A few minutes with petition sponsor Joshua Stein
That is the goal of the Recall Grant School Board Initiative group who on Tuesday presented their petition language in a hearing held at the Commissioners Meeting Room in White Cloud. Despite challenges regarding the language from Board President Ken Thorne the approval was given and soon the group will begin soliciting signatures with the goal of recalling Thorne, Sabrina Veltkamp-Blok, Rachal Gort, and Richard Vance.
The move came on the heels of the latest board meeting on Monday August 15th that once again saw public comment filled with protests from dozens of community members including numerous calls for the 4 to resign their seats on the board.
We caught up with petition sponsor Joshua Stein for a few questions.
How and why did you get involved in this initiative?
‘How’ I became involved was relatively simple and it relies on two actions, educating and engaging. I became informed of the issues and had conversations with the community. Anyone can do this and I strongly encourage everyone to be educated and engaged. The ‘why’ is slightly more complex. When I think about how we build and strengthen communities, I am firmly in the belief that a rising tide raises all ships, or building from the ground up. The Child and Adolescent Health Center is one resource to help that foundation. Some parents or community members might need to make a choice between employment and health and the health center helped remove that question. This also helps employers who lose productivity when workers are absent. Child based health centers are universally recognized as a benefit to student performance and studies show an indirect benefit to their classmates. However, I believe the initiative is about more than just the health center and it is related to a lack of trust between the community and school board.
Did anything surprise you at the hearing?
You could say there was a surprise at the hearing; however, the surprise felt more like an insult. The school board members were willing to share more detail in a public hearing with the election commission, than they will at public school board meetings with the community they serve. They care more about maintaining power, than being transparent with the community. This contributes significantly to the lack of trust. The primary argument I felt the board members were making, is that they are actively negotiating a new contract, and it is their job as board members to negotiate. They shared detailed information about their concerns for the contract. For example, a board member brought up a lack of sufficient school board members on the health center committee; however, I reviewed school meeting minutes and this was a talking point in a February 2023 board meeting. Why didn’t they resolve the issue at that time? Rather, months later, they issued a 90 day eviction to the health center before attempting any engagement. We have been told the health center will need to close 10/06/2023, absent a new contract, which means the 90 day termination letter was issued on 07/08/2023. Evidence provided at the hearing shows the school board, through their attorney, first presented a new contract to begin negotiations on 08/09/2023, 31 days after issuing a termination letter. While I agree it is the purview of the school board to review, update or cancel contracts, the approach suggests, at best, a poorly planned and reckless negotiating tactic that creates confusion and instability for students, school staff, families and health center employees. The uncertainty has likely impacted applicants for school positions and student enrollment. They could have renegotiated the contract without a termination letter, as has been done in the past. My most favorable view is this negotiation tactic was to give them power over Family Health Care, who absolutely wants to remain in this community. My true belief is they never wanted to maintain the Child and Adolescent Health Center, and are only now negotiating after the significant community support displayed for the center.
Most of the pushback from the community has been due to their decision to cut ties with FHC with regard to the Child and Adolescent Health Clinic. They have said they are negotiating with FHC. If the CAHC is retained will that affect the recall initiative? If not, why?
I want to be honest and I always try to have a realistic view of any situation I’m involved in, so yes, I do believe retaining the health center could affect the interest of some community members in the recall initiative. However, as the sponsor of the petitions, and through discussions with other engaged community members, the recall petitions will go forward until board members resign or they are removed by the will of the voters. The school board has lost trust of a significant portion of the community and doing the right thing for the CAHC will not fully restore that trust. Again, I don’t believe they would have negotiated with Family Health Care, if the community didn’t rally in support. The board spent 5 months looking at how to earn a one time profit through sale of school property, rather than focusing on how to use the land as a long term asset to strengthen the community, such as the ideas presented by Rob Schuitema to use the land to gain education or program grants to bring resources to the school rather than diminish the resources. The health center termination letter decision was made as a motion after the public meeting already started, what other surprise motions and actions might the board members attempt to initiate.
There is a 60 day window for obtaining signatures and close to 1100 are needed. What do you see as the biggest challenges?
There are 7,847 registered voters among the three counties the school district spans and 6,777 of those voters reside in Newaygo County. The biggest challenge in gathering signatures is the same for this initiative as any other petition based action, ensuring we make contact with as many of those registered voters as possible, as well as generating more registered voters. This will be accomplished by establishing a presence in the communities with voter registration, door to door engagements and scheduled events to collect signatures. The overall goal requires sustained engagement. Getting a special election is the means of restoring a voice to the voters. Voters will also need to have their voice heard in the election to ensure the school board members elected represent the children first. That’s why voter education is another important aspect to inform voters of the beliefs, goals and qualifications of all school board candidates.
Assuming the target date for the recall election would be in May, are all 4 eligible to be recalled by then?
The short answer is yes, all four board members are eligible for recall in May. There are some timing technicalities for submission of signed petitions.
Do you feel optimistic about the chances for a successful recall?
I am very optimistic for a successful recall and we receive a tremendous amount of support from the community. In public we receive thank yous and positive messages for standing up for the students and community. Attendance at school board meetings remains very high and the vast majority of public comments expressing concern the four members being recalled are not representing the best interest of the students. While I am not personally on social media, I hear the primary response to the recall being supportive. We have over 7800 registered voters in the district. While collecting petition signatures, we will be engaging those voters to have their voice heard, as well as registering new voters, and providing education on all board candidates, current and future, to ensure the voters have sufficient information to elect a school board that strengthens our community by providing the resources children need to succeed.
Anything you would like the community to know?
The Grant Community is incredible. We have a wide diversity of people and views; despite any differences, there is a passion for the success of our community. While I have not been a lifelong resident, as many have, I have been here for 9 years. I am invested in the success of the community. For a majority of my time that has meant paying taxes and shopping at local businesses. However, we have an opportunity, at this moment, to ensure the Grant Board of Education maintains focus on their number one mission, the children. If you have a passion for the success of the community and we haven’t reached you yet, please reach out to learn how you can be involved through signing, volunteering or donations. Children are our future, education presents a world of opportunity for children and healthy children are in a better position to maximize their opportunity.
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