School board races across MI have become intense. Here’s what’s happening in a Detroit suburb.

Across Michigan and the nation, once low-profile school board races have turned into heated issues that reflect political and cultural divides. That’s the case this year in the five Grosse Pointe communities (plus a portion of adjacent Harper Woods) located outside of Detroit, where the results of this year’s school board competition could chart a radically new course for schools in his.

There are ten candidates running for three open seats on the Grosse Pointe school board. It is officially nonpartisan, like all Michigan school board contests, but partisan politics has become very much a part of the picture.

(I live in Grosse Pointe and my child is a student in the public schools here. Some of the dynamics of the current school board race are unique to this community. But in many ways, I could have done almost the same story for any number of communities throughout Michigan – I just know this one best.)

“Academic” versus “educational” excellence.

There are two loosely connected groups with three candidates each in the race. One consists of three people endorsed by the teachers union, the Grosse Pointe Education Association (GPEA).

Clint Derringer is one of those teacher-backed candidates. He has three children in Grosse Pointe Public Schools and his wife is also a teacher in the district. Derringer said that like many young families who move to Grosse Pointe, she came largely because of its reputation for high-quality schools.

“We came here because of those added opportunities and pathways that just aren’t open to everyone everywhere,” he said. “So we recognize that and we want to try to make those opportunities available to our kids.”

Just how good Grosse Pointe schools are — and how you measure that fact — has become a major topic of contention in the race. Derringer’s belief is that they provide a high-level public education for most children in the district, although he thinks they could do a better job of educating those coming into their middle school years.

This belief is not shared by some others in the race. The other group of three affiliated candidates thinks the district is on the decline. They blame the current superintendent and administration, and a current school board majority they accuse of “stamping” the administration.

One of those candidates is Sean Cotton. During a public forum sponsored by the Grosse Pointe League of Women Voters, Cotton said he jumped into the race because he thinks schools are in a “death spiral.”

“I believe this school district may be the best in Michigan, if not the Midwest,” Cotton said. “We’re not. We’re failing compared to some of our peer districts.”

Cotton, who did not respond to Michigan Radio interview requests made through Facebook and his campaign website, is the son of a Grosse Pointe family with a multibillion-dollar health industry fortune. The Cotton family is among the state’s largest political donors, mostly to Republican candidates and causes.

Ginny Jeup is another candidate tied to Cotton. She has raised some eyebrows locally for taking part in the Jan. 6 uprising at the US Capitol—though Jeup said she did not participate in or witness any violence there.

Jeup declined an interview request with Michigan Radio, citing a busy schedule. But during the League of Women’s voter forum, she took aim at the district’s strategic plan, a broad document intended to chart its future path.

“Our strategic plan does not support academic excellence,” Jeup said. “That’s what I’m running with. Back to basics.”

Partisan politics in a nonpartisan race

In doing so, Jeup echoed the rhetoric of Tudor Dixon, Michigan’s Republican candidate for governor, and other forces that have set their sights on schools across the country. In their view, public schools have lost their way, serving as indoctrination centers where children are learning about things like Critical Race Theory and LGBTQ propaganda instead of reading, writing and math.

Those themes have come up a little more subtly in the Grosse Pointe school board race than in some other places, but they’re definitely there. And it’s true that the district’s strategic plan includes an emphasis on things like social-emotional learning and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). These have become toxic words for some on the political right.

Joseph Herd is the current president of the Grosse Pointe school board and also one of ten current candidates. Like Derringer, he believes the district generally does a great job of educating its students, though he thinks it could do a better job of providing vocational education and technical skills to those who are not bound by the university.

Herd also supports the strategic plan and its components such as social-emotional learning and DEI. He said Grosse Pointe students should be fully prepared to deal with the larger world. “If they get great test scores and they can’t talk to people, or they don’t know how to interact with people other than themselves, then really, we’ve failed them,” he said.


Grosse Pointe Public Schools


Current Grosse Pointe School Board President Joseph Herd.

As chair of the school board, Herd has helped spearhead DEI initiatives in particular. He has said he is proud to serve as the district’s first black school board president.

About a quarter of all students in Grosse Pointe Public Schools come from minority groups. The district has students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, from children living in million-dollar homes to others who qualify for federal Title 1 funding for low-income students.

