A front-page story in the Detroit Free Press for Sunday, September 18, explains the dynamics that have resulted in well-funded, under-qualified candidates in many school districts. In our district, Rigas-backed candidates Brandow, Morris, and Nichols represent the movement here described. The article is available only to subscribers. I am a subscriber. I will paste in a few excerpts below.
The contest is not between conservatives and liberals. It is between people who think school board is a place for jumping in with a political agenda to try to take over and make their ideology dominant, and people who think school board is meant to provide nonpartisan oversight of a vital local institution.
If the partisan ideologues win, they will find out that they cannot do many of the things they want to do. They cannot take over the role of the county health department in the management of public-health crises, substituting their personal opinions, or the opinions of their rightwing cable-news thought leaders, for the informed judgment of the medical professionals entrusted by the county to lead us in these matters. They cannot overthrow or disregard federal and state laws mandating fair treatment of minority groups in the schools. They cannot use our school board as a control center from which to reverse every social and demographic trend in twenty-first century US society that disturbs them (or us). They cannot just make up stuff about what’s in textbooks that are up for approval and reject the sound judgment of the educators and responsible community members who have recommended the books—unless of course they get a majority on the board. They can’t get a majority in this year’s election. In the future—who knows? But for now, they would be able to cause serious disruption and turmoil, but their ability to cause actual damage would be limited.
Maybe, if they are elected and find out what their job as school board trustees really is, they will come to terms with reality and begin to do the real work. I hope so. These are, after all, not thoroughly rotten people! John, Jen, and Tim are in multiple ways good people: parents who care about their and our children, community members who are willing to put time into public service. These latter qualities, to which they rightly call attention in their campaigning, are real.
But in their public campaigning, they are not being open about their real motives for running, and their real intentions if elected.
To know those motives and intentions, you have to have seen and heard what I saw and heard over the past year when I started attending school board meetings and then Caledonia United meetings. When I first attended a school board meeting, I was troubled by things I heard in public-comment time: complaints about Covid-protection measures, about CRT, and SEL, and about various disciplinary cases, and in general about unresponsiveness on the part of the school board to public concerns. I already knew what the griping about Covid and CRT amounted to, but I had never heard of SEL, and I wondered about the disciplinary cases. So I started attending Cal United meetings to try to learn more.
The Cal United meetings—which were large last fall and then slowly diminished down to a small rump group by late spring—were hosted by Jen Nichols and her husband at EB and mostly led by Ian Rice, who presented himself as a CRT and SEL expert and educator. I soon picked up a pattern in the meetings. Anyone who showed up with any kind of negativity—whether it had to do with CRT or with their children’s disciplinary cases—was encouraged to go to school board and speak up about it. No filtering. Some of the complaints became rather far-fetched, but these meetings were not about trying to discern truth from spin or call out exaggerations or distortions.
One woman who had been standing up to complain about something or other at nearly every school board meeting rehashed more of her grievances at the Cal United meetings. She had already withdrawn her kid from Cal schools, but she had not withdrawn herself from her constant-complainer role at the meetings. At one of the Cal United meetings, I picked up a pattern with her. Someone would say: “What you’re describing is a crime! Did you call the sheriff’s department?” Her answer, “Oh, no, I’m not talking to them.” At another point someone else would say: “The schools have a process for appealing that kind of thing—did you go through that process?” Answer: “Pffft! I’m not wasting my time with those people. They never listen to anybody.”
Here’s the pattern: she was not willing to step into any situation in which she might be required to produce evidence or confront people who might contradict her (or her child’s) story. She just wanted to vent to people who would not challenge her. She could vent safely in school board meetings because she knew that the superintendent was forbidden by law to discuss her child’s disciplinary case in a public meeting. I was troubled. I contacted Ian Rice afterward and said: Ian, I’m afraid you’re letting yourself be used by someone whose credibility is shaky; it’s not good for us to let ourselves be associated with that kind of thing. He was not interested.
The responses that people wanted, and got, at the Cal United meetings were all, “Oh, that’s so awful! You should definitely make a speech about that at the next school board meeting.” After several months, I heard nothing constructive. No positive appreciation of teachers, other than claims that “some of the teachers are on our side but they are afraid to speak up” because other teachers and the administration would punish them if they did. Sometimes there was acknowledgment that Dr. Martin and others seemed willing to listen at times, but overall, it was negative.
