Why did the Caledonia Education Association endorse you?

Why did the CEA endorse you, Eric, and Mary Anne?

The CEA gives its own reason in its own announcement: they regard us as pro–public education candidates. They are right. We are. My interpretation: This is not a trivial pronouncement, and it is not one that can be made by or about all candidates. I will explain.

Positive reasons

First, I will add to the CEA statement by giving you my own thoughts on positive reasons why they would endorse us. These are also reasons why you should endorse and support us if you support public schools.

  • We have made it clear that we see public education as a pillar of community life in Caledonia and democracy in America.
  • We have made it clear that we support a fully rounded curriculum, including STEM, humanities, arts, social sciences, athletics, and vocational education.
  • We have made it clear that we think all policy decisions, and all practices, should be shaped with a sharp focus on doing what is best for our students.
  • We are attentive to and supportive of sane, effective ways of ensuring security and safety in our buildings and at our events.
  • We have not only stated but deliberately put into practice our respect and appreciation for Caledonia’s excellent teachers, staff, and administrators.
  • We have made it clear that we will insist on acceptance and care for all of our diverse students.
  • We have made it clear that we will insist on and practice responsibility and transparency in planning and spending. Financial and strategic intelligence and diligence are strong suits especially for Mary Anne Timmer and Eric VanGessel; in my opinion, they stand head and shoulders above all the other candidates, including myself, in that regard (even though other candidates, including myself, also have some positive experience and qualifications in running businesses and organizations, including, in Tim’s case—like Mary Anne’s—experience as treasurer and finance chair for the school board).
  • We have stated that we believe in clear communication between schools, parents, and the community, and we have backed up that statement with clarity and openness in our conversations as candidates: we are talking with parents, we are talking with teachers, we have talked with the sheriff and shared what we learned, we are attending and speaking up at school board meetings.

In addition, I have shared with you the notes from which I talked when I had my interview with the CEA. They asked good questions. Their questions were designed to elicit statements that would enable teachers to discern whether or not they should vote for us. I answered them honestly; I did not just say whatever I thought teachers would like. I have to conclude that they liked what I said. So if you want to know why the teachers endorsed me, I would invite you to read my answers to the teachers’ questions. I hope that when you do, you will conclude that you want to vote for me as well.

Negative reasons

So I think CEA supports us for positive reasons. It would be lovely if we could just stop there. But that would mean ignoring some things that we cannot afford to ignore. I expect CEA is taking the unusual step of supporting us because this year there are some unusual and disturbing negative reasons for supporting us. That is, I surmise that some of their reasons for endorsing us, like our own reasons for running, have to do with clear indications of an underlying destructive negativity in our opponents’ agenda.

I say “underlying” because superficially our opponents project a positive attitude toward schools and teachers. But they are closely identified with a nationwide, politically polarized and polarizing anti–public education movement. That is a hard thing to say, and I expect it is a hard thing to hear, but I believe it. So I will elaborate.

The anti–public schools movement is spearheaded nationally by people like former secretary of education Betsy DeVos, who is all about promoting not public schools but alternatives to public schools. When I say I am pro–public education, I mean that I am in the business of supporting and strengthening our public schools, not bashing them, and not undermining them by promoting alternatives that will weaken the public schools. Let me spell out how I think this applies locally.

The McMillin-Rigas-BMN alliance

In Michigan the anti–public schools movement is represented by people like state school board member Tom McMillin, mentor and thought-guide of Angela Rigas, who is sponsor and thought-guide of Cal school board candidates John Brandow, Tim Morris, and Jennifer Nichols. I have spelled out elsewhere how Angela Rigas’s appearance and brief but powerfully negative statement at the May meeting of the Caledonia school board constituted a defining, programmatic, and revealing moment for our opponents. May I suggest that you read that post if you have not.

By the way, I’m not going to tell you here whether to vote for the Republican candidate (Rigas) or the Democratic candidate (Dr. Kimberly Kennedy-Barrington) for state rep in the 79th district. That’s a partisan political choice—decide for yourself as you see fit! No interference from me. My concern is this: I don’t think a partisan-political candidate for a state or national post should be the sponsor of school board candidates, should be the moderator of their public events, should be their main endorser, or should be publicly endorsed by them within the context of their school board campaign.

