Oct. 26 2011 12:00 AM

The Nov. 8 election could move the Lansing School District into a brighter future by selecting three candidates with “vision,” or the Board of Education could remain locked in conflict and controversy, experts say.


Nov. 8 won’t attract many voters. There’s no presidential
race to encourage people to get out to the polls. There are no
gubernatorial hopefuls vying for a chance to change the state.

Instead, there are a City Council and Board of Education
election and several ballot proposals, and the school vote could be the
most critical for the city, educational experts say.

“It’s a matter of the school district really being at a
crossroads,” said Ruben Martinez, director of the Julian Samora
Research Institute at Michigan State University. “Someone has to make
some hard choices. Tomorrow’s leadership on the board is of utmost

Eight candidates are competing for three open seats on
the Lansing Board of Education at a time when it seems that everything
that could go wrong is. The superintendent is leaving, the district is
in the process of restructuring and the budget is in disarray, to name
some of the more major problems.

Out of the candidates, only one, Nicole Armbruster, is
seeking reelection. Current board members Jack Davis and Ken Jones are
not seeking an additional term and will leave the board at the end of
the year.

Many school districts are facing a “perfect storm” of
obstacles, former Lansing Mayor David Hollister said. State revenue is
down, which lowers the amount of money each district receives. Student
enrollment is down, lessening revenue because states base financial
contributions on a per pupil basis. Property taxes, which also help
fund the district’s schools, are decreasing because of the foreclosure

Meanwhile, costs only continue to increase, Hollister
added. Legacy costs, which include retiree health and pension benefits,
are increasing and insurance costs for employees continue to rise year
after year.

“I’m deeply worried about the schools,” Hollister said.
“If the schools are not thriving, the city will not thrive.”On top of
that, the Board of Education and the district’s administration have
rarely worked together to solve issues, resulting in a loss of the
community’s trust, Hollister said.

At the request of the board, Hollister headed a district
restructuring committee in 2009, which presented a comprehensive plan
for right-sizing the district, including consolidating the three open
high schools into one new building. Martinez was part of the
committee’s leadership team as well, but when the group presented its
findings to the board after six months of intensive research, the board
voted against it.

Financial mishaps, such as the discovery of $7.9 million
in overlooked funds in a recent audit that Supt. T.C. Wallace’s
administration called a mistake only increases distrust, said Lansing
teachers’ union President Patti Seidl.

“The board can only make informed decisions based on what
the administration gives them,” she said. “Ultimately the buck stops in
(the superintendent’s) office.”

Finding a new superintendent

Most districts are dealing with the financial effects of
a down economy and trying to offer the same services with less funding,
but Lansing public schools are unique in that the incoming board will
also have to start the search for a new superintendent in addition to
dealing with funding cuts, said Jennifer Rogers, director of
communications for the Michigan Association of School Boards. Wallace,
hired five years ago, is retiring under pressure at the end of his

For Hollister, this one issue is by far the most
important out of the myriad of critical decisions that a new board will
likely face in the coming years.

“This is singularly the most important decision that a
school board makes because it impacts the community for an extended
period of years, maybe even decades,” he said.

Hollister said there are “mechanisms to take over a
failing school district,” such as an emergency financial manager, but
only the board has the ability to hire and fire a superintendent and

In a district where students are underperforming on state
tests and the dropout rate continues to increase, a new superintendent
with a vision for the future of the district could start the turnaround
that Lansing so desperately needs, he said.

Hollister said that Lansing has great opportunities
within the district, such as the International Baccalaureate program at
Eastern High School, but even world-renown programs such as that are
also accompanied by problems — Eastern has one of the district’s
highest dropout rates, he said.

A new administration could create a new curriculum for
the district, or better promote the programs that are offered, in order
to draw students not just from Lansing, but also from the region,
Hollister continued. Programs like the Chinese immersion program, which
is running at full capacity despite being housed in a facility that
can’t keep up with the program’s demand, should be duplicated. An
emphasis should be placed on technology, internships and an
international curriculum, he said. In Hollister’s opinion, those types
of opportunities would bring families to the district, rather than
having them leave.

“There are schools that are thriving because they have
talented leadership,” Hollister said. “My advice: hire the smartest,
brightest, youngest, most talented person they can find — and then get
out of the way.”

The challenge will be attracting the kind of leadership
that can turn the district around after all the controversy and
hostility that has occurred between the board and the current
administration, Hollister said.

“The problem is those (superintendent) candidates go
right to the website and look at the minutes or look at the action in
the previous months and go, ‘I’m not sure I want to apply for that
job,’” he said.

A new administration could also help alleviate some of
the staffing and financial issues that the district has been facing,
Seidl said.