Interestingly, I often heard “Tim Morris agrees with us,” to which someone else would answer “But he doesn’t have the guts to speak up—he just sits there and lets it all happen.” I think the people making those comments eventually got to him, because after Angela Rigas made her little “Our schools are full of liberal leftist ideology!” speech at the May school board meeting, Tim (along with John) was seen marching with her in the parade, and then at the August school board meeting (and, I have heard, also at the finance committee meeting, but I was not there, and there are no recordings) he put on that ridiculous performance over the social studies curriculum. Tim had clearly concluded that if he wanted to get the votes of the Angela Rigas people, he was going to have to make a public stand. So he—tried. It was embarrassingly lame! But he tried.
Anyway, all that just to say: the phenomenon that this Free Press article discusses is widespread. And what we have been seeing here in Caledonia, and are seeing now in our school board election, is a local instance of that larger widespread phenomenon. Angela Rigas is endorsed by Trump, Ted Nugent, and Dar Leaf. She in turn actively promotes John Brandow, Tim Morris, and Jen Nichols. They all work on getting people riled up about CRT and various other distortions, delusions, and provocations. Good ordinary people, who of course do not want their kids subjected to racism against white people, sexual grooming, and the other things that Angela Rigas wants them to think our Caledonia teachers are in favor of, must decide who is telling them the truth and who is yanking their chain in an effort to politicize and hijack our local school board.
As I say, I think Jen, John, and Tim are better than this, or could be, if they were following a better mentor. But I’m not willing to just hope that their better angels will prevail. I’m going to vote for myself, Eric, and Mary Anne in November, because I know that we are serious, sober people, not captive to conspiracy theories and fringe ideologies, who want to make sure that our schools stay strong, that our kids are educated to become responsible citizens, that the fabric of our local community is not shredded because charlatans and rascals on the national or state political scene want to get their hooks into our schools. This is what I mean by keeping politics out of Caledonia’s school board. We don’t need lovers and haters of Trump or Biden or any other national politicians, or disciples of a would-be Lansing politico, taking over our school board for their causes. We don’t need to turn school board into a culture-wars theater of operations. We need serious school board trustees to see to the local business of running our local schools. This is how Team V-E-T wants to serve.
But read the Freep excerpts below, or better yet, subscribe and read the whole article.
In 2021, former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon marked school boards as the chief battlefield in the culture wars: “The path to save the nation is very simple — it’s going to go through the school boards.”
Close observers of school board elections say there has been a coordinated right-wing effort to recruit candidates and form slates, in the hope of electing enough like-minded folks to dominate a board. Just look at the talking points, they say ― from exurban districts to inner-ring suburbs, candidates are all saying the same things in opposition to diversity or critical race theory or social emotional learning.
“One of the major parties is running on a platform that centers things that aren’t really happening in schools,” a consultant who has worked with school districts around the state told me. “All of their talking points are about issues that are not being talked about in staff meetings. The culture war in schools is being fought entirely outside of the school buildings.”
. . .
“This election is critically important,” said Thomas Morgan, press secretary for the Michigan Education Association. Morgan said the MEA’s local chapters have always worked to identify and recruit prospective school board candidates. “From the top of ticket, where we have (Republican gubernatorial candidate) Tudor Dixon who is bought and paid for by the DeVoses, all the way down to local school board races where you have extremist candidates throughout the state who oddly enough have exact same message and conspiracy theories they’re supporting, but oddly can point to no actual evidence to support those theories. It’s sad but impressive how good they are at this. It’s very coordinated, very well-funded and very dangerous.”
. . .
What do school boards do?
Brad Banasik of the Michigan Association of School Boards, which offers training to newly elected members, says every public school boards’ authority is constrained by state and federal law, and that only a majority of members can set or change district policy.
“You don’t do that as an individual board member, you do that as a board,” he said. “Under the school code, it’s clear that any action takes a majority vote of members of the board. You have no more individual authority than your next-door neighbor who isn’t on the board.”
Many policies are required by law. For example, Banasik said, “The courts have determined that if a school is not honoring a students’ rights via restroom rules, they are likely violating Title IX.” Title IX is a federal law that mandates equitable treatment of male and female students.
While boards have the right to review and approve employee contracts, their authority over principals and teachers is limited.
“One of the things we tell boards is that your one employee is the superintendent,” Banasik said. “Superintendents have contracts, usually a rolling three-year contract. Some are even five years, and most of them have just-cause provisions. So it’s not easy to terminate a superintendent.” In the absence of a clear-cut contract violation, districts who part ways with a superintendent are typically obligated to keep paying his or her salary for the life of the contract.
When it comes to curriculum, Banasik explained, school districts must meet the requirements of the Michigan Merit Curriculum, which is established by the state. “The board working with the administration and staff will set expectations and standards about policies and standards that comply with the Michigan Merit Curriculum.” Failure to meet those requirements can jeopardize the state aid on which every public school relies. That leaves individual school districts with limited options to tinker with curriculum content.
. . .