Q & A

What do you mean when you say someone is “speaking in code”?

Some critics of our schools, including some candidates for school board, speak in code. Speaking in code is an evasion and a subversion. It is an evasion in that people do it to avoid taking responsibility for that they are saying. It is a subversion because it undermines the usefulness of language.

Breaking the code

What they say: The schools are ignoring biology!

What they mean: When kids say they are trans, teachers don’t say, no you’re not.

What I think: Being transgender means having a psychological gender that doesn’t match your physical anatomy. This is a real condition that affects a small minority of the human population. Recognizing this as a reality doesn’t mean “ignoring biology.”


What they say: I believe in parental rights!

What they mean: Parents, individually or in groups, can overrule schoolteachers and administrators on issues they care deeply about.

What I think: Of course parents have rights. Under some conditions parents can withdraw their children from particular elements in the curriculum. But the rights of parents are not unlimited. For example, schools must follow epidemic-containment directives from the health department. Neither parents nor schools have the right to overrule or ignore the public-health authorities. Giving all parents the right to overrule any and every school policy would produce chaos.


What they say: The schools are destroying family values!

What they mean: The schools acknowledge the existence of families different from my own.

What I think: Families have great value. I grew up in a family with a mom and a dad and two children. There are families with only one parent. There are families with adopted children. Some families are formed around a same-sex couple. “Family values” language usually signals antipathy toward this last type of family. School board cannot instruct or permit teachers to refuse to recognize families of different types.


What they say: Teachers are grooming our kids!

What they mean: Teachers are telling my children that in American civil society we recognize the existence and the human rights of queer people.

What I think: Teaching your children to respect gay people is not the same thing as trying to turn them gay. That’s not how this works.


What they say: Get CRT out of the schools!

What they mean: Honest talk about systemic racism and its effects should be banned.

What I think: CRT is not being taught in Caledonia schools. The enslavement of Africa-derived people in America from 1619 to around 1860, and the systematic denial of equality to Blacks for many decades after Emancipation, still have effects. White people don’t get to decree that we don’t talk about that. Calling stuff CRT that isn’t CRT is a deliberate political strategy.


What they say: Get SEL out of the schools!

What they mean: Get SEL out of the schools!

What I think: OK, this one is a change-up: they mean exactly what they say! They don’t want social-emotional learning to be part of the curriculum. But social-emotional learning, in olden days, used to be called character education. It was closely related to civics and to what my report cards when I was a kid called “conduct” or “citizenship.” It’s about self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness, and relationship skills. So are they really opposed to that? Or do they just not know what they’re talking about? My observation is that the people who complain the loudest about SEL are people who could most use a remedial course in it.

How does our election relate to what’s going on elsewhere?

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.


Excerpts

from: https://www.freep.com/story/opinion/columnists/nancy-kaffer/2022/09/18/opinion-school-board-elections-take-scary-turn/69499290007/

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.

. . .

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.

What is your position on the swimming pool?

Someone writes: Can you tell me the plans for the pool in the community? And your support or nonsupport for this?

Thanks for writing. The Community Center (with pool) is currently scheduled to proceed. The special meeting of the school board on September 26 will be about deciding which bond items to press ahead with, and which to defer, in light of recent cost changes on items already underway.

My position? I’m absolutely all for putting in a pool. Our swim team shouldn’t have to travel to another district to get to their “home” pool. And it would be a good resource for the community in general. The community decides what it’s willing and able to pay for through millages; and then sometimes after we’ve decided the costs move around in regrettable ways, and we have to make hard decisions.

But I’m a big supporter of physical education for all students, and also of interscholastic athletics—the more the better, as far as I’m concerned. Also wouldn’t mind having a public place for doing a few laps myself now and then. 🙂 I’d gladly pay a few extra bucks in taxes every year for all that.

Why don’t you have more signs up?

Anyone driving around Caledonia will see many signs for Brandow, Morris, and Nichols. You’ll see far fewer signs for VanGessel, Ernest, and Timmer. Some people speak to us with some concern about that. It’s understandable. But here’s the deal.

First of all, we will put more signs up. Our own sense of timing was that the second half of September, before the absentee ballots go out, would be the right time for this. We have put up signs here and there earlier, but more will go out now.

Second, the advice we have received is that all the best research on effective campaigning comes to the same conclusions: signage does not change minds. People don’t vote for you in significantly larger numbers if you have a lot of signs. This feels counterintuitive. If every sign that I see out there said “Ernest“ rather than “Nichols,” for example, I would feel happy and proud of my signage! But the experts say other ways of reaching voters are a lot more cost-effective.

Third, speaking of cost: Mary Anne and Eric have been clear with me from the start that they are not the least bit interested in engaging in partisan politics. They simply have no taste for it. They don’t think that’s what school board should be about, and I agree very emphatically! And nothing says “partisan political campaign” like a ton of expensive signs.

I’m maybe a little bit more of a hardened realist, though, and have thought that if that’s the way this game is going to be played, maybe we should step up and play it, hard. They have conceded a bit, and we will be putting up more signs than they wanted to. But Mary Anne says that numerous people comment to her about the wastefulness of our opponents’ obviously high-level spending on signage; and they ask her: if B-M-N are willing to waste money like that in this campaign, how freely will they be wasting tax-payers’ money if they get elected to school board? Well, I wouldn’t have thought of it that way. I have done a bit of fundraising myself, and will be spending it all in various ways. But clearly the V-E-T campaigns are working with a much smaller total budget than the B-M-N campaigns, and that’s a deliberate choice. Our campaigns will all have to file our pre-election funding reports on October 28. After that, the sources of our money will become public knowledge. Many of us will be interested to learn where all that B-M-N money is coming from.

So, there you have it. The V-E-T campaign is working very hard to get our message to voters in the Caledonia Community Schools district. If you want to think of signage as one battle in that campaign, clearly it’s a battle that we are not winning. But we don’t think most people are going to decide who to vote for by riding around in their cars and counting the signs. There are many better ways, and many worse ways, than that to decide who to vote for. We are working on giving you all the best possible reasons for voting for VanGessel, Ernest, and Timmer. If you’d like to help us get the message out in other ways (by sharing emails with friends, for example, or by canvassing in your neighborhood or elsewhere), write to me through the contact form. And if you have property in a high-traffic, high-visibility location and would like to have V-E-T signs to display, we would be very glad to hear from you about that as well. We can always print a few more signs.



Postscript: the sign-stealing issue

I am in two minds about mentioning this at all. But there are so many subtexts in this campaign! What’s out there on the surface is quite meager, if you start looking for content, especially from the other side. And what lies not very far beneath the surface is concerning. That’s in general, regarding the real issues in this campaign. But it applies also to one awkward little thing pertaining to campaign signs.

So this is where I will mention that from the start we have had a problem that our opponents have not had: a number of our signs have been stolen.

The first (not the last!) time two of Eric’s signs were stolen from a prominent intersection, I composed a brief statement condemning the stealing of signs, promising not to steal signs, and telling our supporters that we don’t want them stealing signs either. I sent my draft statement around to all six of the other candidates, inviting them to sign it; and inviting them to suggest modifications, if they were willing to sign it but wanted changes.

I received quick replies from Eric and Mary Anne that they would be willing to sign on. I also received a reply from John Brandow, politely declining, because he said it might be an isolated happening and he didn’t see any point in drawing attention to it; and I’m not sure he was wrong about the advisability of drawing attention to it. The risk would of course be to inspire more of it! I received no reply at all from Ian Rice, Jennifer Nichols, or Tim Morris. I had initially said to everyone that I would post the statement regardless of how many others signed it. But when I saw that I would have signatures from Timmer and VanGessel but not from any of the others, I saw that the statement would be seen as one-sided, and maybe even as a suggestion that our opponents were somehow to blame for the theft of our signs. I did not want to give that impression, and Eric (the main victim of the sign-stealing, though I have subsequently had signs stolen as well) was very clear with me that he did not want to give that impression either. So I just dropped it. As far as I know, sign-stealing only accounts for about six points in our large deficit in the sign-posting contest, so it’s certainly not the main factor. But it has affected our willingness to spend a lot more on signs.

It has become apparent since then that Ian Rice is not campaigning for election, so that could account for his failure to reply. I don’t know why Jen did not reply. I’m confident that Jen and John have the same attitude that we do toward sign-stealing.

As for Tim, someone recently filed a FOIA request and in return received, and posted on social media, a police report from a decade ago when Tim was caught on a security camera stealing an opponent’s sign. From the police officer’s account of his conversation with Tim, it seems to me that Tim’s position at that time was that it’s OK, or if not completely right, at least understandable, to steal an opponent’s sign if you think maybe it has been located on a public right-of way or on private property whose owner has not consented. Does he still think that? I don’t know. If you want to know, maybe you should ask him. All I know is that ten years ago, when he saw an opponent’s sign placed where he didn’t think it should be, he pulled it up and stuck it in the trunk of his car. And a few weeks ago, when I asked him to sign a joint statement against sign theft, he ignored me.

Now, the signs of mine and Eric‘s that have been stolen have all been located on private property, with the permission of the property owners. But maybe someone thought that might not be the case and for that reason felt justified in removing (stealing) them. We have no idea who that might have been. I’m not posting that ten-year-old police report. I read it when it was posted. Neither Eric nor I (much less Mary Anne) had anything to do with its being posted on social media in the first place. Eric did not want to draw attention to it in any way. But someone else dug it out and made it public, which is why I mention it here: to give my perspective on something that is already out there. It may be—I certainly hope it is—entirely irrelevant to our recent experiences with sign theft.

By the way, when I saw one of Tim’s signs illegally posted in the public right-of-way in the subdivision where I live, I did not touch it or even dream of touching it. I did report it to the village; and within a few days it was moved across the sidewalk to a legal location. It is still there now. That’s how this should work.

What is your position on vocational-technical education?

What is your position on vocational-technical education?

For it. Absolutely.

This is not an idea that I invented or own. Neither does any other candidate in this race. I expect we’re all in favor of strengthening vocational/technical education in Caledonia schools. I’m sure it’s not the only thing we all agree on, but it’s an important one. It’s good that we agree.

For me it jumped onto the radar screen when Micah Perkins introduced himself at the March school board meeting as the new regional representative of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council and said he wants to work with the district to enhance vocational education in Caledonia schools.

In my view the schools need to prepare our young people for adulthood. That’s not just about making money. It’s also about learning the things everyone needs to learn in order to be a contributing member of society. For all students, that includes civics, so they can be good citizens. “Reading, writing, and arithmetic” are basic and essential, but not sufficient. Students need to learn history—world, national, and state. They need to learn critical thinking skills, so they can’t be duped easily by the propaganda, commercial and political, that is constantly washing over us in our plugged-in and tuned-in world. They need both humanities and social sciences so they can gain the social and emotional intelligences that are just as important as cognitive intelligence for functioning well in workplaces, families, and the public square. Some of them (not all) need enhanced academic courses to prepare them for college. And some of them (not all) need technical courses to prepare them to succeed afterward in the skilled trades.

No one should get the idea that high-powered, bookish academics is real school, while classes and programs that involve working with materials and technologies is a lower tier for kids who can’t handle high-end academics. Maybe high-end academics is for kids who can’t handle technical training. Or maybe people are differently gifted, and all the various giftings are needed, and schools help each kid find their own best way of contributing.


My own life-path was academic, no question about it. This was not fore-ordained, and it was not exclusive.