“(Money is) always the bottom line,” she said. “The
board’s going to be challenged to get an administration in that’s in
tune with an urban setting and know how to run the district.”

Seidl attributes many of the financial problems,
especially the discovery of millions of unspent dollars in a
cash-strapped budget, to the administration’s lack of transparency with
the board and the community.

The district is already predicting a $20 million deficit
for the 2012-2013 school year and has spent the majority of its rainy
day fund, Hollister said.

This year’s staffing fiascos could also potentially be
resolved with a new administration that has experience running a large
urban district, Seidl added.

“We had over 200 teachers in the whole scheme of things
that were displaced or laid off,” Seidl said. “That meant we had close
to 90 classrooms that had no teachers assigned to them at the start of
the school year.” 

Seidl said the majority of the laid-off teachers have
already been recalled and the displaced teachers have been reassigned
to try and offset large class sizes in the schools. Most of the
reorganization occurred during Labor Day weekend when the the teachers’
union and Myra Ford, a board member and former human resources worker,
went to the schools to work on the reassignments.

“I’m hoping (the administration) learned from their
mistakes and that they will absolutely do the right thing next year and
not balance the budget by displacing and laying off way more teachers
than they need to,” Seidl said.

Right-sizing the district

In an effort to streamline the district and save money,
the board is looking to streamline operations, which could mean closing
schools, Martinez said.

“They’re overbuilt for the number of students that they
have,” he said. “It costs a considerable amount of money to maintain
all those buildings.”

The district reported just over 13,000 enrolled students
last school year, according to State of Michigan count data. That’s
down from over 15,000 students in 2006.

Yet, the district has not consolidated or restructured its buildings to account for the demographic shift, Martinez said.

The district runs 30 buildings, including four middle schools and three high schools that are operating under capacity, he said.

Two years after Hollister’s study was turned down, the
board has convened a new restructuring committee to look into how to
right-size the district and best consolidate resources, board President
Shirley Rodgers said. Armbruster chairs the committee. The committee is
meeting with teachers, parents and community groups to discuss options
and is scheduled to make a presentation to the board in early December.

While the board could theoretically pass a consolidation
plan based on the committee’s recommendations before the new members
are sworn in, Rogers thought the possibility was unlikely.

“Based on prior history, there will be a lot of
discussion,” Rogers said. “I would say the possibility exists for it to
have some resolution, but I honestly believe that some of the decisions
might not be made until January.”

Rogers said it would be essential to brief the newly
elected members on the board’s plans as soon as they are confirmed so
that they can feel comfortable making decisions when they are sworn in.

“We obviously will have at least two new members if not
three, and so anytime you have new people coming into the mix well that
changes the dynamic and that changes the conversation,” she said. “We
have to work very hard to have a board that is committed to students
first, community second and that we come together to make decisions
that are in the best interest of students and their learning and the
communities as a whole.”

John Hall, president of Lansing’s parent advisory
council, said the redistricting issue is one of the most critical for
the district because it could help utilize the district’s money as well
as possible through consolidation. He said he was looking for board
candidates with new ideas to help move the district forward.

“We have to figure out how to consolidate our resources
to better teach our children,” Hall said. “If we don’t have a quality
education system, nobody’s going to want to come to Lansing. It matters
to everybody what schools we have here because that’s part of the basic
infrastructure of the city.”

Restoring camaraderie

Despite all the hardships the district faces, one desire
was constant: This election has to bring in people who will work
together to restore the district’s camaraderie.

“I think this year it’s really important to bring back
the image of the Lansing School District to what it used to be,” said
Beth Farrand, president of the Lansing Association of Educational

“We need people to come to our board and understand what
we’re going through, and they need to look at all sides,” Farrand said.
“I want to see people be committed, really be committed, to helping our
district, our city and our state.”

Farrand said the breakdown in communication between the
board and administration, as well as the administration and the
employee community, has caused the district to lose a lot of the
positive image it once had. She wants the new board members to restore
the district to what it was, restore pride in the community and really
promote the good things that the district offers, such as advanced
placement classes.

Farrand said she was impressed to see so many young
candidates in the field for the open seats because they bring
enthusiasm and their recent experiences in education with them.

“I think youth is really important because it gives us
perspective,” she said. “I know it’s a funding thing, but I want to see
that kind of dedication come back into our district.”

Hollister said he is looking for candidates with a vision
for the future, passion and a commitment to collaboration to lead the
district forward. 

Rogers said being able to work with the new board
members, regardless of who comes in, will be key for the board members
who are staying.

“We all came in new at some point,” she said. “We have to
be as helpful as we can possibly be. I don’t think that will be a
problem as long as we all keep in mind the primary reason we’re there
and that’s the students and their learning.”