As private citizens, they are of course entitled to endorse and vote for whoever they want, as am I; I may say something about that in my personal social-media places and I don’t mind if others do as well. Keeping school board nonpartisan does not mean performing a political castration or lobotomy on every school board member. We are smart enough to be able to separate our thoughts as voters in federal and state elections from school board matters. But we must know the difference, and we must want to maintain the difference.  The BMN candidates say they want to get politics out of the schools, when in fact they are pumping it in as fast as they can, with Angela Rigas (apparently) directing them!

Obviously, Brandow, Morris, and Nichols would vehemently reject the idea that they are anti-public education. They send (or sent) their kids to public schools. Tim has served for a decade on our public school board. I believe his wife is a teacher (in another district). They would all surely say (and I would not want to contradict them) that their intent is to support and strengthen our public schools. I appreciate all of that, and I do not say that they are being hypocritical or duplicitous. But I believe that they are deeply conflicted on this question in ways that they do not recognize. By that I mean: they support ideas and initiatives that are in fact anti–public education, and they express themselves in ways that contradict their own assertions that they respect and support our teachers. That’s what the following points in my list are about.

Hillsdale College

You might be surprised to see Hillsdale College in my list. But the anti–public schools movement is represented in Michigan, and nationwide, by Hillsdale College, which is leading a program to degrade school districts by transforming them into hothouses for rightwing ideology. This is a massive and consequential undertaking with regard to public education by an educational institution in our region. No school board candidate in West Michigan should be able to evade stating a position regarding it. I could give you references to detailed reporting in reliable news outlets that detail their machinations, but you could also find those stories for yourself. I think the Hillsdale initiative is pernicious and dangerous. I suspect that our opponents are supportive of the Hillsdale initiative. If I am wrong, I would be glad to hear them disavow it. I think you should ask them. If they don’t know what you’re talking about, they should.

Vouchers

The anti–public schools movement is represented by initiatives (vouchers) to suction money out of the public school systems, diverting it to private and sectarian systems that are not required to serve all students or to respect the diversity of their communities (religious and otherwise). It is characterized by suspicion of and hostility toward educators in public school systems. I reject all of this anti–public education rhetoric.

Eric speaks more carefully about “vouchers” than I do: his answer to the vouchers question is posted on his own Q&A page. I take his response to mean that the burden of proof would be on proponents to show that any particular vouchers regime would not harm public schools. I can’t recall discussing this particular question with Mary Anne.

If our opponents would care to make clear statements about vouchers, I would be glad to hear them. You could try asking them if they are willing either to denounce vouchers outright (as I do) or put up secure guardrails (which is how I would characterize Eric’s answer).

SEL, Cal United, and B-M-N

Hostility to public education and disrespect of public school teachers are expressed in the anti-SEL rhetoric that is rampant (I started to say “pandemic”) in the groups across the USA that inspired Angela Rigas, Ian Rice, and Jennifer Nichols to create and lead the Caledonia United movement, whose meetings I attended for several months. I had hoped the name meant what it says. I love unity! And I am completely in favor of listening to parents’ concerns and taking them seriously.

But Cal United was all about just a few themes. One of them: constantly misrepresenting and denouncing social-emotional learning. I had never heard of SEL before 2021. When I heard Ian Rice and others at Cal United meetings constantly harping on how horrible it is, I started looking around, reading, and (imagine this!) asking Caledonia school teachers about it. At the most recent school board meeting a remarkably eloquent sixth-grader stood up and told us what SEL has meant for her education. I concluded that the anti-SEL rhetoric is political (in the worst sense of that word: partisan and divisive) propaganda (in the worst sense of that word: deliberately wrong and misleading).

The Brandow and Nichols candidacies were incubated and hatched in the Cal United meetings (as was mine, but in an opposite direction!). The difference between them and me is this: we all listened to Ian Rice presenting himself as an expert on CRT and SEL. As a trained scholar and experienced publisher, I have been earning my bread for decades by knowing how to tell the difference between baloney and genuine knowledge and insight. In other words, I am sufficiently educated and practiced in evaluation of content to be able to discern that Ian Rice was in way over his head and simply did not know what he was talking about. John and Jennifer were not able to discern that. Ian Rice had bought a bill of goods from Internet know-nothings and pseudo-academic pretenders. John and Jennifer also bought it, lock, stock, and barrel. They’re good at other things. High-end academics, not so much. So who do you want on school board?

