School board races across MI have gotten intense. Here's what's happening in one Detroit suburb.
Across Michigan and the country, once-low key school board races have turned into heated affairs that reflect political and cultural divisions. That’s the case this year in the five Grosse Pointe communities (plus a portion of adjacent Harper Woods) that sit just outside Detroit, where the results of this year’s school board contest could chart a radically new course for its schools.
There are ten candidates vying for three open seats on the Grosse Pointe school board. It’s officially non-partisan, like all Michigan school board contests, but partisan politics have very much become part of the picture.
(I live in Grosse Pointe, and my child is a student in the public schools here. Some of the dynamics of the current school board race are unique to this community. But in many ways, I could have done almost the same story about any number of communities across Michigan—I just happen to know this one the best.)
“Academic” vs. “educational” excellence
There are two loosely-affiliated groups of three candidates each in the race. One is made up of the three people endorsed by the teachers’ union, the Grosse Pointe Education Association (GPEA).
Clint Derringer is one of those teacher-backed candidates. He has three kids in Grosse Pointe Public Schools, and his wife is also a teacher in the district. Derringer said that like many young families who move to Grosse Pointe, his came in large part because of its reputation for high-quality schools.
“We came here because of those added opportunities and pathways that are just not open to everybody everywhere,” he said. “So we acknowledge that, and want to try to make those opportunities available for our kids.”
Just exactly how good Grosse Pointe schools are—and how you measure that fact—has become a major topic of contention in the race. Derringer’s belief is that they provide a top-notch public education to most kids in the district, though he thinks they could do a better job of educating those who come in midway through their school years.
That belief isn’t shared by some others in the race. The other group of three affiliated candidates think the district is on a downward slide. They blame it on the current superintendent and administration, and a current school board majority they accuse of “rubber stamping” the administration.
One of those candidates is Sean Cotton. During a public forum sponsored by the Grosse Pointe League of Women Voters, Cotton said he jumped into the race because he thinks the schools are in a “death spiral.”
“I believe that this school district could be the best in Michigan, if not the Midwest,” Cotton said. “We are not. We are failing compared to some of our peer districts.”
Cotton, who did not respond to Michigan Radio interview requests made through Facebook and his campaign website, is the son of a Grosse Pointe family with a health industry fortune in the billions of dollars. The Cotton family is among the state’s largest political donors, mostly to Republican candidates and causes.
Ginny Jeup is another candidate aligned with Cotton. She’s raised some eyebrows locally because she attended the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol—though Jeup said she didn’t participate in or witness any violence there.
Jeup declined a Michigan Radio interview request, citing a busy schedule. But during the League of Women voters forum, she took aim at the district’s strategic plan, a broad document meant to chart its future path.
“Our strategic plan does not support academic excellence,” Jeup said. “That's what I'm running on. Back to the basics.”
Partisan politics in a non-partisan race
With that, Jeup echoed the rhetoric of Tudor Dixon, Michigan’s Republican candidate for governor, and other forces that have set their sights on schools across the country. In their view, public schools have lost their way, serving as indoctrination centers where kids are learning about things like Critical Race Theory and LGBTQ propaganda instead of reading, writing, and math.
Those themes have played out a little more subtly in Grosse Pointe’s school board race than in some other places, but they’re definitely there. And it’s true that the district’s strategic plan does include an emphasis on things like social-emotional learning and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Those have become toxic buzzwords for some on the political right.
Joseph Herd is Grosse Pointe’s current school board president, and also one of the ten current candidates. Like Derringer, he believes the district generally does a great job of educating its students, though he thinks it could do a better job of providing vocational education and technical skills to those who aren’t college-bound.
Herd also supports the strategic plan, and its components like social-emotional learning and DEI. He said Grosse Pointe students need to be fully prepared to deal with the larger world. “If they get great test scores and they can't talk to people, or they don't know how to interact with people other than themselves, then really, we’ve failed them,” he said.
As school board chair, Herd has helped spearhead DEI initiatives in particular. He’s said that he’s proud to serve as the district’s first Black school board president.
Around a quarter of all students in Grosse Pointe Public Schools come from minority groups. The district has students from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, from kids who live in million-dollar homes, to others that qualify for Title 1 federal funds for low-income students.
