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Grosse Pointe school board race takes a nasty turn

John Wisely
Detroit Free Press

It's a political race that has turned nasty, complete with dark money ads, the censure of a candidate and accusations of racism and law-breaking.

This is not the race for the White House or even for Congress. It's the fight for seats on the Grosse Pointe Board of Education.

Eighteen candidates are running to fill five seats on the board in the 7,500-student district that covers the five Grosse Pointes and part of Harper Woods.

The central issue in the race is a controversial plan the board adopted last year. In a cost-cutting move, the district shuttered two elementary schools — Charles A. Poupard and Robert Trombly — and moved fifth graders into middle school.

More:Grosse Pointe girls hurl N-word and racial slurs in video, officials call for sensitivity

Critics of the plan argue it doesn't really save money and it destroys a long-time Grosse Pointe tradition of neighborhood elementary schools, where kids walk to class and sometimes go home for lunch. Five candidates say they will undo the reconfiguration.

But other candidates see something different in those promises. They say talk of returning to the old days is really a desire to see less diversity in a district that has a history of racial incidents.

At Poupard Elementary in Harper Woods, about 76% of the students were Black and the poverty rate was high enough to qualify it as a Title I school, a designation that brings additional money to serve poor children. Those students are now bused to other schools within the district. 

Poupard Elementary School.

"There are people who are bound and determined to turn back the clock on progress we've made in this community," said Greg Bowens, a past president of the Grosse Pointes-Harper Woods NAACP.

Crowded field

With five seats on the seven-member board on the ballot, eighteen candidates are running.

Political yard signs for Grosse Pointe School Board candidates Kathleen Abke, George Bailey, Joseph Herd, Colleen Worden in front of homes in Grosse Pointe on Wednesday.

Five candidates have stressed the need for more diversity and equity in the district. They are incumbents Kathleen Abke and Joseph Herd as well as newcomers David Brumbaugh, Cynthia Douglas and Colleen Worden.

Candidates specifically pledging to reopen the two closed schools are incumbent Cynthia Pangborn, former board member John Steininger, as well as Lauren Nowicki, Lisa Papas and Ahmed Ismail.

The eight other candidates are: George Bailey, Sherry Betcher, Christopher D'Angelo, Jennifer Goosen, James Paul Joseph, Keersten Colleen Kassab, Shareef Simaika and Theresa Vogler.

Political yard signs for Democratic U.S. Senate incumbent Gary Peters and Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden are displayed next to James Joseph for Board of Education and Grosse Pointe School Board candidate Shareef Simaika in front of homes in Grosse Pointe, Mich. on Oct. 21, 2020.

The decision to close the schools was a divisive one for the district, drawing hundreds of people to the June 2019 school board meeting when the vote was taken. Backers of the plan acknowledged it was a difficult decision, but said it was necessary because revenue was down due to lower enrollment.

Critics of the plan say they can reopen those schools.

"I believe we can," said Pangborn, who voted against the reconfiguration plan last year. "I believe in zero-based budgeting."

Pangborn said that by going through the budget line by line, the district can come up with other ways to balance the budget and still keep those schools open.

But others disagree.

"The budget has been trimmed and trimmed and trimmed," said Abke, who voted in favor of the reconfiguration plan last year. "To reopen the schools, all that's left to cut is programming and staff pay."

'Coded language'

One of the opponents of reconfiguration, Nowicki, sparked controversy with a two-minute video she submitted to the local NAACP branch, which conducted a virtual candidate forum because COVID-19 concerns didn't allow for an in-person gathering.

Nowicki said in the video that the reconfiguration caused "the pushing of these already diverse students into buildings where they are new there, and they don't belong. This is someone else's school, someone else's neighborhood."

Political yard signs for Grosse Pointe School Board candidates Ahmed Ismail, Lisa Papas, Lauren Nowicki, Cindy Pangborn, John Steininger in front of homes in Grosse Pointe, Mich. on Oct. 21, 2020.

She said she can see other kids, who walk to the new schools, taunting the students who arrive by bus, because they formerly attended Trombly or Poupard. 

Bowens said that kind of talk, and other statements about bringing back excellence, are racial dog whistles.

"That's coded language, but we know what she means," Bowens said. "Some people have their feathers in a bunch because they don't like integrating those schools at such an early level. They think it will bring down test scores."