As for Tim Morris: he has thrown himself into a full embrace of Angela Rigas and the Cal United movement.

So if you are a schoolteacher who knows what SEL really is, and what positive results it produces, and knows that B-M-N are tightly identified with a movement that deliberately mispresents it to fuel political dissension and turmoil, it is a total no-brainer that you will endorse the candidates (V-E-T) who reject all that claptrap, respecting the judgment of our professional educators over that of the know-nothing political agitators.

Eric VanGessels’s FAQ page has a characteristically succinct and correct statement on SEL; you should read it.

CRT

Hostility to public education and disrespect of public-school teachers are expressed also in the anti-CRT rhetoric that is rampant. This was another constant theme in Cal United meetings. The V-E-T candidates do not believe that our schools are teaching CRT; we believe that the CRT rhetoric is much ado about nothing, deliberate propagation of confusion and hostility.

Here, as with vouchers, you might discern a nuance of difference between us. Eric’s Q&A page states his view on CRT in his own succinct way, concluding that talking about it is a waste of time because it is not present in our curriculum. I, on the other hand, have wasted (well, I don’t think so) a considerable amount of time trying to take seriously the complaint made by a couple of community members that our new social studies curriculum is full of CRT. I completely debunked their complaint. Not to toot my own horn too much, but I spent two decades in higher education, piling up two master’s degrees and a doctorate while learning to read, understand, and produce texts, and I have spent two and a half decades working professionally in a field that requires constant exercise of the same abilities. So when I say I debunked it, I mean I debunked it. It was bunk.

Tim Morris nevertheless swallowed it, echoed it, and voted, alone, against the new curriculum. John Brandow has also echoed the CRT nonsense on his campaign website.

You can find all that narrated in detail in three posts on my campaign blog (here, here, and here). If you care about the CRT issue, you should read those posts.

Now, what effect do you suppose this should all have on teachers’ attitudes toward candidates? These candidates are people who have demonstrated that they are either unwilling or unable to open a high-school textbook and see what it does and does not say; and they are people who, in a case where they do not possess the intelligence to make their own assessment of an academic question (no shame in that, just a limitation), would rather echo nonsense spouted by partisan-political troublemakers on the Internet or certain cable news channels than trust the education, character, and good judgment of our local educators. What teacher in their right mind would want to have overseers like that? But this is Brandow, Morris, and Nichols: regardless of the cute pictures and airy, superficial positivity of their campaign presentations, what they stand for is using ignorant rhetoric from nowhere (the Internet and the radical right) as a club for clobbering our teachers. I’m not having it, and neither are our teachers, and I hope you won’t either.

Brandow’s Unfortunate statement about teachers

John Brandow’s web page has six “issues” points. They say very little, and what they do say (apart from the point about his public service with the Barry County Sheriff’s Department, which I appreciate, respect, and wholeheartedly commend) is not especially coherent. For the question at hand—support or otherwise of teachers—I will just point out that under “teachers and staff” he lets slip the unfortunate fact that when he thinks of “teachers” the first thing that comes to mind for him is apparently bias, indoctrination, and destruction of family values. That speaks for itself. “Destruction of family values,” by the way, is well-known code for acceptance and support of LGBTQ students. Many families, or course, have LGBTQ members, and value them, but this phrase presupposes that families should reject and shun them; and the use of this phrase in the present context suggests that schools and teachers should reject, shun, or disrespect LGBTQ students. Is that how John wants to be understood? I hope not. I’m just looking at what his webpage says. People who are unwilling or unable to say what they mean often speak in code.

As people who are quicker than me noticed and recorded for us, John’s website, when it was under construction, originally had headers for a couple of interesting ideas that he apparently decided to drop: “Tough on Unions” was one. I don’t think that would have made a favorable impression on the CEA. Another was “No Federal Funds,” which he dropped from the website but not from his talking points. See Eric‘s FAQ for a succinct and correct response to that idea. I have screenshots of both of these that someone posted on Facebook. I think another one was “No Pride Flags.” (See above, under “destruction of family values.”) And while we‘re on the topic of John’s webpage: using the minced version of a vulgar anti-Biden slogan as his URL was not exactly a wise move for someone claiming to want to keep politics out of the schools. Is this the sort of good judgment we expect in a school board member?

