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Responses to GREJ Letter from Candidates running for the Grand Rapids School Board

October 11, 2022

Within the last two weeks, all of the candidates running for the Grand Rapids School Board received a letter from the local group, Grand Rapids for Education Justice. 

The letter, which you can read here, addresses concerns of the influence of people like Betsy DeVos, the recent US Supreme Court decision to allow religion into the public schools, the growth of Charter Schools within Grand Rapids, the failure of the GRPS to retain enough full time teachers, to adequately compensate teachers and the racial divide or two tiered system in Grand Rapids Public Schools, where BIPOC students are disproportionately subjected to low academic standards.

Again, each of the Grand Rapids School Board candidates received the letter, but not all responded. What follows are the candidates who did respond and their responses to the GREJ letter. 

Amanda BernesThank you for presenting your group’s concerns and reaching out to me directly. I very much agree with you and appreciate all you have done to serve this community. I am absolutely concerned about the very existence of our public schools and the future of public education funding. I aim to work with all of the stakeholders in order to find new workable solutions now, and funding to prepare for future needs. I would gladly listen to your suggestions and look forward to finding classic and new best practices as well as working with local concerned groups such as GREJ to find solutions now. We have a limited time to act and to ensure our kids receive a good public education and I’m committed to doing the work that’s needed. Thank you for all you do for our children, teachers, parents, and community.

Andrew ClausenYou highlight a number of issues in your letter. Some responses below:

Grand Rapids Public Schools have indeed been experiencing a significant decline in enrollment. I have talked to numerous families that choose other schools (including public school choice, public charter, private, and homeschool). Parents are trying to make the best decisions for their kids, and care most about a school’s/district’s academic achievement data as well as the reputation of the school within the neighborhood and the long-term choices that they can make about school options. GRPS students in nearly all schools have continued to perform poorly on measures of academic achievement (MME, MSTEP, SAT). The cause for this is complex, but likely overlapped with a poorly compensated teaching faculty leading to the vacancies you reference in your letter. I too have grave concern for the size and degree to which administration (specifically central office administration) is compensated while we lose the battle for teachers with neighboring schools. This is a major priority for me if elected to the board of education.

I believe that there are some back to basics, common sense steps that our district needs to take in order to provide a high quality educational experience to the students and families that it serves. I believe that a healthy GRPS is vital to a healthy Grand Rapids for all community members. I am confident that we have the resources and capacity to turn the tide of public opinion about our district and to see growth in the academic achievement of our students. I know this district needs people in leadership that make fiscally responsible decisions and have innovative solutions to the problems that we face. 

Aarie Wade – There is a lot to digest in this letter. But one thing that sticks out is GRPS chartering a school within a district, a thriving school that is attracting students with a robust lottery system due to this attraction. 

GRPS has to become an attractive place to learn.   Not only that but an attractive place to teach as well.  This to your other point, teacher pay HAS to be on the forefront of the agenda. Thriving teachers attract and produce thriving learners. The energy is different when you’re not worried about your basic needs being met, you can actually pour into the children but a lot of our educators are like empty cups.  Just making it, yet they show up each day giving all of what’s left.  

Paying our teachers and treating them with dignity, respect and high regard must be the priority. 

The district has to be careful of the message that will be sent if we close schools. If schools close, we have given up. 

Thank you for this very thought out call to action. As a parent and community member in this district I share the same sentiments. A a board member, I look forward to taking action. 

Kymberlie Davis (incumbent)After looking over your letter again, I want to let you know that the concerns that you and GREJ have are concerns that the board has as well.  While I can only speak for myself, I know that many if not all of my colleagues are for public schools and against public funds being designated for private education.  I know our legislative committee works to be knowledgeable of things going on at the state and federal level and as a district we take a stand on issues that directly affect public education.  Can we do more, yes, of course!  I would encourage you to attend the legislative committee meetings if at all possible.  They are held the 3rd Monday of the month at 5:00 and are also recorded.

I have the same concerns with bussing and teacher shortages.  I have heard many people in our community voice their concerns in these areas too along with the lack of custodians and cleaning in our buildings.  These concerns are not being ignored.  I face the same issues in the district I teach in.  We are in crisis right now with vacancies all over the country.  I know GRPS is working on this every day and am happy to hear of new strategies that we are taking, for instance,  we will be helping to get Visas for teachers who need them in order to teach for us…

I am a teacher and I believe teachers deserve much more than they currently get.  We have and will continue to advocate for pay increases.

The problems aren’t solved.  I know this.  The work is never ending.  I want you to know that we are in it.  We know the data and it isn’t what we want.  We see growth but it isn’t enough and we will continue to make policy and ask questions that push for removing barriers.

I also welcome you to watch any board meetings (committee meetings as well) and let me know when you have questions OR wish I would have asked certain questions.  I have gotten better at using an equity lens to inquire more from administration when we are presented with something, BUT I am only one person and I’m learning.  I welcome feedback for sure.

As far as the closing and consolidation of schools goes, I would urge you to attend one of the lunch and learns on the facilities plan.  We as a board really do want to make decisions that reflect what our community wants and needs and we can only do that with as much voice as possible.  I also think the presentation being given by admin is very good at showing the public the data and the whys of us needing to do something.

