibilities to those who are minority and poor.

John Matias is a therapist and community schools coordinator. The mental health aspect also dovetails with the themes of Paul Ippel — clearly for some on the board, the question is not simply schooling, but promoting a broader community health. Of interest here, Matias also has two students at Grand Rapids City High School.

Jamie Scripps is best known as an environmental lawyer. She is the youngest of the panel, and so could bring a solid voice for younger families in the district. She is also perhaps the most political of the six with clear connections to the Democratic party (her husband Dan Scripps served in the State legislature, 2008-2010, representing Traverse City). At the same time, like Matias, she brings a certain middle class vibe that represents the growing edge of the GRPS transformation model. Her interview will be interesting.

Mohan Krishnan, is also relatively young, and is the director of Children’s Services for Hope Network. There is some immediate appeal as to background, even more, his work with children could make an important contribution as the schools look to roll out more early childhood programs.
In short, six solid professionals, each with significant accomplishments — and there were others (professors!) left off this list — give a picture of the sorts of questions on the Board’s collective mind. The issues at hand appear to be how to effectively intervene with high school dropouts. Is it a matter of underdevelopment with the early education? A failure to connect with the minority profile? (Here, the hidden question will be which of the six will be most in tune with Hispanic concerns). The question of emotional health, of the soft connections that make the schools more than places of schooling, but real communities — that’s here. And finally there is the question of economics: how do we help our students succeed?
Tonight, we will find out more about the direction of our schools. In the meantime, it’s something of a rich man’s problem, for once the reveling in a kind of social wealth.

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