B-M-N’s rejection and denunciation of the CEA

And finally, Brandow, Morris, and Nichols were given the same invitation that we were given to sit for CEA-sponsored video interviews with two teachers to answer a list of questions that we were given in advance. The interviews were to be recorded and shared only with CEA members. This was a high-opportunity, low-risk offer. Mary Anne, Eric, and I eagerly accepted. The interview experience was slightly uncomfortable, I must say, because the two teachers were so carefully neutral in their facial expressions, and because they said absolutely nothing between questions to express either approval or disapproval of our answers; so that was a little bit creepy! But at the beginning they welcomed us warmly, and at the end they thanked us very courteously, so it was fine. They read us exactly the same list of questions that they had sent us in advance. No surprises. It was as fair as it could possibly have been.

But John Brandow, Tim Morris, and Jennifer Nichols declined the invitation! This is an amazing thing, and quite a tell: why on earth would candidates who if elected are going to need to relate to teachers both as teachers and as represented by the Caledonia Education Association refuse an opportunity to speak to teachers through a recorded interview? That might cause you to suspect something about their attitude toward teachers. But they decided subsequently to remove all doubt by posting a public statement. Their public statement clarifies that they were unwilling to participate in the interviews because

  • They regard the CEA as a “special interest group”
  • They feared the CEA would edit the video to misrepresent them
  • They accuse the CEA of defaming them.

That middle statement is especially revelatory. What more direct statement of distrust of and hostility toward teachers could anyone possibly make? The B-M-N statement amounts to collective character assassination. That statement alone, without all the preceding points, would in my mind sufficiently account for the CEA’s decision to endorse V-E-T and not B-M-N. As for the last statement: nope, you defamed yourselves.

The B-M-N nothingburger

But I have my own theory as to why B-M-N did not participate in the interviews. I do not believe that they really have such a low opinion of the character of the teachers that they were afraid that the teachers would distort and misrepresent their responses. John, Jen, and Tim are decent human beings. I don’t think they are capable of really believing that about our teachers.

I think their reason was this: they had no confidence in their ability to produce cogent, persuasive answers to a long list of questions.

My experience of them—what I heard from John and Jen in Cal United meetings, and more especially what I did NOT hear from them in Cal United meetings; and what I heard from Tim Morris in the August school board meeting, when after saying nothing at all for months on end other than reading his well-prepared committee reports, he finally opened his mouth and said what he thought and revealed what he did not know; and what I see, and do NOT see on their web pages—gives me no reason to think that they are capable of conceiving and expressing coherent, informed thoughts that will be useful in high-level (i.e., school board) conversations about educational policy, personnel, and strategy. It seems to me that there just isn’t much there. That may seem like a mean thing to say, but when the emperor (or the jester) has no clothes, somebody has got to say it.

All I see on Jen’s and John’s web pages is a mix of vague hopes with no plans for realizing them (e.g., let’s make the drop-off lines shorter, let’s end driver shortages, let’s make campuses more secure), vague fears with no evidence of actual threats (e.g., our school is a target), blundering misfires in efforts to say something nice (e.g., the bit quoted above about teachers and staff ), and thoughtless hints that individual parents ought to be able always to demand and get their own way on whatever topics concerns them in a given moment (which is of course unrealistic; this goes under the label of “parental rights”—as though every parent has the right to become acting superintendent whenever they want).

And from Tim Morris: nothing. Absolutely nothing. He has no webpage and no Facebook page. Hey, Tim, this is the year 2022! Do you really have absolutely nothing to say to the people you expect to vote you back onto school board again?

After it became public knowledge that B-M-N had turned down the opportunity to interview with CEA, Jen said she would like to see the questions so she could have a chance to put her answers in writing and share them. I thought that was a fair enough question, despite how B-M-N had responded to CEA; so I pointed her to my posting of the questions with my answers. So the whole list of questions has been in their hands for at least three full weeks now. And what do we have from Jen, John, and Tim by way of answers? Silence.

Not everyone has to be a verbose essayist like me. Eric does a fine job of answering every question that anyone directs to him without going long. Mary Anne isn’t on social media, and I respect that decision; social media is a mixed blessing and curse in our lives. But she has a web page. And she is conversing all the time with people all over Caledonia. If I knew as many people as she does, and talked with them as freely, I would have no time to write pieces like this. We all have our own communication styles. But there has to be some content. There has to be something useful going on between the ears and at least occasionally coming out of the mouth. From B-M-N, so far as I have seen: nothing.