My father was not a college graduate. He was smart! But when he graduated from high school in 1944, he went directly into the US Navy, like his brother before him (and his future wife’s brother). When the war ended and he was discharged, he went off to North Carolina Teacher’s College—but only for one year, because he was worried about his mother’s health, and as the youngest sibling it fell to him to move back home and make sure she was OK. He went to work for one of the chemical plants in my hometown, and he worked there for the next forty years. It was the best way he knew to provide financial support and stability for his family.

Around the house, whenever he had jobs or projects to do, he pulled me into them. I helped change the oil in the cars. I helped put new shingles on the garage roof. When we added on a room, I helped cut the sheeting boards, and I selected and laid out each piece of oak flooring for him to come along behind me and hammer them into place. He taught me how to install lighting fixtures in the ceiling and change out light switches and receptacles in the walls. He tried to show me to change washers in water faucets, but I didn’t catch on too well to that. I did learn to change some of the parts in a toilet tank.

And when I was in junior high school, he encouraged me to take shop class. Which I did. It was just one year. The first semester was woodworking. The second semester was metalworking. I made the acquaintance of bigger, more powerful and more specialized power tools than he had at home: planers, band saws, table saws, drill presses, wood and metal lathes. The other kids who like myself had already figured out that they were more academic—or whose fathers were lawyers or doctors—were not in shop class. I was in shop class with other boys (it was all boys then) whose dads worked in the plants or were plumbers or ran the junkyard. It was great. They were great. Mr. Bradley (the shop teacher) was great. I loved it. When I got to high school there was an auto shop and classes in mechanical work and body work. I never got to take those. By then my schedule was packed every term with college-prep courses. I don’t regret any of the classes I took, but there have been times when I have wished I could have taken the auto courses too. Personally I’d love to see all students—even the ones who know their track will be academic—take at least a year of shop class in middle school. There were also classes and clubs for kids in my schools who wanted to learn the basics of running a small business. I’d love to see every student getting at least an orientation in that area as well.


Anyway, not only would I love to see vocational training enhanced in our schools, but I also want to see school board projects and expenditures done in a way that honors and treats fairly the tradespeople and laborers who build, renovate, and maintain our buildings and grounds. That means working with contractors who compensate workers fairly and ensure safe working conditions and adequate benefits. We need to strengthen the building trades, and other technical areas not only by helping some students gain skills in those areas but also by teaching all students—by example as well as by instruction in history—the importance of respecting all workers and treating them fairly. People who can do the hands-on work in the physical world around us are essential contributors to our lives.

Isn’t “culturally responsive learning” just code for CRT?

Isn’t “culturally responsive learning” just code for CRT? Why are they teaching this in our schools?

No, no, no. It is not, and they are not.

One of the candidates for school board has this on his new website as one of the six short statements on the “issues” (which should be corrected to say “non-issues”; but I may or may not get to the rest on other days).

I have previously disposed of the false allegation that the new history textbooks selected by our teachers are full of CRT.

This false allegation was proffered at two school board meetings (July and August) by a pair of “concerned parents” (whose thirty-year-old CHS-grad son is completely safe from any evil devices our allegedly depraved teachers can now concoct). It was replayed by school board member and incumbent candidate Tim Morris in his embarrassing closing obstructions in the moments before the curriculum was approved by every other member of the school board at the August meeting. And now it is being displayed on John Brandow’s candidate website.

Culturally responsive teaching is not code for CRT. It is what teachers do when they are aware of who their students are and what the world in which they are living is like, and it takes advantage of that awareness to find ways of communicating that will reach and move the students so that they can learn.

This is not a revolutionary concept. It is certainly not leftist. It is an application of a principle that teachers and other speakers have been aware of for thousands of years. We know this because the ancient Greco-Roman orators left treatises (which people who consider themselves champions of “classical education” should know) in which they spoke of the vital importance of ethos and pathos along with logos in any speech.

What these Greek words mean is this: if you have a bit of meaning (logos) that you want to communicate effectively to someone else, before you are going to be able to get anywhere, you have to demonstrate to them that you are a person who has a sympathetic understanding of them and their needs (ethos), and you have to express your point in a way that appeals to them as whole people, including their emotions as well as their rationality (pathos). This is all right there in Aristotle, Cicero, and the rest, and it has been known and practiced by all effective communicators in Western culture right up until yesterday, when it was apparently forgotten by whoever taught the people currently having a cow in our school district over “culturally responsive learning.”

Fortuitously, a friend just called to my attention the perfect illustration of what can happen when high-school instruction in history is not culturally sensitive.

This illustration is NOT taken from something that happened in Caledonia, although as you will see the setting is similar in one important regard.

The (Black) parent introduces the episode thus:

“My kids go to a pretty much all white school.  They got an assignment yesterday asking them to talk to their relatives and document how their families came to ‘immigrate’ to the US.  The teacher asked for details about the ‘push and pull of the decision’ and really made it sound like a light hearted assignment. Female Offspring was INCENSED. She is a beast – and I mean that in the best possible way.  I wish I had a scintilla if her nerve, knowledge and courage when I was her age. This is what she put together to turn in for this assignment . . . ”

And here is the assignment with her daughter’s response:

I hope you have read that slowly and let it sink in.

That, my friends, is what happens when teaching is not culturally sensitive.


Let’s say it one more time: critical racial theory (CRT) is an academic account devised by legal scholars who wanted to understand how our legal system can continue to have effects that disproportionately disadvantage people of color when we have left behind the day in which blatant racism on the part of judges, police officers, jurists and other individuals was to blame. The theory has been developed further by education scholars who want to understand why our education system continues to produce worse effects for students of color than for white students in a day when racism practiced by individual teachers, students, and parents is no longer the main problem. In other words, to make things just a little simpler, CRT is not a teacher telling white students “You are all racists.” It is exactly not that. CRT, if it were being taught in our schools, which it is not, would be teachers saying to white students: “You are not a racist, and I am not a racist, and we have laws against racial discrimination; so let’s try to understand why the students of color in our room, and people of color in our community, may still nevertheless may feel—and rightly so—that a lot of what happens every day in our society is still somehow subtly slanted in your favor and against them.” That is the problem that CRT addresses.

In that light, for defensive white people who are running for school board in a predominantly white community to be trying to get votes by riling up white voters with incessant bleats of “We gotta get the CRT our of our schools!” is—to put it as mildly as possible—unseemly. This is being done by people who have made lame excuses for their unwillingness or inability to sit down with a high-school-level textbook, open it, and read it to see what it says and what it does not say. This is being done by people who, frankly, could not explain to you the difference between an academic theory and the hind parts of a horse if you set both before them and asked for a comparative analysis.

You may think this a harsh way of speaking about neighbors whom many of us know as good-hearted people who serve their communities in many admirable ways. So it is. But I say that when these people stand or sit before us and either implicitly or explicitly denounce our Caledonia school teachers as agents of radical left-wing indoctrination, the rebuke is fully deserved and absolutely necessary, as is this conclusion: people who can’t do any better than this must not be seated on the board that oversees education and educators in our district.



Since I referred above to Tim Morris’s obstructions at the August school board meeting, I will offer a postscript about those obstructions. If you’re interested in seeing what I mean, you should watch the entire video of that meeting. But I will give you some notes here:

The presentation of the textbooks starts at 6:30 in the meeting. You’ll hear Dr. Traughber and the social studies teachers explain their process in some detail.

That takes you to 13:18. Then questions from Tim Morris begin. To me he seemed to be struggling to come up with pertinent questions. One of the answers he received pointed out that the question he asked was already answered in the briefing materials he had received. Another of his questions, though, prompted significant further explanation of the process from the social studies teachers (beginning around 15:00). A comment (around 18:20) from Jason Saidoo, who chairs the board’s curriculum committee, revealed that the committee had in preparation for the board meeting spent significant time reviewing the materials and hearing from the teachers.

Around 19:05, Tim Morris began a new line of questions which to my ears seemed to suggest a conspiracy theory: in fulfilling our order for the books, the textbook company, with the passive help of the administration, might substitute different, unapproved books for the books that the board was being asked to approve. This was a very strange sequence. After a couple of semi-coherent repetitions from Tim Morris, Dr. Martin stepped into explain again, in his gentle way, things that he said had already been adequately explained. But listen yourself, if you want, and see what you think. Both Dr. Martin and Dr. Traughber were very patient with their repeated explanations, but in effect they shot down the conspiracy theory pretty quickly.

Tim Morris then began (at 23:00) to raise other concerns, which seemed to me to be lifted from the report turned in a month earlier by “concerned parents.” As with the parents’ report, nothing in Tim Morris’s objections gave any indication that he had read and understood anything in the textbooks themselves; it was all ad hominem (or more precisely, ad feminam—casting aspersions on a Black woman scholar who began to serve on an advisory board to the textbook company after the book in question was written and suggesting that her mere association with the company renders unclean any and every textbook they may publish). Tim had also either not read, or not understood, my written response, which I made available to him and the other school board members in advance of the meeting. This renewed gambit from Tim Morris evoked another long, patient explanation from Dr. Martin, which, despite the gentleness of his delivery, thoroughly demolished Tim Morris’s objections. (To Dr. Martin’s explanations, in case you listen to that, I would add [1] the board of advisers to which Prof. Ladson-Billings was appointed was a special advisory committee for the publishing company in general, not to the panel of consultants listed in the history textbooks as having vetted their content, and [2] she was not even appointed until 2020, so her opportunity to influence the content of these textbooks, had she wished to do so, was very slight.)

Then at 30:34 Tim Morris began another even less coherent line of objection, which seemed to indicate that he thinks the school board should have the right to vet not only the textbooks but every website to which either the books or a teacher might refer students when giving supplemental assignments. To anyone who has taught even one class anywhere since the birth of the Internet, this suggestion is asinine beyond belief. Again Dr. Martin took Tim Morris’s question seriously and answered it patiently and fully. Tim Morris’s response, with his further objection fully dispensed with (35:12): “I think it’s great that we have a curriculum. . . .” (!) He goes on to acknowledge that teachers must have discretion, but then he repeats, again, the parents’ complaint about the Savvas advisory board. Dr. Traughber then refocuses attention on what is actually supposed to be the job of the teachers and the job of the school board.

Finally, at around 37:00 minutes, 24 minutes after Tim Morris raised his first question, Marcy White stepped in to sum up, reiterating that the school board had heard the teachers describe their process in some detail. She noted that the board pressed the teachers in particular on the question of bias. Then finally, at 38:18, she suggested that the teachers and administrators, not the board members, are the experts in curriculum, and that it is appropriate for board members to trust them. That concludes at 39:25.

Marcy White’s comment was not by any means a dismissal of the school board’s responsibility to assure that appropriate curriculum materials are used. Rather, it was a summary of good process for carrying out that responsibility, and obliquely an indictment of Tim Morris’s alternative approach, which seemed to me (neither Marcy nor anyone else said this) to amount to wasting everyone’s time by throwing up a series of inane objections and questions, perhaps with the intent (I’m guessing!) of securing the approval and gratitude of people like the “concerned parents.” Which is to say, this performance was not about taking care that our students have good textbooks; it was about campaigning for reelection. I simply can’t account for his strange behavior in this meeting in any other way. I.e., what we had from around 13:18 to 39:25 of this meeting: an unhelpful performance by one board member punctuated by patient and reasonable but really unneeded explanations by highly competent educators and concluded by the board president.

During the segment of the meeting designated for board member reports, Tim Morris again started in on the textbooks (1:04:28), complaining about the difficulty of the process (again echoing the “concerned parents”). Jason Saidoo responded that the curriculum committee offered even more than the policy on textbook approvals required, effectively exposing Tim Morris’s objection as a further bit of grandstanding. This ends at 1:06:25.