Clint Derringer, who served on a steering committee that drafted the strategic plan, takes issue with the idea that it doesn’t prioritize academics. He points out that “educational excellence” is listed as a top priority.
“We're parsing words to say that this doesn't prioritize academic excellence,” Derringer said. “And I would have a hard time understanding what exactly the difference is.”
Defining exactly what “educational excellence” means is yet another point of contention. If test scores are your measure, Grosse Pointe students outpace the statewide average across the board on tests like the M-STEP by a significant margin--though they’re not quite as good as some other higher-income “peer districts.” As for whether test scores are trending down, state data show that Grosse Pointe students mostly improved their scores on the M-STEP in 2021 (the most recent data available) compared to 2019, though a handful of grade levels and student sub-groups did see their scores decline.
Another major issue that’s cropped up as a dividing line in the race is how candidates feel about the current school administration, particularly Superintendent Jon Dean. Dean has been superintendent for less than two years, but he was a deputy superintendent in the district for many years before that.
“This administration, their focus is not on academic excellence,” Jeup said during the League of Women Voters forum. “You've taken a sharp left turn.”
Cotton added that he does not support the current district administration. “We need to get enrollment up,” he said. “We need to convince those parents that left the system to get their kids back in here and show the value added.”
It’s true that Grosse Pointe Public Schools have seen declining enrollment that accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. But that mirrors a larger statewide trend (overall enrollment did tick up slightly for the current school year). The candidates as a group agree that declining enrollment is a problem, but differ in their explanations for why that’s the case, and their approach to addressing it.
The controversies surrounding COVID-related school closures and masking requirements were the original driving force for many groups that have gotten involved in the new school board wars, said Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards. Now they’ve shifted their focus more to “cultural issues” that emerged from the “kind of more conservative parent view that happened during COVID,” he said.
These groups, most notably the Florida-based Moms for Liberty, argue that public schools lack transparency and push a culturally leftist agenda on students. They’ve fanned the flames of heated disputes over what type of books should be allowed in schools, and generally brought partisan politics and culture war conflicts into officially non-partisan school board races, Wotruba said.
“We’re going to see each other again”
For now, it’s unclear how these political dynamics will play out in the Grosse Pointes. Historically, the community has overwhelmingly voted Republican, but that’s changed dramatically in recent years. In the 2020 election, President Joe Biden won the Pointes overall with about 53% of the vote, and it’s fair to say that it’s now a politically “purple” community that’s trending more Democratic.
Wotruba said he worries about the growing politicization of school board races on a couple of fronts. First, he said it could lead to the kind of political gridlock and dysfunction we’ve seen on the national level. It also distracts from the vital—but mostly boring—day-to-day functions that school boards perform.
“It's not going to be the fight about what books are in the library,” Wotruba said. “It's going to be ‘Okay, how much do we spend on this vendor for lawn mowing service?’ And that stuff has to get done.”
For candidates who campaign on completely overhauling a district’s administration, Wotruba has a note of caution. He said Michigan school superintendents have been retiring at a record pace, and there’s now a shortage of experienced people to fill vacant positions. “We now have well over half of our superintendents in the state [with] less than five years of experience,” he said. “And the pool is getting smaller and smaller with every search that we do.”
Wotruba also noted that unless a superintendent is fired for cause, districts are usually obligated to pay out their contract, which “can be a pretty pricey endeavor,” he said.
Speaking of pricey, higher-profile and more contentious school board races come with higher price tags. A number of Political Action Committees (PACs), usually associated with national and state legislative contests, have poured money into school board races across Michigan this year. They include Grosse Pointe, where two PACs have financed advertising for the three GPEA-endorsed candidates, while another has supported candidates Jeup and Terry Collins.
Clint Derringer said he was well aware of what he was getting himself into when he entered the race. “I think it's critical to have people in the race that understand that larger context,” he said. “There is a segment of the population that wants public schools to fail because they consider it big government, largely funded with public funds. This is a nationwide strategy to attack public institutions, and specifically targeted at school boards and school board races.”
Current board President Joe Herd said he hopes the community survives this election with its “social fabric” intact. “What I hope we don't forget is that when it's all said and done, we're going to go back to being neighbors and we're going to have to see each other in the grocery store,” he said. “We're going to see each other again.”