I do not mean to be harsh. But the school system is arguably the most important public institution in Caledonia. Overseeing the schools is serious business, for serious people: for people who are firmly rooted in reality, not easily taken in by the balderdash of professional hoodwinkers and agitators, willing and able to do the hard work of monitoring budgets and constructions plans, overseeing the hiring of high-level administrators, understanding and mediating between all sides in complex cultural misunderstandings and conflicts, and assessing and approving (or not) the choices of our educators in consequential matters like the selection of curriculum for our students. This is no place for people to jump in because they didn’t like how their kid was disciplined or because they got excited about some rot that someone fed them about CRT, or even because they want to help and think school board would be a nice place for them because they have kids. It’s a serious role. Some qualifications are needed.

Does this mean that I think all is well, and everything can just sail on as it is? No. I am a great admirer of our current school board, and of the district administrators, but I think that it might be possible to do a better job of making parents throughout our district feel that their concerns matter. I do not despise people who do not understand what CRT is and what SEL is and are afraid that things might be happening in our schools that should not happen. Such questions must be respected and answered when they are honest questions (and rejected, with reasons stated, when they are not). Part of the work that school board members can do is communication with the people of the district, parents and otherwise. This is one of the ways in which I hope to be able to help. I think Eric and Mary Anne can help too.

Finally, let me just repeat now what I said at the beginning: I am definitely not speaking here on behalf of the CEA, and on some of my points even my fellow V-E-T candidates would express themselves differently. This is me, James, telling you what I think as plainly as I can.

Postscript: the conflict-of-interest allegation

Finally: I know this is coming, because I have already seen preliminary comments in this direction: someone is going to say that it was inappropriate for the CEA to endorse candidates this year because the wife of one of the candidates is a CEA member and leader.

I will not attempt to speak for Eric, or for his wife, or for the CEA. They can speak for themselves, or not, as they see fit. But I will speak for myself.

First of all, the idea that there is any possibility of a conflict of interest here is in one sense just silly. Who would have a conflict? Would it be Eric? How? He is running for school board. His wife is supportive of him, as a spouse should be. The CEA is supportive of him, as it most definitely ought to be (see everything above). When he is on school board, he will not be his wife’s supervisor. When the time comes to vote on teacher compensation (doesn’t up often), Eric will recuse himself. Eric has no conflict.

Would it be his wife? What is the conflict? As a wife, she rightly supports her husband. As a teacher, she rightly supports candidates who are pro-teacher (again, see all of the above). As a member of the leadership of CEA, should she participate in a decision of the CEA as to whether or not to endorse candidates? OK, this is the point at which the concern about possible conflict of interest is not silly. I happen to know, though, from private conversations, that she deliberately and consistently absented herself from the making of those decisions. To me, that seems appropriate. Conflict avoided.

In sum, my impression is that the CEA leadership was slow, careful, and even reluctant in their decision to endorse candidates. I would have loved to have their enthusiastic backing from the start. For a long time it looked to me as though it was not going to happen: they would maintain neutrality. But, as you have seen above, I believe that the reasons for making an endorsement were overwhelmingly powerful. To suggest that CEA endorsed V-E-T because Eric’s wife is active in CEA, or that CEA could by the farthest possible stretch have reasonably considered endorsing the other side, is preposterous. It is grasping at a very thin straw indeed.

2 thoughts on “Why did the Caledonia Education Association endorse you?

  1. I have been following all the candidates and have made the decision to split my votes between VET AND BNM. I haven’t liked the idea of all or none since day one and would like a well rounded representation of Caledonia on the school board. My question to you is why vote you over vangessel or timmer? Of you three, who gets my 1 or 2 votes?
    Also, reading your answers on your website is like reading a 1,000 page novel. As a busy parent, we don’t have time for that many words. My advice is to shorten your thoughts so the reader doesn’t become bored. Thanks for running! Anyone who chooses to run for school board gets a pay on the back from me!

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    1. Ha. Touché. Yes, I know I write more words than m any people have patience for. In today’s post I went back and boldfaced key phrases to make it easier to skim around and find what interests you. As for choosing between V-E-T people: if you’re more concerned about finances, strategic planning, and construction, go with Eric or Mary Anne. I can’t help you choose between them. If you’re more concerned about curriculum, culture, pedagogy, and personnel, go with me. But I would trust Eric and Mary Anne in these matters as well.

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