Some critics in the community dubbed Nowicki and the others pushing to reopen the schools the "hate slate."

Nowicki, a mother of four, insists she meant no harm by her words in the video and she wants to get elected to push for more diversity and inclusion training within the school system.

"I think what happened is the message got misconstrued," she said. "That's not at all what I meant. My kids are part of the group of children that have gotten transplanted because of the reconfiguration. All I was trying to say was that moving these kids, one, into a new school, and second, having them show up on a bus, just further pushes them out."

Nowicki said if she's elected she'll find a way to reopen the schools.

Dark money ads

In early September, backers of the reopening formed an independent expenditure committee, sometimes known as a Super Pac, called Taxpayers for GP Schools. The group raised money and used it to take out full-page ads in the Grosse Pointe News newspaper and to send mailings to voters in the district. 

The ads featured the names and photos of Pangborn, Nowicki and Papas, listing their agendas to reopen the schools and return fifth graders to elementary schools. Another ad listed what the group considered wrong with every school in the district, including calling some principals and other administrators unqualified for their jobs.

Political yard signs for Grosse Pointe School Board candidates Lauren Nowicki, John Steininger, Cindy Pangborn, Lisa Papas and Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James in front of homes in Grosse Pointe on Wednesday.

Because the ads supported candidates, they violate Michigan Campaign Finance Laws, which preclude independent committees from coordinating with candidate committees, said Thomas Bruetsch, a lawyer who filed three complaints with the Michigan Secretary of State. 

“For the first time that I can recall, dark money is trying to influence the outcome of a local school board election,” Bruetsch said in a statement. "To have this kind of well-financed group intervening in our elections and engaging in misleading, negative advertising against the school district and even school administrators is wrong.  We believe that this is a coordinated effort between the anonymous PAC and certain candidates for office.”  

Bruetsch's complaints included screen shots of an online discussion where Nowicki says, "I did preview and gave suggestions that were not incorporated and they are allowed to do that. That doesn't mean that I agree with what was written."

Nowicki told the Free Press last week that she did see the ads before they published.

"I saw a copy of it and said I didn't like it, but aside from that, they still printed it," she said. "It doesn't matter if I like it or not, because they're going to print what they want because they're paying for it."

In the complaint to the state, Bruetsch disagreed, saying that her review amounts to consultation, which is illegal.

David Dulio, a political science professor at Oakland University, said PACs have been around for a long time.

"For decades, strategies, or tactics and campaigns, start at higher levels and trickle down, right, so to have an independent expenditure-only committee, playing in a school board race, is maybe just the next iteration of money in politics," he said. 

After the ads ran, the Grosse Pointe Board of Education voted 6-1 to censure Pangborn, saying she'd violated board policies against threatening and harassing behavior and was "using her board position for personal political gain and has compromised this board with her behavior."

Pangborn insists she had nothing to do with the ads, even submitting an affidavit saying she wasn't involved in the ads. She dismissed the claims of racial hostility as a political ploy.

"There is no basis for that, ever," she said. "This is something that has materialized out of someone's mind. But that was never part of it."

The PAC's founder, Monica Palmer, also submitted an affidavit swearing that "Cindy Pangborn had nothing whatsoever to do with advertisements placed by Taxpayers for GP Schools."

Palmer, a Republican activist who serves on the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, wouldn't comment to the Free Press last week, saying there was a news conference scheduled for Monday at the office of lawyer Michael Schwartz to rebut the allegations of lawbreaking and discuss other issues related to the race. 

Brian Summerfield served as president of the Grosse Pointe Board of Education when it voted to close the schools last year. He resigned in January, saying serving on the board was "taking a toll on my family, both economically and emotionally."

He said he knows most of the people running for office and he's mostly tried to stay out the fray. He thinks it would be very difficult to reopen the schools because of lower enrollment, which means less state money and because the state budget is expected to be reduced due to COVID-19.

Summerfield said he misses working with people in the district, but he acknowledges it's not easy being a board member.

"School board is a tough job because children are involved and people have their own opinions on how thing should be done and a lot of times, you're limited in the options you have in those situations," he said.

As far as racial tensions, Summerfield said they remain an issue in Grosse Pointe. The district has made progress in recent years with diversity issues, but  "there's still work to be done there. ... I don't think anyone can seriously claim otherwise."

Contact John Wisely: 313-222-6825 or jwisely@freepress.com. On Twitter @jwisely

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