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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - As Grand Rapids Public Schools faces an estimated $23.7 million budget gap, a wide array of reform proposals from the state and the possibility of losing its superintendent to Cleveland, eight candidates are vying for two spots on the school board.
One sitting board member and seven challengers are on Tuesday's ballot -- and the two top vote-getters will win seats.
Board members would take their seats in July, after the deadline for passing next year's budget. But they will likely grapple with how to cut future spending and how best to improve student achievement. If Gov. Rick Snyder's reform proposals pass, GRPS could also face increased competition for students with charter schools and schools of choice.
And while sitting board members and board candidates reject being characterized as either pro- or anti-Taylor, the election could create a majority of board members more willing to openly question and criticize the superintendent's proposals for the district. It could also ensure that those voices, which have grown over the last three years, remain a minority.
24 Hour News 8 spoke with seven of the eight registered candidates and asked what they see as the most critical issues facing the board, their view on Taylor, how they view some of his reforms, what they'd like to see in a new superintendent if they are in a position to choose one -- and what qualifies them to serve.
WALTER BRAME, 65, retired president and CEO, Grand Rapids Urban League
Critical issues: First, finance and the potential $23.7 million shortfall. Another: The potential of having to replace the superintendent. "Were that to occur, that will cause some slowdown in the progress that I think is being made." Lastly: The disparity in the performance of African-American students and others. "The staff needs policy guidance."
Supportive or critical of Taylor: "I hate to divide it that way." He said he looks at individual issues and sees himself, most of all, as supportive of students.
On Taylor's blended learning push: "I was not involved in it intially, I have been involved at the periphery." He said success data is not in yet and he would make decisions based upon what the data shows. "My gut feeling is that it is a reasonable aproach that will require some tweaking in order to move it foward."
On a new superintendent, if needed: "I think that you need a superintendent who is an educator who can work well with diverse groups, from administrators all the way down to the janitors." Relationship with instructional staff is "key," he said. "I think the person should be committed to the reforms the district has under way" and he said the person should be able to "follow the policy guidance of the school board."
Qualifications: "I think that I've served the community ... for 30 years and I think that I'm willing to take moderate risk -- and I think most successful people are." He said he's "not aligned with any other entity" but the students. Brame also said he worked for about three years in public schools in Milwaukee, in between stints leading the Grand Rapids Urban League.
DAVID CLARK, 34, sales representative
Critical issues: "I think right now the most critical issue that the board has to face is dealing with our new budget. We're going to be at an operating loss in two years right now. We need to face that. We need to go through on a line-item by line-item basis and find out hwere we can find other cost savings. On top of that is the constant, pressing fact that we need to boost our graduation rate."
Supportive or critical of Taylor: "I think it's undeniable there is some division on the board and I think you're seeing some of the newer members that are on the board who are talented individuals as well. There's resistence to some of the plans that have been occuring on reform. I see myself more on that reform side. I don't think we have a choice. Success -- we've seen it. It's undeniable, looking at the numbers."
On Taylor's blended learning push, hub electives: "You're seeing everyone around the world going to that model (blended learning). Other districts are doing it quite successfully around us ... I think there's some benefit there. Like any new program that's put in, it's got to be tweaked." And he noted Taylor suggested that in his state of our schools address. "We don't have the money to do a lot of electives that we want to do amongst the high schools and the middle schools." On the HUB model, "Granted, it's not as fully-funded or pervasive or accessible as it has been ... yet we're still able to keep these things." He said he supports it because without it, the district would have to turn to ideas such as pay to play.
On a new superintendent, if needed: "I want to look at what experience they've had. He said GRPS is unique in that it's not small but not enrmous. "I want to see somebody that has had success in reforming a school system from a traditional, older model to something that has shown proven cases of
innovation and different ways of doing things. Some outside the box thing, but done in a matter that's been proven." He said GRPS needs a leader people will want to follow and a good speaker who represents the district in a positive manner.
Qualifications: "I bring a very strong parent-advocate perspective." He cited his work with the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation, which supports students in the district, and his work with parent-teacher associations. "I'm emotionally invested in this. My kids go to Grand Rapids Public Schools ... I want to see the best possible district for my own children, the children of my immediate neighborhood, as well as those of the greater district."