(In passing you might listen to my three-minute comment to the board, beginning at 1:20:15.)

At 1:24:09, Marcy White put the curriculum to a vote. Jason Saidoo moved to approve. Tim Morris again briefly reiterated his objection, saying (in response, I believe, to me) that he trusts the teachers but not the curriculum that they selected. This ridiculous dodge seemed to have been the last straw for Jason Saidoo, who began an incisive line of questioning to Tim Morris that thoroughly exposed the vapidity and perversity of Tim Morris’s objections. Listen for yourself, though, and see what you think.

What should our schools teach about American history?

Here’s what our schools should teach our children about US history: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Schools should teach students what happened, with special attention, whenever possible, to primary sources.

K­–12 schools should not indoctrinate students into notions favored by various factions in contemporary popular or highbrow culture: America is the best or the worst, always right or always wrong, God’s chosen vessel or whatever the opposite may be of that. None of that belongs in our curriculum. Teachers should, in age-appropriate ways, teach all that has been done here, omitting no significant elements, hiding nothing, sugar-coating nothing.

Schools should form good citizens, and forming good citizens includes fostering patriotism. You form patriots by letting students see all that has been done and form their own judgments about what was just and good and glorious, what was unjust and evil and shameful. Real history has both. Trust them to make the right judgments. They will.

Teach what the great heroes of American history have done, but don’t insult the students by presuming they need to be told they are heroes. By also means also teach the injustices that have been wrought, but again, don’t insult students by presuming that they need to be told in each case “that was bad.” They will know. Leave them free to form their own resolve to imitate the heroes and not the villains.

When students are entrusted with the whole truth, they will know they must find their own way forward carefully, because it is their responsibility to further the beauty and goodness, heal the injustices, and shake off the besetting sins. You don’t create patriots by teaching ideologically determined mythology in place of history, lies in place of truth. Teach truth. Form students into people who insist on truth, know when they are being fed untruth, and know how to handle the truth when it is uncomfortable.

Whatever you do, do not teach students that whatever their country does is right. If you do that, they will become people who believe that whatever they do is right just because of who they are. People who believe that are morally stunted, at risk of becoming perpetrators of great harm.

This summer I spent several hours on two days reading in the new textbook chosen by our teachers and others for our high school US history course. They chose well. That book, which rigorously avoids either blaming or praising the people whose deeds it narrates, leaves space within which your children can apply to the facts of our history the morals and ideals you have inculcated in them. That book can help teachers teach, and students learn, US history truthfully.

What’s most important in the school-board election?

Here’s the big picture in the current school board race. We have three open seats. There were eight. One withdrew before the deadline for withdrawal. Another seems to have dropped out after the deadline. So that leaves six.

Three of the six are the “Caledonia United” candidates. Another day maybe I’ll tell you about my experience attending Cal United meetings in late 2021 and early 2022. (Spoiler: it turned out not be about uniting.) Now they have taken to calling themselves “The Fighting Scots.”  Really? Can they take our Cal High School team name as their own like that? These candidates are John Brandow, Tim Morris, and Jennifer Nichols. They are not the Fighting Scots any more than they were Cal United. In truth, they are Team Rigas, allied with and sponsored by Trump-endorsed state rep candidate Angela Rigas. But I’ll call them and the group from which their candidacies emerged (as did mine, but in a different direction) Cal United.

The other three candidates are calling ourselves Team V-E-T, to help you remember which names to check on the ballot: V for VanGessel, E for Ernest, and T for Timmer. (We are not veterans or veterinarians, unless V and T have secrets they haven’t told me, but other ways of arranging the letters didn’t work out.) You can see more about us on our websites; for example, on mine. We are not all connected with the same party, and we aren’t allied (endorsed, sponsored) with any local or national politician. I’m pretty sure we don’t agree with each other on every political issue, but we agree that the political and cultural issues that divide us nationally must not be allowed to divide the Caledonia Board of Education. We think it is possible to disagree on various questions of policy and political philosophy and work together well for the good of the schools and our students.

We think that in Caledonia we need school-board trustees who will (1) put kids over ideology and partisanship, and (2) be competent to do the real work of our school board. There is serious work to do, and we need to focus on the local needs.

That’s a high-level overview. But I want to give you a more personal perspective.

Things I remember

In September 1965, my parents dropped me off at Dupont Elementary School in Hopewell VA. In 1977, I graduated from Hopewell High School. Twelve years of public school. I had many excellent teachers. I remember many of their names and faces and voices. In the year 2022, they are still with me.

After that I went to college. I stayed in school for a long time. That’s not all I was doing. Beth and I got married. We had two beautiful children. Beth pastored several churches. I worked at several jobs. But I was a student until January 2000, when Boston College awarded my PhD in the history of Christian life and thought.

My twelve years in public school formed me. In my public school every morning the teachers led us in the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, we learned the American Way—1950s style.

My elementary school in central Virginia was still segregated. Lots of African American schoolchildren in my hometown, but I never met any of them until junior high school. Everyone in my elementary school was White.

Everyone was alike in other ways too. If they weren’t, they paid. A boy name Carter was fat. Other boys taunted him and knocked him down on the elementary school playground. Some days I was one of those other boys. Then afterward I felt bad and was nice to him the rest of the day.

In junior high, puberty hit. It hit different people differently. Many boys started groping the girls. No one stopped them. Girls wore long, heavy winter coats in the hallways in warm weather to make their bodies less accessible for groping.

In junior high, a boy named Steve was tall, wispy, effeminate. He was hounded and taunted. The boys called him Suzie. I think I was the only other student who would sit with him and talk with him kindly. I liked him. I also felt sorry for him.

Sometime before graduation, Carter and Steve and others disappeared. I have searched for them on the Internet without finding them. How long did they live? What would have made them want to live?

Junior high school and high school were racially integrated. I got to know Black kids. We got along fine. Some of them are now Facebook friends. But I didn’t understand some things. Why did all the Black kids walk out a couple of times every year? And the principal would call in Mr. Epps or Mr. Harris—highly respected Black leaders in our town—to talk with them in the school auditorium. What did they say to them? We White kids never knew.

In high school, our government teacher was named Jerrell Q. Sober. He was an elegant man with lovely white hair and a beautiful tenor singing voice. For a side job he arranged the display window at a men’s clothing store. Everyone wanted Mr. Sober to sing at their weddings. Mr. Sober did not have a wedding of his own. His middle initial stood for Quintus, but there were jokes that it stood for something else. But he was such an excellent teacher and sterling person that he kept the high regard of nearly everyone in town. He became a high-level administrator in our school district. The deal was: if you will pretend you’re straight, so will we. Mr. Sober taught us about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Congress, the executive branch, the courts. He never once said this: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is working OK for you kids, but not for me.” Couldn’t say that then. But he also believed in what he was teaching.

In high school, I was a debater and a minor speech-maker. I entered patriotic-speech contests sponsored by the VFW and American Legion, and on the local level I won them. I loved talking about America and democracy. I had no sense of a gap between the ideals of the American Way and the realities of the world around me. None.

Two tasks: (1) finances and logistics

Why am I telling you these things?

Because in Caledonia we have more than one problem. We have two problems.

One problem: Finances and logistics. Our population is growing and will grow more. We are putting up new buildings and renovating older buildings. You know we have cost overruns. School board members will need to partner wisely and knowledgeably with our administrators to find solutions. This relates to one of the two standing committees of the school board: the Finance and Operations Committee.

Mary Anne Timmer and Eric VanGessel have financial expertise. They know what school board can do, cannot do, and must do, and they have the intelligence, training, and experience to do those things. Competence matters. They have it. They also have a whole-hearted devotion to making this community and its schools the best they can be.

Mary Anne served on school board from 2010 to 2016. We need her again. We need to elect Mary Anne Timmer.

Eric VanGessel has been a deeply involved parent. Treasurer and board member of Caledonia Education Foundation. PTO vice president. He drills into problems and comes out with answers.

I have known Eric and Mary Anne only for a couple of months. Every time we talk they keep surprising me with how much they know. Pragmatic, insightful, get the job done. Serious competence. No baloney.

I also have learned a few things about financial management, personnel management, etc., over twenty-five years in publishing; but those two are aces. We need them on school board.

Two tasks: (2) culture

The second area is culture. Here we go back to my opening stories. Our culture has changed. It has changed at different rates in different places, and we have responded differently. For some, the rate of change has been dizzying. The severe discomfort people feel—the discomfort that came out repeatedly in Cal United meetings—seems to be around race and sexuality.

Cal schools are almost as monochrome racially as my segregated elementary school. In our country in general, the conversation about race is becoming more honest about the realities Black and Brown Americans continue face in 2022 America. But sometimes White people try to dodge the work of dealing with race by claiming to be color-blind—which usually means they don’t really see people of color at all, unless they talk and act just like White people. It’s easy and natural to do that in a monochrome community like ours, but it’s not right.

The #MeToo movement has shined a spotlight on sexual harassment. The rights of LGBTQ people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are generally recognized—in theory.

But the cultural changes are disorienting and upsetting for many people in a place like Caledonia. So we have people running for school board who won’t openly say what they want to do. They put things in their ads that they can’t do, or that make no sense, or that they have no plan for doing, or that are the opposite of what they are really doing. I think they’re disoriented and fearful, and they get deceived and manipulated.

Just as the financial and logistical problem corresponds to the Finance and Operations Committee, the culture questions tend to relate to the work of the Curriculum and Learning Committee.

As for curriculum and learning: well, every school board member doesn’t need to be more educated than our teachers, but if they aren’t, they shouldn’t pretend to be. But we have an incumbent so unable or unwilling to open and understand a high-school textbook, and also unable or unwilling to trust the teachers who do understand it, that he wasted 37 minutes of a board meeting talking nonsense about it. (You can watch the video of the August 8 school board meeting to see for yourself.) This was either performance or incompetence; I think it was both. The whole thing was painfully awkward.

The thing is, the cultural challenges are real. Race and sexuality are troubled areas in US history and society. Both are deeply connected with individual and community identity. Thoughtful, careful engagement is needed.

You can’t address race issues well by slapping the “CRT” label on every attempt to deal honestly with race. And you can’t address issues in sexuality well by slapping a “groomer” label on everyone who listens to and takes seriously the self-understanding of diverse young people among us. This kind of approach is stupid and wrong. It will not help us. It will not help our kids.

Neither, by the way, is it helpful to tell culturally conservative people to shut up and get with the program when they express concern about race- and sex-related topics in our curriculum. I have not seen or heard that done here. Concerns have to be acknowledged and addressed, and they are. They also have to be handled within parameters set by the constitution and laws of the nation and the state, and they are.

Conversations around such questions must draw on deep understanding of US history and culture, including religious culture. People who can’t or won’t read a book to find out what’s in it are not going to be helpful here.

My concern is that the Cal United people are not well prepared to help school board navigate the cultural issues. I think they want to run from them, shove them under a rug or into a closet, and slam the door on discussing them. I listened to them for months in Cal United meetings and school board meetings. I think they want history classes to be taught in a way that ignores the most massive elephant in the room of US history: the centuries-long enslavement of people of color, with its residual effects. They want everyone to pretend that queer people do not exist: they want them to hide like Mr. Sober had to hide. They must not be allowed to make these things happen.

