Has the “Spirit of Democracy” Been “Totally Lost” at the East Lansing School Board? One Trustee Says Yes.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2020, 9:26 am
Alice Dreger

Above: Nichole Martin (left) and Erin Graham (photos by Raymond Holt from the Sept. 9, 2019 meeting unless marked otherwise)

The election of officers for this calendar year’s East Lansing School Board was over within two minutes of the start of last week’s meeting. But the way it went down has forced to the surface long-simmering tensions on the Board, particularly with regard to questions of how Board members should behave in their elected roles.

The flare-up over last week’s election of four officers from among the seven Board of Education Trustees has put a spotlight on an incident that occurred last spring when ELPS Trustee Nichole Martin – ousted last week from her position as Board Vice President – was effectively chastised by other Board members after offering her comments on a student presentation about “safe spaces.”

Some saw Nichole Martin’s remarks to the student presenters as inappropriate. The result was a group apology to the students that was signed by everyone but Martin, plus a new set of “Board Meeting Protocols” that some might see as creating a supportive environment and others might see as aimed at suppressing dissent.

How the officers’ election went down:

According to the videotape of last week’s meeting, Board President Erin Graham began the January 13 meeting a half-minute before the advertised start time of 7 p.m., and the election of officers was over less than two minutes later (by 7:01:10).

Following the published and approved agenda, Graham had called for nominations for officers, and Trustee Kath Edsall had put forward a slate nominating:

  • herself to continue her role as Treasurer;
  • Graham to continue her role as President;
  • Chris Martin, to take over the role of Secretary from Terah Chambers.
  • Chambers to replace Nichole Martin as Vice President.

No one chose to discuss the nominations or offer alternatives. With Hillary Henderson not yet in the room – she arrived at 7:02:42 – those present voted in favor, with the exception of Nichole Martin, who voted against.

In a statement sent last night, Edsall explained the unchallenged success of her motion this way: “Because I am the most awesome person at knowing who should hold which position, my slate was supported by the majority.”

Above: Kath Edsall

But what’s clear from other Board members’ answers to ELi’s questions is that, in advance of the meeting, various people on the Board called various other people to see who they thought should be in the officer positions. This kind of canvassing is allowed under the Michigan Open Meetings Act, and Graham, who had been serving as President, appears to have been particularly active at canvassing in this case.

Still, at the meeting itself, even if she knew Edsall’s slate was very likely to win, should Graham have held off voting until Henderson arrived, in a spirit of collegiality or democracy?

Trustee Kate Powers thinks so. She says she actually informed Graham “twice that Trustee Henderson was on her way and was in the building when the meeting started that evening” a half-minute early. She says Graham “acknowledged that” yet still moved ahead.

“Having served as President of this body for 15 months myself,” Powers says, “it would not have been out of order for Erin to wait for Trustee Henderson to arrive. I hope that this isn’t indicative of what is to continue.”

Above: Kate Powers (right) with Terah Chambers in the background

The video records Powers saying after the meeting started and before the vote that Henderson was “on her way.”

But Graham tells ELi, “I did not hear anybody say that Trustee Henderson was in the building. Regularly scheduled meetings start at seven [7 p.m.] so long as a quorum of Board members is present. If a member who is running late would like to participate in the beginning of the meeting, they are welcome to call in.”

For her part, Henderson tells ELi that, in advance of the meeting, she had gotten a call from Graham about the proposed slate but that “I did not commit to any members of the Board on whether I was a yes or no vote on the slate. I needed time to think it through.”

Henderson explains further, “That day, I decided I would be a yes vote to move on from the drama and focus on the matters that are most important to the constituents of the East Lansing School Board.”

Nichole Martin objects to the way the Board is being run, with Powers and Henderson also frustrated:

After ELi reported on the ousting of Nichole Martin from the executive board, Martin provided a lengthy statement about this matter declaring, “I believe that the spirit of democracy has totally been lost amongst the East Lansing Board of Education.”

She continued, “In a true democracy, members of the Board would openly and honestly have to be nominated at the Board table.” She says they would speak to their qualifications for and interests in the positions.

Nichole Martin gives further examples in her statement of decisions being made in advance without any explanation transparently provided at meetings. She names, for example, her ousting by Graham from the Policy Committee, one of the most influential committees of the Board, and the removal of her as Board liaison to the Mental Health Advisory Committee.

According to Henderson, “there is good reason for Nichole to be frustrated.”

Henderson (above) says, “My lasting hope is that whomever leads the Board in the future can get away from power struggles and meddling in the day-to-day operations carried out by our dedicated, qualified administration and staff.”

A student presentation, a group apology from everyone but the alleged offender, and new behavior rules emerge:

In her statement on what has happened to her positions, Nichole Martin suggests that she is being punished because, last April, she raised questions and concerns in response to a presentation from students who had conducted a professional development workshop for teachers on the issue of “safe spaces.”

A review of the videotape of that meeting shows that, like other Board members, Nichole Martin praised the students for the work. But she also asked questions and made suggestions that some apparently thought too direct or too tough.

Martin asked the students about how they had “validated” the information they presented, and she advised them to keep an eye on the need to actively engage mental health professionals as these students were encouraging teachers and other students to talk with each other about stress, stigma, depression, and the like.

Martin (above) also asked the students to find ways to empower students with mental health issues to present their own stories to teachers and others, and asked that attention to be paid to distinguishing, for example, anxiety from depression.

She also urged the students pushing for improvements in this area to put in place a mechanism to keep their resource lists up-to-date, so that if, for example, a student feeling suicidal needed to turn to someone, the resource list would include actively responsive individuals and organizations.

Martin has a long professional background in the care of at-risk youth, including those with developmental disabilities, behavioral issues, and socioeconomic disadvantages. But her pressing on these issues was apparently interpreted by some Board members as inappropriate.

She says, “My inquiry caused quite a stir and resulted in the drafting [of] a proposed Board apology letter for the way the students had been treated. I did not sign that letter. If I was the person to have offended someone or a group of people, why would an entire Board have to [make an] apology to the people they did not offend.”

But Graham thinks Martin was out of line last April:

In her response to Martin’s recent statement, Graham confirms that she believes Martin behaved quite inappropriately in offering what have been labeled “critiques” at that meeting:

“The way the students were treated in the Board Room on April 22nd was not reflective of how we want any of our presenters, especially our students, to be treated. On May 6th, six Board members signed an apology to the students.”

That apology included the statement, “it was our responsibility to listen carefully and to learn from your work, not to offer critique.”

Graham added in her statement, “At the subsequent meeting, the Board adopted Board Meeting Protocols in an effort to assure a positive and constructive environment for all of our presenters moving forward, and all Board Members have had positive interactions with presenters since this time.”

Above: Erin Graham at the Oct. 14, 2019 meeting (photo by Raymond Holt)

Those protocols require that Board members “keep our questions constructive” and “be supportive rather than judgmental,” even when presenters are professionals or students who are running Professional Development trainings for the District’s teachers.

The protocols also dictate that “We will remember our role as Board members and that we will operate as a body,” without any explanation of how dissent is to operate.

As for taking away Martin’s positions on committees, Graham notes it is her right as Board President to make committee assignments, and she says that her choices have been based on relative qualifications.

In their solicited responses to Martin’s statement, several Board members spoke of wanting to move forward to operating with less tension. Whether that is possible remains to be seen.


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