CHRISTINE JURRIANS, 56, medical transcriptionist
Critical issues: "The obvious lack of money is one thing, but the graduation rate and preparedness for life in the real world is a real thing." She said students spending more time in school may be a solution. And Jurrians said she wanted to address the perception that GRPS is a "second-rate" school system. "We need to somehow motivate the kids and make them more accountable for learning." Jurrians, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against other Kent County school systems, said privatization should be on the table at all times.
Supportive or critical of Taylor: "I think it would just depend on what he wanted to implement. I don't think you can rubber stamp everything and say, 'I'll approve everything he says' or 'I won't approve everything he says.'" She said she's "not behold to any kind of special interest."
On Taylor's blended learning push: "Not all kids learn the same way and not all the kids have the temperament to sit in front of the computer ... It's a good idea and it's been used but ... you need motivated students." She said the program should have been started on a smaller scale.
On a new superintendent, if needed: She wants a superintendent "that can work well with a wide variety of people because the one right now has been kind of an adversarial, up-and-down, like-or-dislike kind of individual." She said someone from West Michigan or at least the upper Midwest would make the most sense because districts from outside the area are run differently. Jurrians said she wanted someone "who can compromise sometimes" and "resolve conflict before it comes to a head."
Qualifications: "I'm not beholden to any kind of special interest." She noted her attendance at board meetings. "I know ... how the whole system works but I've really not been intimately involved" Jurrians said she would bring a "fresh set of eyes or a different outlook to the board of education."
CATHERINE MUELLER, 60, Current school board member, retired public works accounting and finance director for Kent County
Critical issues: Increasing expectations for "everyone -- students, teachers, administrators." Mueller said improving graduation rates and narrowing the test score gaps are key. And looking at the 2012-13 fiscal year, "the board is going to have to do some serious decision-making to keep an emergency financial manager" from taking over the district.
Supportive or critical of Taylor: Agreed that there are now more voices critical of the superintendent on the board. "They are anti-reform ... I'm an advocate for more reform. We have to keep going. We've only hit the tip of the iceberg. Our children aren't achieving at the levels they need to." But she anyone who calls her a rubber stamp for Taylor "absolutely does not" know her. She said she's had disagreements with the superintendent but said she didn't make them public, comparing that to a parent spanking a child in a grocery store.
On Taylor's blended learning push: She said she thinks it was a "very creative" solution given the time frame available to the superintendent. "It's going to be tweaked and staff always said it was. That was the result of looking at a $15 million operating deficit. It wasn't an initiative for the sake of reform." With tweaks, the reforms can help move toward "getting the most individualized learning plans for all students."
On a new superintendent, if needed: "We need someone that can come in running and keep the reforms going, not reinvent the wheel but enhance and improve what we've already started." She said that's what the board looked for in Taylor because former Superintendent Bert Bleke "had initiated the foundation of drastic changes."
Qualifications: "I have eight years of experience on the board." And Mueller cited her 25 years of work in the private and public sectors, especially her work with Kent County. "I understand the roles of elected people and staff -- how the two should work together. I'm an independent thinker. I am nonpartsian. I have no allegiance to any person."
DR. MONICA RANDLES, 43, pediatrician, Cherry Street Health Services
Critical issues: "The biggest issue right now" is the school system's finances. She cited Gov. Snyder's proposals to expand charter schools and schools of choices. "All of those
issues are going to be revenue issues int he long run. The project $23 millino shortfall here -- and then the potential of us losing students in per-pupil funding."
Supportive or critical of Taylor: "Where I fall is we definitely need to hold the superintendent accountable for plans and programs in place and our outcomes -- how are the children doing in terms of education? I'm happy to work with Dr. Taylor as long as he is in Grand Rapids Public Schools. And it's no secret he's been looking for other jobs or being courted for other jobs. I think that speaks to how he feels the district's going. I think he's an intelligent man and has good aspirations for the district and we just need to make sure what the plans are and what actually comes to fruition."