How I fit in

The culture problem is my own main focus. I am a book publisher trained as a classicist, theologian, historian of Christianity, and pastor. Why should you care about that? Because developments in American Christianity over the last two centuries, including truly alarming developments over the last decade, mean that a certain form of Christianity is one of our biggest problems. I say that as a Christian. I go to church every week and pray every day. But in the decade between 1981 and 2000, I learned some things about religion and culture. I was not doing nothing for those two decades of graduate study. And I have learned more in the last two decades.

I cannot scorn people who believe that the whole universe was created in six days six thousand years ago. I cannot despise people who feel (perhaps without being aware) that White people (and maybe people of color who are assimilated to White culture) should be in charge. I cannot look down on people who think queer people are queer by choice and ought to be punished for being that way. I was raised to be one of these people. I WAS one of them. But I have studied and listened and gradually learned some. I do not expect anyone to learn in a day or a week or a  year or ten years what it took me twenty-five years of higher education to learn. Higher education may not have been the best way to learn those things. It was my way for two decades, but there are other ways.

One could, for example, look people in the eye and listen to them without prejudice.

I also do not despise the people of the Cal United movement, who for many months have been echoing nonsense off the Internet about CRT, SEL, and other abbreviations they don’t understand. They are not bad people. Face to face, they are friendly, respectful, likeable. But they are dangerous to the health of our schools, because they think school board can do things that it cannot do. They think school board can nullify directives of our health department and put our whole community at risk because they don’t get science. They are afraid their kids might come out as gay or trans, and they think school board should stop that from happening. They will try these things, and they will throw our school board into gridlock with their trying. But they are not evil. They are dizzy, which is understandable, given the rate of social change.

The six-day, young-earth creationist cannot be the science teacher. And people who can’t read a high-school textbook and understand what it does and doesn’t say shouldn’t be school-board members.

How we talk to and about each other

There is much to appreciate in our Cal United friends. They love their children. They love our country and our community. I believe they even love people very different from themselves.

Some people who repeat outrageous and hateful things about people who aren’t right in front of them show exemplary kindness to everyone in person. People who say horrible things about people in the third person (“them,” “those people”) sometimes are perfectly lovely when talking in the second person (“you”).

But this is an inconsistency, and it’s a problem. It’s not sustainable. If you are say our schools are overrun with pernicious, radical leftist ideology, and at the same time say that you appreciate, respect, and trust our educators—and can’t see that you’re contradicting yourself—we have a big problem. If you say that you want to engage with and learn from our teachers but at the same time refuse to tape an interview for them because you think they might doctor the video to misrepresent you, you are contradicting yourself. I don’t think this is malice. But it is certainly confusion.

My conclusion is that, based on what they have been saying for the last year or two, Cal United people should not be in charge of our schools. They don’t know what school board is for, and they are not equipped to do what school board needs to do. This is not about partisanship. This is basic competence and good process.

The conservative Christian culture warriors in our society believe they are following their own scriptures and their own religion, but they do not understand their own scripture and their own religion—or the First Amendment. So we get decent, well-intended school-board candidates teaming up with a politician who prints “I am a Christian” on her campaign lit and then fills out the rest with guns, slander, and intimidation. This is confusion. This is also fear and misunderstanding turning violent—at the moment in print and in speech, but we know where that leads. Saying horrible things about people eventually leads to doing horrible things to them.

This needs to be our aim

Let Caledonia be a place where no one is treated like Carter, or like Steve, or like Mr. Sober, or like the girls in my junior high. Let Caledonia be a place where students of all races are welcome without checking their culture at the door. Let Caledonia be a place where students learn not only grammar and arithmetic but history and literature, honestly taught. Let Caledonia be a place where students learn not only how to make a living or go to college but also, especially, how to uphold life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, justice, the common good, equality, truth, diversity, and yes, also popular sovereignty and patriotism—these are the core democratic values that I saw posted on the walls in Kraft Meadows Middle School when my kids started there. This is not indoctrination into leftism. This is patriotism without bigotry. This is being human. This is grounding in the ideals on which this country was founded and which constitute its only hope for enduring. Our only hope for enduring.


You can hear me sounding some of these things at the August 8 school-board meeting.

Why is patience necessary for a school board trustee?

I have been writing about the values listed in lank 6 of my platform. Today the fourth: patience.

An older word for patience is longsuffering. It’s closely related to enduring, or persevering. A common phrase is “hanging in there.” The assumption underlying this word is that everything is not going to go well all the time. There will be problems. There will be setbacks. You might have to face hostility, misunderstanding, anger. You might have to deal with budget shortfalls. But if you know why you are there, and what your values are, and what your aim is, you can be patient. It might be painful. But you will hang in there.

I wonder how many people in Caledonia know that one of the greatest books on leadership was written by a West Michigan man. Leadership Is an Art was written by Max DePree, an executive in one of our office furniture companies. I may talk about Max De Pree another time. Here I will just note that Max De Pree says that an essential task of a leader is to bear pain for others.

To bear pain is to suffer. Patience, passion (as in “passion play”), passivity—these words are all from the same root. Patience is suffering and passivity. We value activity! We want agency. We want to be actors, not sufferers.

And in truth a school board had better be active! There are things to do.

But first there is something to be. Things will happen that will require patience. We need people who will do the patience, or, as we rightly say, who will be patient, people who will “let it be”—tolerate (endure, suffer) inconvenient people, acknowledge (suffer) inconvenient truths, and even accept (suffer) their own self-disappointing selves—and only then, from this place of patience, begin to act.

But this patience, this suffering, is not purely passive, as we understand passivity. Intentional suffering sustains, supports. To bear the pain in a system is to sustain and support the system.


There is pain in our community. There is pain in our school system. You cannot attend school board meetings without seeing the pain. Some of it comes out during the time for public comments, or after the meeting, when a school board member or candidate might be cursed and threatened. Sometimes on the surface pain looks like something other than pain. Sometimes it looks like fear and anger.

No easy action is available to dispel the pain quickly. School board is there to find solutions, to plan actions. But there are limits to what school board can do. School board cannot heal all the ills. School board cannot halt and reverse the course of cultural change in the world, or the changes in the ethnic and religious composition of our population.

School board could try to set up its throne on the beach like old King Canute and command the tide not to come in, but the tide will not listen. School board has jurisdiction only in a small territory, and within that limited territory it oversees only the schools, and only within parameters set by laws that school board does not make and cannot break.

School board cannot overthrow the US Constitution and establish your religion as the basis and norm for policy and instruction in the school district.

Because school board trustee is a local and accessible office, people will try to get elected to it so that they can seize control of the world and make it like they think it was thirty or fifty or a hundred years ago. I don’t think they know what school board can and can’t do. They will be able, they seem to think, to decree the nonexistence of people who they wish did not exist, and ban the knowledge of realities, historical and present, that they would rather not acknowledge!

But this is impatience. It is refusal to bear pain, a preference for passing the pain along to others. It is saying: If someone must bear pain, it’s not going to be me, by God! It’s going to be those other people, those different people! This is not what leaders do. Leaders do not inflict pain, De Pree tells us; they bear pain.


School board cannot control the world or change the world. But schools can change the world by teaching children things that will help them live in a changing and uncontrollable world with patience. Schools can—must—tell children the truth about how things have been and how things are. Children can come to understand that to know the world is to know that you are not the king of it, that you are a wayfarer in it, that you may walk your path in your own way, but that it is neither your responsibility nor your right to command everyone else to walk exactly the same path in exactly the same way.

Public schools are places where children can learn that it is possible, and good, to walk the world with others who are different and who see differently. And schools are places where people who are different in some ways, and who will always retain their differences, can acquire a common body of knowledge. They can learn that for everyone 2 + 2 = 4, the United States declared itself independent in 1776, the moon is a quarter million miles away, and Shakespeare was a great poet.


But as long as anxiety and pain afflict our community, some of our people will lash out, and part of the task of the school board will be to bear pain. Sitting at their table, hearing and considering the needs, aims, and struggles of the district administration and of the whole system of buildings and principals and teachers, staff and students, and not getting up and running from the room, not screaming or shouting, not even speaking hastily, but listening, and listening, and pondering, the school board members practice patience.

I have seen them in their meetings. They don’t always look comfortable. But the stability of their sitting with the questions, and of their faith and hope in waiting for the right answers, for answers that that will be good for everyone, grounds the stability of the district and all its buildings and people. I have seen the entire current school board do this, all seven members plus the superintendent, sitting there together, patiently.

I have heard other people say that when they look at the school board they see indifference, intransigence, arrogance. I have not seen that. I have seen patience. The patience of people who listen and hear the pain and know that there is nothing they can do to make it all go away.

They will produce a plan of action, but first they will sit and listen. We are still here, they will say. We are here for you—for teachers, for parents, for students—to sustain you, to sustain this school system. We will abide your pain even when that means enduring your anger. We are not running away.

Patience is impossible—except in a place of peace irrigated with joy and grounded in love.

The school board is—must be—a patience team.


Are you just going to agree with the superintendent and other board members all the time?

Short summary: No, I’m not going to just agree all the timewith anyone. In a healthy meeting, whenever any important initiative is proposed, it’s everyone’s job to try hard to come up with good reasons for objecting. That’s part of normal process. Then you have a good discussion in which the team decided whether the initiative should be approved unrevised, approved in a revised form, or rejected. Ideally, this final decision will be unanimous, because everyone will agree that good process has produced a good decision. No one should ever disagree because an idea comes from the other side because the school board should not be divided into two sides.


I have seen and heard complaints that the current school board members just always agree with the administration. I think that’s a misunderstanding that results from seeing unanimous votes in the minutes. I know (because I have heard him say so) that Dr. Martin prefers whenever possible to achieve unanimity. In my opinion, unanimity can be a good thing. But I also know that school board meetings and committee meetings are not sweet harmony and easy unanimity from start to finish.

I say unanimity “can be” a good thing because if unanimity meant that the board members were not thinking for themselves, or were not taking contrary evidence into account, or were pressured into conforming, or just didn’t care, that would be bad. I don’t think the superintendent or anyone else in the Cal Schools leadership wants that kind of unanimity.

But most things that are voted on have been studied at some length and discussed at prior committee meetings and board meetings. A unanimous vote at the end of the process hopefully means that all objections and concerns have been discussed, the plan has been adjusted accordingly, and now we have a measure that everyone can agree on.


How could that happen? This is part of why I mean when I refer to the value of good process (one of my plank 6 values).

A leadership book that I have found insightful and helpful is Patrick Lencioni’s Death by Meeting. In this book Lencioni describes what makes a good meeting. I won’t try to summarize the whole book. I just want to mention two stages in the process that a good meeting moves through.

One stage is called “mining for conflict.” Lencioni points out that when a group is planning to make a decision that means the company (and this would apply to a school district) is going to commit to a course of action, there will be effort and costs. Everyone should take seriously the possibility that the plan could misfire, and the effort and expense will be wasted. So the leader of the meeting must “mine for conflict,” that is, must persuade everyone to dig down into the details and come up with everything they can think of that could go wrong. They must put all those negatives on the table.

The person who is proposing the plan should not resent these objections, must not take them as personal attacks, must be able to trust that everyone is taking shots at the plan in order to make sure that it is bulletproof.

At the publishing company where I serve as editor-in-chief, I chair the publishing committee. Acquisitions editors bring their book proposals to pubcom. Everyone on the committee likes everyone else. No one wants conflict. No one wants to shoot down an idea that one of the acquisitions editors is fond of. This is especially a problem when the proposal is presented by the editor-in-chief, because for four of the other eight committee members, I am their boss! So there is reluctance sometimes to raise objections.

