Sept. 4 2018 12:36 AM

Williamston Schools recall heads to ballot

TUESDAY, SEPT. 4 — Williamston voters will decide in the November general election whether to recall four school board members for supporting transgender rights.


Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum has certified a petition that aims to unseat the four, paving the way for the formal recall election. Lists of more than 1,400 names were turned into county officials last month on petitions to remove Greg Talberg, Christopher Lewis, Nancy Deal and Sarah Belanger.


Local residents have pushed back against policies approved by the board last year that aimed to protect gender-related liberties and student rights.


Some opponents have argued the policies — primarily geared to accommodate transgender students — could unfairly push parents out of their students’ education.


Others contend the policies, which require district officials to accept students’ chosen gender identities and mandates alternatives to “gender-segregated” restrooms and locker rooms, clashed with their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The controversy sparked an ongoing federal lawsuit and has since pinned targets on trustees.


Billboards and signs dot Grand River Avenue encouraging voters to recall the quartet of board members.


Board members serve six-year terms. Terms for Talberg and Deal at the end of 2020. Terms for Lewis and Belanger run through 2022.


Talberg and Lewis previously emphasized how the policies were designed to provide guidance so staff members could adequately address the fluidity of gender identities. They just wanted students to feel welcomed, they said.


Those behind the recall efforts and ongoing lawsuit have repeatedly declined to comment publicly on the topic. Their lawyers at the Great Lakes Justice Center also haven’t returned calls but released a “factsheet” that argued the policy changes violated the constitutional and statutory rights of children and parents. The overarching concern: Students could identify by a different gender at school without officials ever telling their parents.


It’s unclear, however, how the policies would ever become practice. Supt. Adam Spina has declined to elaborate on how the district would help to support transgender students during their transition. And Lewis maintained the policies are only designed to offer guidance for staff; Spina is the one tasked with shaping them into actuality.


Lewis and Talberg both previously emphasized their intent to keep parents involved in the conversations. Joel Gerring, a Michigan Association of School Board attorney and former board member who voted to approve the policies, previously suggested the recall efforts are based on an “irrational fear” that dangerous men will suddenly invade a women’s restroom.


“Really, individuals who walk into any bathroom — regardless of their gender identity — and do something untoward will be arrested,” Gerring contended. “That still applies to a transgender person.”


Board Vice President Jeffrey West — the only board member to vote against the two policies when they passed last year — will also appear on the November ballot. He’s set to face off for reelection against challengers Julie Conley and Michele Bisard. Appointed Trustee Scott Gaffner is also slated to run unopposed for a partial term.


This story was updated to more accurately reflect the amount of signage along Grand River Avenue.