On Taylor's blended learning push, hub electives: "Blended learning really needs to be looked at. I know they're saying it's being reviewed currently. Is it being effective? According to some board members, it isn't being reviewed and I think ultimately, that is how we need to base our opinion on blended learning. Are children learning effectively? Do they think it's time well spent?" Or are they actually getting credits without truly learning, she asked. "There has been some discussion that the hub is going to be altered because it has not been user friendly for students."
On a new superintendent, if needed: "The qualities we need in a superintendent are a collaborator -- someone who can work with all the stakeholders in the district and be effective in messaging to make sure everyone can come on board even if people don't agree with him or her. They can say this, ultimately, is going to lead to the betterment of educationf or all of our children ... Having previous experience of improving programming in their own district will be a critical quality also."
Qualifications: She cited her background as a pediatrician "with behavioral and developmental training" and working for more than a dozen years as a child advocate "trying to find the best programming for individual children." Randles said she's very interested in the area of academics and education. "I also have two children that are in the district and that too adds to my qualifications."
RAYNARD ROSS , 42, director, Upward Bound, Grand Rapids Community College
Critical issues: The budget -- "and a lack of healthy communciation." Becasue of the factions that have come out on the board, "that sense of communication has been limited and ineffective -- and as a result, the work of the board has been limited and somewhat ineffective."
Supportive or critical of Taylor: "Frankly in the middle, to be honest. I recognize that educating children and setting policy and direction for educating children is something that's a very passionate topic, but I think we have to be very careful and not allow our passions to override our sensibilities ... The reality is I'm the sort of person who weighs all options."
On Taylor's blended learning push, hub electives: "I'm a supporter of us being innovative and doing this to promote progress and change in our district. And technology is definitely going to play a role in that. However, as the blended learning and the hub model sit right now, they definitely need some revising ... because as they are right now, they are unfortunately ineffective as it sits right now."
On a new superintendent, if needed: "Very simply, I would want someone who had the innovative intelligence of Dr. Taylor, the helping spirit of June Cleaver, the approachable personality of Jimmy Carter -- with the dogged determination of Bo Schembechler." He said he wanted someone very balanced -- intelligent, focused with a desire to help and an ability to work well with others.
Qualifications: He said he's operated his Upward Bound programs under budget "without sacrificing educational services." Ross cited his experience as a former police officer and school safety specialist -- as well as teaching special education at the high school level. He said he was also an adjunct instructor at the post-secondary level and a middle school resource officer. Ross said he's engaged with young people and parents in the community. "I have a good understanding of the academic landscape."
CHRISTOPHER SAIN, Jr., 27, clinical therapist
Critical issues: "I think the racial achievement gap or the academic achievement gap and parent involvement are, by far, in my opinion, the most dire. I know we have budget concerns. Being a Grand Rapids Public Schools student from middle school, elementary and high school, I've seen our teachers and our students -- myself included -- do more with less." He said the district is going to have to be innovative in how it moves forward with less resources.
Supportive or critical of Dr. Taylor: "I don't put myself in Taylor's camp, nor do I put myself against Dr. Taylor. I'm simply an independent thinker -- an independent-minded individual ... If Dr. Taylor is willing to work side-by-side with his colleagues,
I'm willing to work wtih him. It's not a matter of [having] any agenda to see him fail or see his agenda not succeed."
On Taylor's blended learning push: "I would say at the very least, blended learning and E2020 are things that need improvement," but he said the educational world is becoming more technology-drivne. "So we would need to be going in that direction anyway. I think we need to make sure students are disciplined enough and teachers need to know how to navigate" the system.
On a new superintendent, if needed: "I want somebody who has a strong academic pedigree who has a willingness to understand the needs of our students as well as the parents. I would want someone from the area, or at least close proximity to the area, to fully understand the dynamics" and the geography of the district.
Qualifications: "I'm a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools. I know firsthand what a student is faced with sitting in the Grand Rapids Public Schools classroom." He also he'd be effective because he's "in tune with the community as well as the parents."
TERRY ZYLSTRA, Sr.
24 Hour News 8 could not find a phone number for Zylstra, nor could he be reached in person Friday at the address listed for his home.
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