I therefore often remind the committee that it is everyone’s job to try to think of all the worst things that could happen. It is everyone’s job to disagree if they can think of any good reason for disagreeing. It is best for the company, which means it is also best for every member of the committee, including the person who might be spared being responsible for getting us to publish a bad book.

So that stage of the meeting is “mining for conflict.”

When the causes for disagreement have been brought to the surface, you can talk about them. Sometimes it will turn out that your reason for objecting was not valid. You were misunderstanding or miscalculating. You wouldn’t have known that if you hadn’t spoken up! Sometimes the reason for objecting is valid: it shows up a weakness in the proposal. Sometimes that means the proposal will be rejected. Sometimes, though, it means the plan will be strengthened. If you hadn’t brought up your objection, that weakness would have been there and could have caused the project to fail, but because you brought it up, the project was strengthened and had a better chance of succeeding. Or because you brought it up, everyone came to see that the proposal should be abandoned.


And then again sometimes it is not possible for everyone to agree. After all, it is never possible to predict the future with precision. For every book proposal (in my field of work—and it is similar in other matters) you can only come up with probabilities at best. There are good ideas, and there are bad ideas but there are no sure things. You have to make your best judgment and move on.

So after sufficient discussion, the person chairing the meeting must sum up. It’s lovely when it’s possible to say: “We have worked through all the conflict, and now we are all on the same page.” But sometimes that is not possible. Maybe the chair has to say: “We have had a good discussion, but I can see that Terry still is not convinced.” This is when you get to the stage of the meeting that Lencioni calls “disagree and commit.”

Let’s say, for example, that the sales VP, after all the questions and explanations, still doesn’t think the book is a good idea, but the rest of the committee does. What happens in my company in such a case is that the sales VP says something like this: “I cannot understand why you all think this book is going to succeed. It still seems to me that the subject is arcane and the writing is dull. But I know the rest of you see it differently. You think the author’s standing in the field, along with her discovery of new evidence and her novel conclusion, will make this a book that everyone must buy, and everyone will be talking about for the next five years. We are a team. I disagree with you, but I know that you have training and experience that are different from mine, and that you want this company to succeed every bit as much as I do. So, given that you think we should publish this book, here is my commitment: I will do everything in my power to see that this book sells as well as it possibly can. My sales reps and I will present it to our accounts with great enthusiasm. If it becomes a bestseller, I will be as happy as the rest of you.”

That’s what Lencioni calls “disagree and commit.”

I suspect that some of the unanimous votes in the minutes of the Cal Board of Education’s meetings represent that kind of unanimity. Not the unanimity that comes from laziness, fear, or groupthink. Rather: the kind of unanimity that comes from hashing through all the pros and cons, modifying the initial proposal to mitigate some of the cons, and then in the end saying: we’re all in this together, and we all want to do what is best for our students, so this is going to be our decision. We expect all our administrators and teachers to give it their best effort, and the best way we have of signaling that expectation is this: we are all voting yes.

And because all the disagreements have been surfaced and discussed during the meeting, after the meeting no one goes off mumbling and griping to other people about their objections.


So no, I am not going to just agree with the superintendent and other board members all the time. But in every matter of importance, I will be happiest if it is possible to move through deliberately welcomed and negotiated conflict to final agreement. Agreement is not a presupposition; it is a goal. Disagreement is not a negative unless it is the manifestation of entrenched hostility. When it is responsible and constructive, it should be a stage on the way to agreement.


My answers to the CEA questions

The Caledonia Education Association invited candidates for trustee on the board of education to appear in a video interview to respond to questions. They sent us their questions ahead of time so that we could think about our answers. I wrote up some notes to prepare. What I said to them in the video interview was pretty close to what follows here:

Why are you running for the Caledonia School Board?
  • Over the last several years I have asked myself how I can get involved and do something positive in my community.
  • I have been concerned about ways in which our society is becoming more divided, more polarized.
  • Public education holds us together. It’s an essential institution in a democratic society. Public education has been under attack.
  • At the same time, respect for expertise and education have eroded, and that translates into disrespect for educators.
  • I have tremendous respect for educators, education, and expertise, and especially for the role of public schools.
  • A public-school education can educate kids not only to make a good living but also to be good citizens.
  • I appreciate the education that Cal schools gave to my two children.
  • I want to help.
In your opinion, what are some of the biggest issues impacting the ability of school employees to deliver quality public education to students?
  • I worry about lack of support for teachers.
  • I worry about agitators spreading fear, doubt, and disinformation about curriculum.
  • The pandemic was obviously a problem: very hard to teach and learn under those circumstances; and some have tried to turn the pandemic into a wedge to divide the community into opposed blocs.
  • Finances are probably always a challenge.
  • I worry that it’s increasingly difficult to maintain high academic standards when the social and emotional well-being of so many students is challenged.
What is your understanding of the role that the Caledonia Education Association plays in providing the best educational opportunities for students of Caledonia?
  • CEA represents teachers. If they did not have an org like CEA, they would be in a weaker position both for securing fair wages and working conditions.
  • CEA also helps two-way communications between teachers and the community. This interview is a case in point. 
  • Generally speaking, CEA supports teachers, and teachers who have the support they need are better able to serve students. Teachers who are stressed and pressed and harried are not going to be able to teach as well.
  • So my position is that an org like CEA is in the business of strengthening our schools.
Describe your campaign plans and support. Do you have, or are you seeking, other endorsements?
  • I have donations from supporters that I will use to get my message directly to voters.
  • I have a website (https://ernest4calschools.org/) and a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Ernest4CalSchools).
  • I have been attending school board meetings and occasionally speaking up in them.
  • I am asking teachers for their perspective.
  • I have met with longtime Cal residents to get their perspective.
  • Most importantly, perhaps, I have teamed up with two other candidates (Eric VanGessel and Mary Ann Timmer) to offer a nonpartisan, pro-schools, pro-kids, pro-teachers slate. 
  • I have completed a questionnaire that I hope will get me some favorable attention from the West Michigan Building Trades association.
  • I have not hitherto sought endorsements from high-profile local politicians.
What do you think is the biggest hurdle that our school district faces today?
  • Not sure whether finances or the cultural challenges are more serious. I personally feel better able to help with the cultural challenges. Eric and Mary Anne are good on both, but they both have serious finance expertise.
  • Finances: building and maintenance projects are running over budget.
  • Limited diversity is a question mark. My wife and I know a biracial family in the district that chose to send their kids to Kentwood schools because of what they heard about Cal schools.
  • Negative emotionality coming from some politicians and some people in the community. Negative messaging about teachers and administrators. Need to focus on all the positive things our students are doing with the support of our staff.
What are your top 3 objectives if elected?
  • Establish/maintain a culture of civility, mutual goodwill, productive collaboration, and positivity in school board meetings.
  • Enable constructive communications, good process, and intelligent decisions in board and committee conversations about curricula, textbooks, community values, and pedagogical best practices.
  • Promote well-rounded education, leaving out nothing: history, languages, literature, STEM, vocational education, music and other arts, physical education, character/citizenship/SEL.
Tell me about a time you were able to spend in a Caledonia school classroom. How was your experience?
  • When my son was in middle school I was in classrooms after hours to lead Odyssey of the Mind practices / meetings. So much fun. The kids were bright, engaged, and interesting.
  • Every time there was an open house, we attended to talk with teachers. We loved that.
  • I have attended many football games—fun community events.
  • Our kids got involved in choir, orchestra, theater. We loved attending those events.
  • I don’t remember being in a CCS classroom during a class session. As a school board member, I’d love to visit, if invited by teachers. I wouldn’t want to be a disruption.
If you were elected, how would you plan to be involved with Caledonia students, teachers, and their classrooms?
  • First, I don’t think school board trustees should interfere by injecting themselves into buildings, classrooms, and student-parent-teacher interactions.
  • But I would like to encourage administrators, teachers, students, and parents to talk with me, and I would like to get to know more of them. There’s precedent. I’m told that Sennis Atkinson visited classrooms in all the schools and was warmly welcomed. Bob Lilley also, I believe.
  • So if I’m invited into classrooms, I would be more than happy to accept. And I will want to attend sporting arts events when able.
In the last few years there has been an increase in discussion and questions as to “SEL” within our public schools and specifically within Caledonia schools. What is your understanding of SEL, how it is being used currently, and how it impacts students and teachers in our schools?
  • I believe in holistic learning–not just cramming facts into heads, not just training for jobs, but educating.
  • That includes character, in old-fashioned terms; in more current terms, it includes self-awareness, ability to “read the room”; it includes knowing how to recognize and deal constructively with your own emotions and others’. It includes knowing how to analyze situations and make good decisions. My understanding is that these are the aims of SEL.
  • I am in the process of learning about how SEL functions in CCS classrooms. My understanding from research summaries that I have read is that across diverse populations the impact of SEL is positive: students perform better in their courses and present fewer disciplinary issues, are less likely to be derailed by depression, despair, anger, etc.
  • I’m looking forward to a session in the near future with a CCS teacher who has agreed to talk with our VET team and has already supplied valuable links.
  • I understand that there are criticisms/objections to SEL from some Caledonia parents; I have tried listening to some of them, but I have not heard anything from them that seems to justify their negative attitude. I will keep listening.
With the reality of the national teacher shortage crisis, how would you plan to retain teachers in Caledonia?
  • We should provide the best pay and benefits possible.
  • We should make sure that anyone who commits to teaching in Caledonia is paid enough to be able to live well in Caledonia. 
  • But I suspect that for retention, morale may be as important as money.
  • Teachers need to know they are free to teach well,
    • they need reasonable class sizes and good curriculum
    • they need a protected clear space within which they can do their work of educating and caring for students without being harassed by negativity from unreasonable complainers or burdened with bureaucratic busy-work that doesn’t serve the goal of educating the children
    • they need to know that their administration will back them up when situations arise with students and parents
    • they need to know they are appreciated! All these things are preconditions for successful and happy teaching. My chief aim as a school board member will be to do everything possible to support the maintenance of those conditions.
  • The word needs to be out there, for people who finish a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree in teaching, that the place you really want to land is Caledonia. (As I recall, I heard this from Eric—an excellent point, I thought.)
What are your thoughts on effective collective bargaining? 
  • In most large workplaces like schools, management has organization and money; it can speak with one voice, and with power.
  • If the workers—in schools, the teachers—can’t also speak with one voice, they’ll be at a distinctive power disadvantage.
  • Power imbalances tend to produce injustices, regardless of the good character of the individuals who have the power. 
  • So my thought on collective bargaining is that it’s the best way to produce outcomes that will be fair and will be best for both sides—and in the case of the schools, best for students.
  • My philosophy of negotiation comes from a brilliant little book called “Getting to Yes.” It’s all about finding win-win solutions, not win-lose solutions.
What are your views on vouchers and the privatization of schools?
  • Opposed to both. Public education is a pillar of democratic society. Everyone pays taxes to support the common good. You don’t get to withhold your taxes and opt out of police protection, fire protection, streets, highways, parks, government offices.
  • And you don’t get to withhold your tax dollars if you decide not to send your children to public schools.
  • To put it bluntly: you don’t get to suck money out of the public system to fund a rival system that is not required to serve the public.
  • When that happens, wealthier families do well, and poorer kids get stuck in schools that don’t have adequate resources. That’s a no-go.
What is your thought process when faced with making a controversial decision? Describe your communication style when faced with opposing opinions or controversial decisions.
  • I’m a biblical scholar and theologian, so if you ask me that question you get a biblical phrase: ἀληθεύοντες ἐν ἀγάπῃ—“truthing in love.” 
  • If someone disagrees with your idea, don’t take it as an insult.
  • If you disagree with someone else, don’t attack them personally.
  • If your opponent’s argument is weak or inappropriately expressed, help them strengthen it and put it in appropriate terms before responding to it.
  • But if the other side behaves badly: don’t run away, don’t withdraw, don’t return anger for anger, exaggeration for exaggeration, or sarcasm for sarcasm. Focus on the objective. Try to understand why the other side objects (if they are objecting rationally) or what is upsetting them (if they are reacting emotionally). Figure out what both sides need, and if possible, give everyone what they need.
  • But don’t compromise with falsehood, bad faith, selfishness, ignorance, or malice: call it what it is and keep pressing on.
  • When conflict looms, walk right into it—not blustering or threatening, but with resolve to find the best outcome for everyone involved.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the district?
  • What a great community! All the advantages of good schools without the disadvantages of a snob culture.
  • This district has people who commute to GR, people who work remotely, and people who farm. This is a strength.
  • A weakness is lack of other kinds of diversity: there are so many White people and so many people who claim a Christian identity that this district can be un-self-aware in these matters and unwelcoming (or at least perceived as unwelcoming) to people who are not both.
  • But, from my experience, the district has good administrators, teachers who care and go the extra mile, and many parents who engage constructively with the schools.
What are your thoughts on determining the appropriate classroom sizes/capping classes?
  • From my own experience in public schools, I have always thought 20 or 25 is a good class size, 30 is a maximum, and beyond that is not a good situation. I doubt that classroom technology has changed those numbers much.
  • But if the question is how to determine appropriate class size: my answer is, don’t ask me! Consult the current literature in education, and listen to teachers talk about their experiences in the classroom.
  • Optimum class size is going to vary with grade level and with subject. Follow the research.
Tell me about your thoughts on teacher wage increases.
  • If I were king of the world, schoolteachers would make as much as doctors, lawyers, and other comparably trained and dedicated professionals. So much is riding on their ability to educate our children well!
  • So instinctively and reflexively I’m going to want to say yes every time anyone proposes a raise for teachers.
  • The challenges are: I have learned in my work in the publishing industry that our society does not always value things of the spirit (I’m speaking broadly here of the human spirit–arts, ideas, imagination, innovation) as highly as I think we should. And I have learned that in any enterprise, it is absolutely essential to make sure that expenditures are not higher than income, because if that happens, someone else will step in and remake the whole system in a way that you will not like.
  • So I advocate for sufficient taxation to provide sufficient revenue for the support of education. But so long as funds are limited (which, realistically, they always will be) we have to watch the budget carefully to make sure that whatever funding is available is spent wisely, in ways that support the core educational mission of the schools. That certainly includes good pay for teachers.