Clint Derringer, who served on a steering committee that drafted the strategic plan, disputes the idea that it doesn’t prioritize academics. He emphasizes that “educational excellence” is listed as a top priority.

“We’re parsing the words to say this does not prioritize academic excellence,” Derringer said. “And I’d be hard-pressed to see exactly what the difference is.”

Defining exactly what “educational excellence” means is another point of contention. If test scores are your measure, Grosse Pointe students outperform the statewide average across the board on tests like the M-STEP by a significant margin — though not as well as some other higher-income “peer counties” high. As for whether test scores are down, state data shows that Grosse Pointe students mostly improved their M-STEP scores in 2021 (the most recent data available) compared to 2019, though a handful of grade levels and student subgroups did so. see their scores drop.

Another major issue emerging as a dividing line in the race is how the candidates feel about the current school administration, particularly Superintendent Jon Dean. The dean has been superintendent for less than two years, but he was vice president in the district for many years before that.

“This administration, their focus is not on academic excellence,” Jeup said during the League of Women Voters forum. “You’ve taken a hard left turn.”

Cotton added that he does not support the current county administration. “We have to do the registration,” he said. “We need to convince those parents who left the system to bring their children back here and show the value.”

It’s true that Grosse Pointe Public Schools has seen enrollment declines that accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. But that reflects a larger statewide trend (overall enrollment was up slightly for the current school year). The candidates as a group agree that declining enrollment is a problem, but differ in their explanations of why this is the case and their approach to addressing it.

Registration in GPPSS

Grosse Pointe Public Schools has experienced declining enrollment in recent years.

Controversies over COVID-related school closures and mask requirements were the main driving force for many of the groups involved in the new school board wars, said Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan School Boards Association. Now they have shifted their focus more to the “cultural issues” that arose from “The kind of more conservative view of parents that happened during COVID,” he said.

These groups, particularly Florida-based Moms for Liberty, argue that public schools lack transparency and push a culturally leftist agenda on students. They have fueled heated disputes over what kinds of books should be allowed in schools and have generally brought partisan political and cultural warfare conflicts into officially nonpartisan school board races, Wotruba said.

“We will see each other again”

For now, it’s unclear how these political dynamics will play out in Grosse Pointes. Historically, the community has voted overwhelmingly Republican, but that has changed dramatically in recent years. In the 2020 election, President Joe Biden won the Pointes overall with about 53% of the vote, and it’s fair to say that it’s now a politically “purple” community that’s trending more Democratic.

Wotruba said he worries about the growing politicization of school board races on several fronts. First, he said it could lead to the kind of gridlock and political dysfunction we’ve seen nationally. It also distracts from the vital, but mostly boring, day-to-day functions that school boards perform.

“It won’t be a fight over books in the library,” Wotruba said. “It’s going to be, ‘Okay, how much do we spend on this lawn mowing vendor?’ And these things must be done.”

For candidates campaigning to completely overhaul a district’s administration, Wotruba has a cautionary note. He said Michigan’s school superintendents have been retiring at a record rate, and there is now a shortage of experienced people to fill vacant positions. “We now have more than half of our superintendents in the state [with] less than five years of experience,” he said. “And the pool is getting smaller and smaller with every search we do.”

Wotruba also noted that if a superintendent is fired for cause, districts are typically forced to pay their contract, which “can be quite a costly endeavor,” he said.

Speaking of expensive, high-profile, and controversial school board races come with higher prices. A number of Political Action Committees (PACs), typically associated with national and state legislative races, have poured money into school board races across Michigan this year. They include Grosse Pointe, where two PACs have funded ads for three GPEA-endorsed candidates, while another has supported candidates Jeup and Terry Collins (see chart).

GP PAC expenses

Michigan Secretary of State

Clint Derringer said he was aware of what he was getting into when he entered the race. “I think it’s critical to have people in the race who understand that larger context,” he said. “There is a segment of the population that wants public schools to fail because they see it as big government, largely funded by public funds. This is a nationwide strategy to attack public institutions, and specifically targeted at school boards and school board races.”

Current board president Joe Herd said he hopes the community survives this election with its “social fabric” intact. “What I hope we don’t forget is that when it’s all said and done, we’re going to go back to being neighbors and having to see each other at the grocery store,” he said. “We will see each other again.”

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