School board candidates face politics, budget crisis

By Neal McNamara

One incumbent, three challengers vye for three seats

Sitting at a table in the corner of the Great Lakes Chocolate and Coffee Co. shop in Lansing’s Stadium District on a recent afternoon, Nino Rodriguez has both his hands placed on top of a small stack of his campaign literature and a copy of Adelante, the magazine he publishes.

“We need to create a district with a good cultural climate,” says the 70-year-old, one of four running for three seats on the school board, pushing down on the literature under his palms.

“That’s a place that supports values, tradition, relationships, and where symbols guide the mission of schools,” he says, glancing down at a page in Adelante, which focuses on Latino and educational issues, with a headline that reads “School Culture: one for all and all for one.” The page features a picture of Rodriguez holding a baby, and has his article in both English and Spanish.

Rodriguez, who is originally from Spain, was a long-time administrator in the Lansing School District, most recently as a deputy superintendent until 2001. He has since split his time between his magazine and as a visiting assistant professor of Spanish at Michigan State University.

For him, his candidacy is rooted firmly in bringing about cultural change — that is, the culture of how the schools are run — in the Lansing School District and strengthening educational standards.

But some wonder where Rodriquez stands as far as the politics of the school board. Some on the board and in the community feel that board President Hugh Clarke has a stronghold, and wonder where Rodriguez will stand if he’s elected.

Also running are Myra Ford, who served on the school board between 1980 and 1991; incumbent Amy Hodgin; and Ted O’Dell, a former Michigan Education Association union representative, who has said publicly that he would be a “labor advocate.”

Ford and Hodgin are guarded when asked about Clarke, but both feel that board leadership is not going in the right direction. If Hodgin wins re-election there will still be at least two new members of the school board. Melanie Rodgers and Linda Cornish have chosen not to seek another term.

“It’s depressing,” Ford said of the board, speaking about her opinion that some decisions get made without enough research.

Hodgin said she feels that Clarke has been board president for too long, and would like another board member to be able to take over leadership.

“Mr. Clarke is an extremely competent attorney and very committed to the school district, but it would be nice if someone else had the chance (to be president),” she said. “He is a competent attorney, but he has his own personal way of ruling.”

Rodriguez is the only the candidate that appears to be somewhat neutral. He is close with board member Guillermo Lopez, who is seen as a Clarke ally. Rodriguez is the only candidate to have received a campaign donation from Clarke. But he has also received support from Lansing teachers’ union head Jerry Swartz and board member Jack Davis, who is sometimes a voice apart from Clarke. O’Dell did not return a call seeking an interview, and his campaign finance reports are not available.

Clarke would not comment on the candidates running for the board. But he cautioned that any new member should realize that the board makes decisions as a whole, not individually.

“Contrary to what some people may think, a board is a body of X number of people — in this case nine — and it’s not an individual person,” he said. “They have to understand that once a board decides, whatever an issue is, we have to work toward that goal.”

Clarke says that the main issue facing new board members will be “budget, budget, budget.” The school system has been hit with a reduction in per-pupil support from the state, and may get hit with another next year. Add to that a shrinking enrollment, and the school system may be forced to make cutbacks.

Hodgin, who was first elected in 2003, thinks that the school system needs to beef up awareness of and funding for some special programs, like the Chinese immersion program and the baccalaureate program. She also feels that communication between the administration and the board, parents, teachers and students needs to be stronger. She would like to create an office where parents could go to communicate directly with the administration about any problems they might have.

Of the budget, Hodgin says, “The golden days are gone.” She thinks money could be saved on equipment in the district and on the salaries of the higher paid administration officials. Hodgin was the only board member who did not vote for Superintendent T.C. Wallace when he was hired in 2007.

Ford, who worked for the school district until she retired in 2008, wants to try stemming the tide of declining enrollment by boosting the perception of schools in the community. She pointed to an instance when she was formerly on the school board where a local developer ran an advertisement in the Lansing State Journal plying people to move to Okemos because of the school system.

“We wrote a letter to him, and his response was basically, ‘You do your job, I’ll do mine,’” she said. “I felt I should do something as a representative of the community. So, I wrote to him and said, ‘You take your top 100 students (in Okemos) and take our top 100 students and we’ll blow you out of the water.’”

Similar to Hodgin, Ford thinks that at least part of the budget problems can be fixed by cutting from the top. She wants to look at the budget “line item by line item” to see if there are duplicative administrative positions. During her time on the board, she said, the body used to do a quarterly budget review, which is something she wants to bring back.

O’Dell said during a recent candidates’ forum that he would “comb through the budget” and would “honor the rights” of school district employees represented by a union.

Rodriguez agrees with Hodgin and Ford’s desire to tighten up personnel.

“We have to do more with less in the number of people running the schools,” he says. “The budget is the responsibility of the board, but also the responsibility of the administration — it’s up to the administration to recommend what it’s going to do.”

Rodriguez said that he had met with a few board members since he publicly decided to run, including Shirley Rogers and Charles Ford. He said he has not met with Clarke, and was not encouraged to run by him.

“If the board does not come to a consensus (on an issue), the only one who loses is the community,” he said. “I’m going into this with clean hands and a clean mind.”