Should we elect school board members who will protect Christianity?

Why the question about religion? Last Sunday and this Sunday, I am setting Sunday as a day to talk about how Christianity relates to the upcoming school board election. This is because in Caledonia, religion falls under the category of “elephant in the room.” Maybe we shouldn’t be talking about it. But we have to talk about it.

Any politician posing as the protector of Christianity—whether a president of the US or a school board candidate—is doing just that: posing.

When I was a child, everyone knew there were two things you didn’t talk about: religion and politics.

Religion and politics were everywhere then, as they are now. Some people would not vote for JFK because he was Catholic. Black churches invited civil rights leaders and politicians to speak to their congregations. White evangelical churches (like the one I grew up in) didn’t invite politicians to speak, and if asked, they would tell you that they did not endorse politicians, but everyone knew that the Republican candidate was the Christian choice and the Democrat was for liberals and non-Christians, which were kind of the same thing.

In our day, the vast majority of evangelicals have dropped the pretense of indifference to or neutrality in politics. Religion and politics are everywhere, and they get mixed up with each other in ways that are complex, confused, confusing, and dangerous.

I am determined that the Board of Education of Caledonia Community Schools must be a place where national- and state-level partisan politics is not up for discussion, is not allowed in the room, does not become determinative of anything. But here is an almost equally important corollary: religion is also not up for discussion, is not allowed in the room, and is not determinative of anything.

If you are going to understand one thing, and only one thing, about my candidacy for school board trustee, let it be this: I am determined that the Board of Education of Caledonia Community Schools must be a place where national- and state-level partisan politics is not up for discussion, is not allowed in the room, does not become determinative of anything. But here is an almost equally important corollary: religion is also not up for discussion, is not allowed in the room, and is not determinative of anything.


Every time I say that we have to keep politics out of school board some people scoff. I understand why. It requires explaining. A person who has no politics is as undesirable, and as dangerous, as a person who has no ethics. I say that because (with Aristotle) I am understanding “ethics” to mean a deliberately worked-out understanding of how people ought to relate to each other individually, and “politics” to mean a deliberately worked-out understanding of how people ought to relate to each other in large groups. But in popular parlance these days, “politics” refers to partisan binaries: Republican vs. Democrat, Red vs. Blue, progressive vs. conservative.

When I say we have to keep politics out of school board, I mean that we have to keep these partisan binaries out of the room. Why? Because they make us stupid. They make it impossible for us to reason together to find the best solutions for our local problems. “You’re a Democrat!” and “You’re a Republican!” become quick and easy ways of dismissing what you have to say. We slip—no, we dive head-first—into assuming that “my side” (pronouns: “we” and “us”) is right about everything and “your side” (pronouns: “they,” “them,” and “you people”) is wrong about everything.

I say that pushing these binaries makes us stupid because in reality no side or party is inherently right about everything, and no party is inherently wrong about everything. Assuming otherwise is a shortcut that means you don’t have to think. In a setting like a school board, an individual might produce a proposal because they are grounded in a political philosophy that is mostly Republican, or Democrat, or conservative, or progressive. But that label must not be on the table for discussion, and that idea must be neither approved nor rejected because of the label. The proposal itself must be discussed on its own merits.

Understandings of reality that come straight out of partisan identities are likely to be false, and proposals for action that come straight out of partisan identities are likely to be unwise.

On the level of the school board, at least, understandings of current reality that come straight out of partisan identities are likely to be false, and proposals for action that come straight out of partisan identities are likely to be unwise. We must insist on fact-based understandings of reality, and we must insist on proposals for action that are based on shared understandings of what is best for our students. This is what I mean by keeping politics out of school board.


But what about religion? Why insist that for school board, religion must not be on the table, must not be allowed in the room, must not be determinative of anything?

First, what I do not mean: I do not mean that people who have religious convictions should be excluded from school board. I do not mean that in thinking about what is best for our children and for our schools people should not be guided by their religious convictions. I mean, rather, that they cannot, must not, introduce their religious beliefs into the public conversation as reasons for approving their proposals. If you can’t see the difference: sorry, maybe I’ll try to explain what I mean at greater length sometime.

For today, I just want to recognize one large, two-fold reality and point to one large confusion.

The large, two-fold reality is this: (1) the population of our school district is predominantly Christian, and (2) the Christians, despite the apparent convictions and aspirations of some, do not form a united political bloc that agrees about everything pertaining to our schools; Christianity is a diverse phenomenon.

The school board must decide, without political or religious prejudice or partisanship, what is best for our young people within the framework of the Constitution and laws of the United States and the State of Michigan. Period.

Just as it should be considered out of order in a school board meeting to argue for or against a description of reality or a proposal for action by labeling it as conservative, liberal, progressive, Democrat, or Republican, it should be considered out of order in a school board meeting to argue for or against a description of reality or a proposal for action by labeling it as Christian, anti-Christian, Muslim, atheist, Judaeo-Christian, or anything else.

The proper response to any breach of this rule is: Shut up about X (where X is any of the above religious or partisan-political labels) and show me the factual evidence for your description of reality. Shut up about X and show me how your proposal for action is the best we can do for our young people and our schools. Maybe you are in favor of this proposal because it concords with or grows out of your Christian, or Democrat, or Republican understanding of reality. Fine. But that’s not a reason for school board to consider. We are here to decide, without political or religious prejudice or partisanship, what is best for our young people within the framework of the Constitution and laws of the United States and the State of Michigan. Period.

To get very concrete by citing something that I have heard raised repeatedly: you cannot say in a school board meeting that Caledonia schools must not accommodate the needs of trans students because Christianity says that trans people do not exist, because (1) plenty of Christians will disagree with that statement, and the school board cannot adjudicate disputes between Christians about biblical interpretation and theology, and (2) decisions about the rights of minorities (racial, sexual, and otherwise) are determined by the Constitution and laws of the nation and the state and are not up for revision or violation by the trustees and administrators of Caledonia Community Schools.


And here is the one large confusion: From remarks I have heard during the public-comment period at school board meetings, and in conversations and insinuations outside the meetings, I hear this narrative: Christianity is under attack in our schools, and we must defend it. Or, more precisely: the liberals are attacking Christianity, and we Christians must defend it or get someone else to defend it for us.

Any Christian who has read the New Testament knows that there are texts throughout that warn about opposition, persecution, heresy, and apostasy. There are texts that describe the “spiritual warfare” in which Christians are caught up with the “powers and principalities.” Anyone who knows even the slightest bit about Christianity knows that it is based on the life and teachings of someone who was judicially murdered because of his deeds and his teachings. So, yes, the reality of opposition and the question of what to do about it are central to Christian life and thought. The New Testament canon closes with a book describing the final victory of the Lamb That Was Slain over all opposition.

But in our day, the easy identification of a particular brand of politicized white evangelicalism as Christianity, and the corresponding easy identification of opponents of that brand of religionized politics as agents of Satan, is a dangerous misunderstanding. As a Christian theologian, I will go further and say that it is idolatrous. But for that—and this is how I got started writing this little essay this morning—I will refer you to a post that I wrote for my personal blog during the Christmas season of 2021. Here’s the link: https://verbasparsa.org/2021/12/19/christmas-typology-and-antichrist/. I hope some of you will find it helpful.

Christianity should be protected in the schools in the same way and to the same extent as any other religion or philosophy of life.

In case it’s not clear to you after reading all of the above, my answer to the question posed in the title of this piece is: Christianity should be protected in the schools in the same way and to the same extent as any other religion or philosophy of life.

In case that’s still too many words for you, here’s the one-word answer: No. The point of the blog post that I just referenced is this: Jesus Christ has not requested, does not need, and will not accept protection from any politician. Any politician posing as the protector of Christianity is doing just that: posing.


 

 

 

 

What about school safety?

School safety is a serious concern these days because of the shocking school shootings that are too often in the news. A Wiki scorecard lists 68 incidents in the US in the 2000s, 230 in 2010s, and 74 so far in the 2020s. My first thought is that anything that might be done to reduce gun violence in the US as a whole would make schools safer, but those measures are beyond the purview of a board of education. School boards and school administrators have to think seriously about what can be done to make schools, specifically, safer.

In most matters, some people are better informed and better equipped to provide advice than others. We call these people experts. In the matter of preventing and responding effectively to violent attacks, the experts are the police. I had already spoken with Pat Stewart, our school resource officer (SRO) in Caledonia. He’s a gem of a person, and if you’re a parent you should look for a chance to speak to him sometime. He really cares about our kids and our communities, and he has knowledge and skills that equip him to help.

But there’s always more to learn. So on August 23, Mary Anne Timmer (who set up the meeting—thank you, Mary Anne!), Eric VanGessel and I journeyed up to the Kent County Sheriff’s office on Ball Avenue to sit down for an hour-long discussion with Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young and Undersheriff Chuck Dewitt.