I appreciate you for advocating for what you know is important.  I welcome further conversations.

Sara Melton – The GREJ does important work for our city! As your letter articulates well, they have been at the center of decision-making, presenting data and research to help inform the direction of our district for a long time. You inform our community and are an irreplaceable catalyst for action.  As an educator, I have always had my door open to the kind of accountability you are providing to the system of GRPS.  Public dollars should involved public voice. 

During many of the decisions referenced in this letter, I was nose-deep in teaching – not even aware of the changes that would be coming with the privatization of busing and custodians and building sales. Prior to that, the decision to include theme schools in our district made a complicated system even more so.  And prior to that our city policies, transportation, and real estate practices moved our school system to segregation and inequity.

2022 should be a time when all hands are on deck, working towards equity, healing, and wholeness. I have been searching for examples of these schools since I began as a teacher in 1999. I’m driven by the hope that we can find solutions in GRPS that allow us to reflect, engage communities, work towards sustainable ways of being and organizing ourselves around the education of our children.  This will naturally include a redistribution of power and compensation for staff members!  This will build a better sense of belonging for staff and kids.  I’m no longer nose-deep in the trenches – I’ve come up to help lead the change I believe GREJ is asking for.  If I am elected as a board member of GRPS, my purpose would be to advance the individual and collective wellbeing of those involved. 

Jose Rodriguez – I wanted to give some thought to your letter and to my response. I absolutely agree with the issues you brought up in your letter to the GRPS School Board. In a candidate questionnaire, I have intentionally stated that we must put our communities and GRPS families over any corporate/private partnership or political influence. I agree that we never should have had such a close relationship with individuals who are undermining public education and fighting to funnel public dollars into private schools. 

If elected, I am committed to fighting for a budget that pays our teachers, support staff, and ancillary staff more money. I have been outspoken about increasing starting salary for all positions at $20/hour and I will continue that fight on the board as well. You are right in stating that we have the lowest starting salary for educators, so it is obvious why we are struggling to not only find quality educators, but retaining them from year to year. 

I remember GREJ years back speaking out against the two-tiered system that was created with the addition of theme schools in GRPS and I wholeheartedly agree. I think that in order to remediate the issue, we first must address its existence and I’m not sure too many folks want to admit that we have aided in the de facto segregation that already exists within public schools. 

Overall, I think all points made in the letter are valid and I am grateful that there are folks willing to bring up such crucial issues facing our district. Again, I am absolutely committed to fighting for true equity and justice within our school system and am looking forward to talking more about these issues. 

Jennifer McFarlane – Not sure what response I should give. I agree with everything you said. Some of your topics bring up anxiety and anger. As a teacher in GRPS for over 2 decades, I’m disgusted with the policies, programs and general shadiness that our administration has been allowed to do unchecked since Dr. Taylor took over. Although I’m super excited with so many people expressing their voices during this election cycle, I often wonder where are these people during the school year? We are struggling in our classroom with no help from district or the community. Staff isn’t leaving for more money, that’s just a wonderful side effect. We are leaving grps because our administrators seem to care more about finding jobs for their family members and making connections to further their careers. Betsy DeVos doesn’t impact us, but Maria and Doug do. We had to spend countless hours working with Leading Educators staff (one of their pet projects) The program was completely useless and didn’t help a single  student at my school. Our time would have been better spent planning our interventions and working with the students. We have to spend so much time doing busy work to make these awful programs look effective instead of actually educating our students. 

I’m frustrated with the district patting  themselves on the back for increasing student graduation rates when a simple look at the SAT test scores shines  a very bright light on the fact that although our kids have a piece of paper, we are not giving them an education that will actually prepare them for anything. I’m tired of people being so caught up in their activism that they are losing site of what our schools should be doing… educating our students. I think it’s appalling that Larry Johnson gets paid an obscene amount of money, but somehow still found time to get side job at Evart Schools and Detroit Public where he pulls in more than our teaching staff and yet the board still can’t seem to find money to pay us more. I’m frustrated that making 5% student growth over 8 years is acceptable. That would be fine if most of our non theme schools weren’t still sitting at a proficient rating below 20%. Bottom line is that we aren’t doing our primary job of educating ALL students and haven’t been for over a decade. I don’t like vouchers personally. However, if our community isn’t going to stand up and fight for the educational needs of our students in public schools, maybe that’s a part that needs to be taken. 

I think being in GRPS so long makes you not trust those that say they are advocating for our kids, because we have heard that for years and it never gets better..just worse. I’m only running to give one more shot at advocating for our students before I walk away like so many of my coworkers. It is an amazing district with so much talent, but is being run by people that have no business running a school district. If we want to change, they have to go.

From Grand Rapids Education for Justice (GREJ) – We thank the candidates for their responses and while it’s noteworthy to see their agreement with our salient points our past experience from GRPS leadership is one of acknowledgement minus any  proaction for change.We would be more encouraged to see specific plans and implementation of action to remedy these most serious problems beyond general broad-brush agreement!

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