(It should go without saying that this doesn’t mean they are endorsing us or doing us favors they wouldn’t do someone else. They made it clear that they see educating the public, and public leaders, as an important part of their responsibility for public safety. School boards consult with them on a somewhat regular basis, and of course they can discuss specific school safety plans with school administrators and current school-board members in greater detail than they can with school board candidates. But they were welcoming and generous to us.)

As I often do when I encounter people who know more than I do (which happens a lot), I took some notes. I’m going to draw upon them in what follows. I’m a pretty good note-taker but not perfect, so if something in the rest of this piece seems a little off, it’s more likely to be my misunderstanding than faulty advice from our sheriffs.

Sheriff LaJoye-Young sees the role of the SRO not just as guarding the door but as playing a coordination and liaison role. The SRO is there to help the school understand how to be safe. Sometimes the SRO has a role in coordination of services between the school and a family. If a student is having issue in school that cause concern, so that administrators need to meet with parents, the SRO might not go to the home with the administrator, but the officer might be involved with the plan.

Undersheriff DeWitt added that the SRO can make communication happen that otherwise might go lacking. Without the SRO, maybe school administrators are aware of something that was said and done in the school, and the police might be aware of something that’s going on outside of school, but neither knows about the other. With the SRO in  place, providing liaison between school and police, those communications can be brought together. Undersheriff DeWitt thinks there’s possibly a case in Kent County where that kind of communication prevented a school shooting.

Eric asked how you determine the right number of resource officers. Sheriff LaJoye-Young said that ideally, it’s better to have more than one officer to cover multiple spread-out campuses. But she said there’s no published formula that can tell you how many SROs you need. She notes that in Caledonia, with only one SRO, we have not yet had an event that could not be adequately handled. But Undersheriff DeWitt noted that Forest Hills has three SROs. I don’t think either of them wanted to make us think that Caledonia is currently in a bad spot, and I’m sure they did not want us to come back saying, “The sheriff says we should hire more SROs!” But given our spread-out territory, and how quickly bad situations can unfold, and the response times that are possible for priority 1 emergency calls, we would be better off having more than one SRO to cover all the Caledonia schools. So if you take a look now at Eric’s Priorities page, you’ll see that he’s in favor of adding two more resource officers. I agree: Eric drew a good conclusion from what we heard. That’s a good goal.

Sheriff LaJoye-Young was emphatic about the need for rigid enforcement of a policy requiring all doors to be locked during the school day. No exceptions, no excuses, zero tolerance: nobody props a door open and leaves it unattended. All doors stay locked. A simple measure. I think we’ll all recall that at Uvalde a door was not secured, and that’s how the shooter got in. That, Sheriff LaJoye-Young said, is more important than having people with guns everywhere.

They mentioned the number of school-security employees that Rockford has. Rockford has only one SRO but a fair number of school security staff. At Rockford, these are not armed guards. These are people who monitor the security cameras (what good are cameras if nobody is watching the screens?), make sure doors are locked, etc. (The sheriff said that Caledonia is pretty well set up with cameras.)

Undersheriff DeWitt said that all studies show that the sooner a firearm is introduced to put a school shooter on the defensive, the better the outcome. The problem—he and Sheriff LaJoye-Young both emphasized this—is that simply having more guns around is not the solution. Even arming ex-cops hired to work in the schools is not a no-brainer, because the skills and training required for using guns effectively are perishable. It takes constant practice and retraining. Putting ex-military people with guns in the schools is not a solution: military training (which produces warriors) is entirely different from police training (which produces guardians). How to make things safer rather than more dangerous by adding more guns is a thorny problem.

They also emphasized that usually with school shootings there are warning signs. Administrators, teachers, and students can notice and tip off the SRO when there is troubling speech and behavior that might indicate brewing trouble; but then what’s needed is adequate resources for mental-health care. The SRO has to be able to refer a student for mental-health care, with required follow-up.

What I get from this: It’s much better to address and remediate social and emotional dynamics that are headed for trouble, so that school-shooting situations never arise in the first place, than to ignore those dynamics and pin your hopes on trying to be ready to out-gun the shooter when a neglected social-emotional problem turns lethal.

It’s not possible to eliminate all risks. Different communities have different perceptions of risks, and different tolerance levels for the various possible ways of mitigating them, and different levels of available funding for various strategies. Undersheriff DeWitt says he would like to see conversations in communities about where the resources should be going. Look at various models, discuss them, and get community buy-in. Because anything you want to do to make the schools safer is going to have a price tag.

A problem with that, as Mary Anne noted, is that community conversations can become contentious quickly. Sheriff LaJoye-Young had some interesting ideas regarding how to make them more productive than contentious. If I understood her correctly, it has to do with using larger-group conversations to find agreement on values and broad principles before getting deeper into the weeds with smaller groups discussing particular concrete measures. My own thought is that if Undersheriff DeWitt is right (and I assume he is!) in saying that consensus-building community conversations about safety are a necessary precondition for actions that will make the schools safer, then one of the best things we can do to help make our kids safer is to practice talking together civilly and constructively as adults.

That is: if we adults want to make the schools safer, we have to cultivate our desire to learn. We have to be ready to concede that other people (on this issue, that would mean people like our sheriffs, and people who have studied school-safety issues across multiple years and states) know better than we. We have to willing to express our own concerns, and hear others express their own concerns, without defensiveness, animosity, or jockeying for advantage. When we hear someone else’s idea, our first reflex has to be to find the good in it, not to shoot it down immediately; but for every proposal we also have to realize that it’s also everyone’s responsibility to think of all the ways it could go wrong. In short, we have to care so much about our young people that we are willing to work together for their good.  With all that in place, we can settle on concrete strategies for making our schools as safe and secure as possible. Is that too utopian a concept? I hope not.

Meanwhile, we do what we can and must. Making sure that our schools are staying locked, trying to get additional SROs for the district, making sure to complete safety-related improvements that have already been approved (again, see Eric’s Priorities page)—these are all good measures. I would add: seeing what’s needed and what’s possible with regard to improving our ability to intervene effectively where mental-health care is needed. And (something else from the sheriffs): checking up on when our last CPTED (crime prevention through environmental design) review was done, and whether its recommendations have been implemented.

There you have it. Those are my thoughts (leaning heavily upon wiser others, as always) about improving security and safety in Caledonia Community Schools.


How does Christianity relate to school board?

I am, among other things, a Christian theologian. How do I think my Christian faith should affect what I do as a school-board trustee? You have a right to know.

I’m writing this on Friday for posting on Sunday. Sunday is a day that many of us in West Michigan still regard as a different sort of day, a day when we leave behind the day-to-day work of the week, when we rest, when we turn our minds from the mundane to the spiritual, when we gather for worship, which is to say, for joining with other people to open our hearts and dedicate ourselves once again to a Power that is higher than ourselves, to a Good that is better than the goods we toil for all week long, to hear sacred scriptures read and interpreted, to be consoled for our losses, and to renew our awareness of the deeper purpose of our existence and our strivings.

That is to say, many of us in West Michigan are Christians and will tell you that our identity in Christ, as children of God, is the most important thing about us. Some others in West Michigan have learned to take all this with a grain of salt. And some others have learned to fear this strange devotion of ours. And not without cause.

I will not give you the date, because I do not want to single out the person, but I can tell you that I have sat in a schoolboard meeting and heard scripture quoted, and prayer offered, in a way that suggested that the speaker’s religious convictions put her in a place to know with certainty that her political notions were correct—indubitable, ordained by God Almighty—and that those whose understanding of how education should work she was condemning are enemies not only of herself but of God.

Seeing in my bio that I was trained to be a theologian and a preacher, you might wonder whether I might do something like that in a school-board meeting. I will not. I regarded that person’s three-minute performance as offensive to the point of blasphemy. I assume she meant to honor God, but what she performed was a species of self-justifying, other-condemning show-prayer that Jesus expressly condemns. Bible-reading Christians will know exactly which texts in the gospels apply.

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and people who accept or reject those or any other belief systems in part or in toto are equally entitled to the rights of citizenship in the USA. All are equally entitled, if they are students or teachers, to have their faith or nonfaith respected in the schools and in school board meetings.

I think my Christian faith will help make me a good school-board trustee. If you read the portion of my platform that describes the positive values that I will bring into that role, you may recognize exactly where I found some of them in the Bible. But in school-board meetings you will never hear me say that the public school system should promote or honor Christianity or Judaism or “Judaeo-Christian values” (a phrase that should set off alarms for both Jews and Christians) above any other religion or philosophy. Public schools follow the constitutions and laws of the USA and of the State of Michigan, which do not privilege religion in general or any religion in particular.

This does not mean that I am a relativist. I am an absolutely committed Christian. It means that I have thought long and hard about how I can be both a Christian and an American who rightly honors every bit of the Bible and every bit of the US Constitution. Some of the people who bang on loudly about how Christian they are and also about what patriots they are—even calling themselves “constitutionalists”—seem to have read little of either and understood less.

In my view, if Christian students, parents, teachers, and administrators will “take heed to themselves” (Christian readers will know whose phrase that is), following Jesus faithfully in their own lives and forgoing the pleasure of flagellating others, they will make the schools warmly hospitable places—not hostile and unsafe places—for students, teachers, and parents whose self-understanding or mode of life might be very different from theirs. I assume that adherents and teachers of other religious traditions and philosophies of life could also tell us how their heritage positions them to contribute positively to our life together in the schools and otherwise.

That’s just a lead-in to this: It’s OK if you’re not interested, but I thought that for an August Sunday afternoon I would offer this possibility to any who are curious: if you would like to get a taste of what I say to Christians about how they practice their faith in public spaces—check out the sermon that I preached at the church of which I am a member in March of this year: https://youtu.be/ajaiRWzFUys. If you’d rather read than watch and listen, you can find it as a post on my personal blog.

I wish all who observe Sunday as the Lord’s Day a blessed sabbath, and I wish everyone a peaceful and refreshing Sunday.


Why do I want to focus on the local?

It’s good to pay attention to what’s going on around the world and around the nation, but praying and donating to good orgs and voting in national elections are about the only ways we have of doing anything about global and national problems.

I’m in favor of praying and giving and voting in national elections. I do all three and hope you do too. But we usually can’t see that we’re changing the world in these ways.

So maybe we start speaking and acting locally. Which is a good thing—UNLESS we are skipping the step of determining whether the local scene fits the understanding we have picked up (from what sources?) of the global/national issue that concerns us. And if the info sources that are setting our hair on fire about global/national issues are just yanking our chain? What then?

We end up looking at the local through distorting lenses. We’re sure that problem exists—so we find it! Local realities are forced into the mold of our prefabricated perceptions.

Maybe we should consider worrying less about every global/national issue that we hear about. So this writer-pastor suggests: https://thecorners.substack.com/p/if-you-cant-take-in-anymore-theres. Read what she says and see what you think.

Why am I saying this here? What does this have to do with school board?

May I gently suggest that some public comments—and recently even some comments from a current board member who is seeking reelection, and from a candidate for state rep—result from (1) getting worked up about an alleged national/global problem and (2) setting out to find and denounce that alleged problem locally?

I don’t know how else to account for the phenomenon of people who say they know and appreciate and trust our Caledonia school teachers (and really, I believe they do!) turning around and in the same moment accusing those same teachers either of colluding deliberately in a vast evil conspiracy to corrupt the minds of our young people (by, for example, turning them into racists or radical leftists) or else of being too stupid to know that’s what they’re doing.

If you don’t think this has been happening here, you haven’t been attending school board meetings.

How about if instead of starting with national/global conspiracy theories and forcing them onto our local grid, we start by looking at and listening to our students and our teachers right here in Caledonia?

Of course we will occasionally find someone doing or saying something unfair or unfortunate. Everyone makes mistakes! But if we don’t instantly shout “Aha! I knew it!” and connect everything with a vast, evil, global plot, we’ll be able to address any local issues we may have more honestly, more wisely, and perhaps even (do you think?!) more charitably. And isn’t that what we all—in our better moments, anyway—really deeply want?

(P.S.: This is why school board elections are nonpartisan, and why if you ask me what party I’m with I will say: we may all have various party affiliations or preferences, but they have no place in school-board matters.)

If this post makes sense to you, you might want to support these three candidates in this year’s school board election: https://ernest4calschools.org/vote-vet/.

Why speak up?

I am running for school board because I feel a responsibility to speak up. This will take some explaining, including a walk down memory lane, if you will indulge me, but I promise I will get to the point before too much of your time is wasted.

The bicentennial of the United States was a big deal when I was in high school. I graduated in 1977, and of course the bicentennial was July 4, 1976. There were all kinds of celebrations all year long. With good reason! The Declaration of Independence—or as it could equally well be called, the Declaration of Equality [<== that’s a link you can click to read a related post on my personal blog]—was one of the most important defining documents in the modern history of the world. It set forth principles that set the course for a new nation that would go on to become a beacon and bulwark of democracy. As long as the United States endures, we will never be done with the task of reflecting on that document, and on how well we are living out the principles that it set forth, and on pressing onward to live up to them more fully. We must remind ourselves of these principles—centrally, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—by speaking of them.

All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Back in 1975, in the run-up to the bicentennial, various organization sponsored speech contests focused on the bicentennial. As a high school student who took a speech class in tenth grade and participated in scholastic debate, I entered such contests. It was the most natural thing in the world. My upbringing was centered in family, church, and school, and when I say “centered” I mean that these three things were basically my entire life. Two foci in all three of these domains were: God and country.

Our family life centered in church; we spent much of our time and energy there, and what we did in church was reinforced by what we did at home. But my family also took a lot of vacations together, and my parents made sure that our family vacations included many, many visits to historic sites connected with the history of our nation. The public schools that I attended also took us kids on so many visits to historic sites. In Virginia that wasn’t hard to do! Jamestown, Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, Monticello, Washington DC, numerous battlefields, Appomattox Court House—so many sites were within easy day-trip distance. Abraham Lincoln parked his ship in the James River and conferred with his generals within a few hundred yards of my piano teacher’s house, and the Crater (as in Battle of the Crater) was a few miles in the other direction from my house. And in classes, documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Virginia Declaration of Rights were repeatedly set before us. The schools took very seriously their job of not only teaching us reading, writing, and arithmetic but also forming us as citizens, as patriotic Americans. So between family, church, and school, my attention was constantly being directed to God and country.

Sometimes distinctions between those two things might have got a little blurred. Of course there are important connections, as in that phrase involving “their creator” in the Declaration of Independence. But it’s just as important to understand and honor the distinctions between God and country as it is to honor both. In fact, it is impossible to honor either properly if you get the two confused. I think my parents and teachers did a pretty good job of making sure we knew the difference.

But as I was saying, I was magnetically and irresistibly drawn into the patriotic speech contests in the run-up to the bicentennial. I just dredged back into the archives of my hometown newspaper and came up with a couple of memories:


Hopewell (VA) News, February 25, 1975. That’s me, second from the left, and my big trophy for being the Voice of Democracy winner for my high school. I had hair then. And don’t you love that tie-and-jacket combination? This contest was sponsored by the local VFW post.

Hopewell (VA) News, December 15, 1975. The Bicentennial Patrick Henry Oratorical Contest was sponsored by Governor Godwin and the General Assembly (which is what the lower house of the state legislature is called in Virginia). Again, I was the winner for my high school. I’m pretty sure that in addition to the prepared speech we were called on to make an impromptu speech, but I like how this article calls it umpromptu. I’m sure there was a fair amount of umming going on, despite the speech teacher’s best efforts to prevent it. I was apparently a pretty good ummer back then.

OK, one more, from the following year: Hopewell (VA) News, February 12, 1776. This time the contest sponsor was the local post of the American Legion. That’s me next to my father, a US Navy veteran (enlisted when he graduated from high school in 1944) who never joined either the VFW or the American Legion—too busy with church. My father and mother were great encouragers; they didn’t push me to enter these contests, but they certainly made it clear that they were fully with me.

That walk down memory lane was no doubt more absorbing for me than for you. Sorry about that. Thanks for sticking with me. The point I wanted to make was this: I was raised to spend significant time thinking about this country and its founding values. And I was taught and encouraged to do a fair amount of speaking up about this country and its founding values.

All this is still inside me, deeply embedded, and I don’t know whether it’s just reaching a certain age, or whether it has to do with what I see and hear going on all around us—I suspect it’s both, but more the latter—but lately I have been feeling a strong compulsion once again to speak up. To take seriously the responsibility of a citizen who is capable of using words (which is how I have spent my whole life, training to be a preacher and professor and then working for decades as a book publisher) to be a “voice of democracy,” as those VFW speech contests were called.

You see, I am firmly persuaded that what we say matters. It matters what we say to each other. It matters what we say about each other. It matters what we say about our country, and about events in our country and in the world. What we say—what we are taught to say in school, what we instinctively say during the whole course of our lives in every interaction with our fellow humans, with our fellow Americans, and here in this township with our fellow Caledonians—both expresses and shapes how we feel about ourselves, about each other, about our community, and about our country. And it shapes what we do. “Talk is cheap,” they say. Well, it had better not be cheap. We had better treat it as precious. The right to free speech was purchased for us by others at a high price over many generations, and we had better not waste it on trivialities, on misrepresentations, exaggerations, lies, stupid fights, and petty, partisan disparagement of each other and of the people in our communities who are doing the hard work of upholding and preserving our democratic values and our democratic way of life.

The public schools exist partly, and maybe most importantly, to form our young people into citizens.

The public schools have a role to play. The public schools exist partly, and maybe most importantly, to form our young people into citizens. Our young people must learn many things. But in and throughout all the other things they must learn, they must be learning that all people are in principle—according to a law that we did not invent but which our founders recognized as being transcendent and fundamental—equal. That all people (even and especially if they are different from us in important respects) have the right to live their lives. That all people have the right to be free, and to pursue happiness. Our young people must learn that truth-telling, decency, respect, and under certain circumstances self-sacrifice are required of them. They must learn that understanding their own needs and impulses and emotions is important, and that understanding the needs and impulses of others is equally important; knowing these things will help them find solutions to all kinds of problems. They must learn courage. They must learn generosity. And they must learn that truthfulness and generosity entail speaking well of each other, and speaking often of the things that unite us, and not using speech to confuse and agitate and divide and inflame. They must understand that if we do not learn and practice these things, we are not going to have a country anymore.

And they must learn these things from us. They must learn these things from their parents, to be sure. But they must also learn them from their teachers in school. And these things must be demonstrated, exemplified, and upheld in every public conversation involving members of the Board of Education of Caledonia Community Schools. This is what leadership looks like. This is what we need. This is what I want to do.

When it comes to building and preserving our community and our country, speaking up is not enough. In addition to words, we need action. But one of the most fundamental acts is speech. Speech is where it begins. Well, everything begins in the heart. But what is in the heart flows out in speech before speech generates action.

Speech can build up. Or speech can tear down. We have had enough of speaking down. It is time to speak up.


What is your position on masking?

What is my position on masking?

As a school board candidate: I do not have a position on masking. Decisions about whether and when kids and teachers are asked to wear masks in schools are not made by the school board or by the schools’ administrators. They are made by the county health department. I sincerely hope it is never again necessary for our kids to wear masks in school. But if I have a position, it is that the school administrators should abide by applicable laws.

As a private individual: I do not enjoy masking. It is a nuisance. (And I am an adult; for children it may be far more difficult.) But I do not consider myself to be an expert in virology or epidemiology, and I don’t want to get sick if I don’t have to, and I want to follow the biblical command to love thy neighbor as thyself, so, following the advice of the medical professionals as I understand it, I sometimes wear a mask.

Someone who watched the video of the recent school board meeting has posted this photograph with this comment:

The person you see in the orange shirt in that photograph is me.

What you see in the poster’s comment is an unintelligent and uncharitable inference from the photograph.

I was masked because I had just spent three full days in a conference near Boston with sixty other people (only a couple of whom, not including myself, were masked), and then about twenty hours in airports and planes getting back home (where I was masked much of the time, but most others were not). So I thought it common decency to mask rather than sit unmasked in a crowded meeting room exhaling whatever I might have picked up in my travels.

The pertinent question here is not: What is your position on masking? The pertinent question is: What is your position on drawing unwarranted inferences from photographs, making and broadcasting adverse assumptions about people’s motives rather than asking them about their motives, and in general being nasty to people you assume you don’t like although you have never talked with them? My answer: I am opposed to all those things. I will not do those things as a school board member. We can and must choose to think well of each other and treat each other well.


How can I learn about CRT?

There are two ways to learn about CRT (critical race theory).

(1) Start with the assumption that it is bad, and go looking for memes, short web posts, and video clips—and if you’re ambitious, maybe even a book—that reinforce that opinion. In public forums, listen intently and cheer loudly when opponents of CRT speak, and boo and heckle when anyone tries to say a word in the other direction. Ask first whether the speaker is “one of us” or “one of them” and respond accordingly. After you have read several web pages, present yourself as an expert and offer to teach others. You are now a CRT educator, qualified to show other people how simple it is and why anyone who disagrees is a radical leftist.

(2) Start by seeking out explanations from the people who produced the theory and try to understand what problem or question they were trying to address, and how they thought this theory accounts for it. Then, after you have read multiple books of this sort, read critiques, and again ask yourself why are they objecting, and whether they have a more compelling explanation of the problem or question that evoked the theory. In public forums, listen. respectfully to everyone and see what ends up making most sense to you. Don’t worry if you end up as neither a cheerleader nor a determined opponent of CRT but something in between; in real life, things tend to be complicated.

If you’re committed to the first way, I can’t help you, and you don’t need my help anyway; it’s easy.

If you’re interested in the second way, here are three books that I have found:
(a) Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, by Richard Delgado, Jean Stefancic, with a foreword by Angela Harris https://www.schulerbooks.com/book/9781479802760;
(b) Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement (Paperback), edited by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neils Gotanda, Garry Peller, and Kendall Thomas, with a foreword by Cornel West https://www.schulerbooks.com/book/9781565842717;
(c) Critical Race Theory in Education: A Scholar’s Journey, by Gloria Ladson-Billings https://www.schulerbooks.com/book/9780807765838.

I’m a beginner myself and can’t give you a conclusion. I can’t even give you a list of books that weigh all the pros and cons fairly. I just haven’t got that far. I have, however, concluded that what we have been hearing from people in school board meetings is coming from people who are devoted to the first way of learning sketched above, not the second. See CRT in the textbooks! (not) and What Angela Rigas said at the school board meeting. (Another candidate for school board is a “CRT educator.” You can find his most famous three-minute lecture online in the FoxNews archive.)


Are the new Caledonia textbooks full of CRT?

One hears a lot these days about critical race theory (CRT) being taught in public schools. Some people have said that the new social studies curriculum just approved at tonight’s school board meeting is full of CRT. What are we to make of these concerns? Maybe I’ll say more in general some other time. For now, I will just direct you to a post on my personal blog site that contains materials specific to the recent Caledonia conversation: CRT in the textbooks! (not).