(The following was written by Nicole Ellefson, Julica Hermann de la Fuente, Kelly Sundeen and Lyn Slayton)
Scholastic excellence, growing enrollment and an increasing fund balance are normally considered positive indicators of a school board’s success. By those measures, Williamston Community Schools’ board is exemplary.
The board has led our district to wonderful achievements for the children in our schools. Despite receiving the lowest possible foundation grant per pupil, Williamston Community Schools beat out neighboring districts that receive hundreds more per student to win the State Academic Champion award from Bridge Magazine. In the last few years, the district has added STEAM programming across the K-12 spectrum, including new labs in both the elementary and middle schools. Enhanced school safety updates are in the works. And despite crushing funding cuts and pension debt added by the state of Michigan during the financial crisis, our district fund balance is on track to meet the board’s goal of 5 percent.
Despite this stellar progress, a group of ideological extremists in our town have recalled our district’s leaders. Four board members are being forced to fight for reelection after a lengthy recall process. All four of these board members, along with two more individuals who have since stepped down from the board, are being sued in federal court (Reynolds et al v. Talberg et al).
Why? Because they voted to acknowledge and support the LGBTQ students who are in our schools. The language in Reynolds et al v. Talberg says it all. The people recalling our board have cast themselves as people who “oppose these alternative sexual lifestyle categories on moral and religious grounds.” They have been spurred on by presentations at multiple churches by attorney David Kallmann of the Great Lakes Justice Center, a fundamentalist Christian legal think tank that travels around Michigan opposing rights for LGBTQ people.
The recallers attempt to hide their anti- LGBTQ agenda under the guise of parents’ rights and students’ privacy. Let’s break these arguments down. Opponents of the policies say parental rights are being violated. They are fixated on the use of “and/ or” in the policy to support transgender students. They insist that the policy must REQUIRE informing parents. To require the district to do so is problematic for two reasons. First, there are parents, likely even some here in Williamston, who would physically or emotionally abuse their child or kick them out of the home if the school informed them that their child was LGBTQ. Second, some students in any school system are considered emancipated by the courts or are legal adults. If the board were to author a policy that required parental notification in those cases, the district would be subject to legal action. In short, our board understands the legal requirements of policy writing and knows that to remove the “or” from the policy would be a huge fiscal risk.
Privacy is being used as a thinly veiled attack on transgender people using the bathrooms that correspond to their gender. In reality, the new facilities policy states: “WCS staff will work with the student to find an alternative that takes into account the privacy rights of all students, staff, and visitors. The Board directs administration to incorporate single-user facilities and measures to ensure greater privacy into new construction or renovation.” So, in reality, anyone who wants to have more privacy can have it.
On Nov. 6 we encourage WCS voters to ask yourselves these questions. Is disagreement over two policies a good reason to throw out a board that has led our small district to the top of our area despite the financial odds? Is it worth voting for a group of people who are only involved because of their beliefs about LGBTQ people and who have no experience serving on a school board?
Greg Talberg, Chris Lewis, Sarah Belanger, and Nancy Deal have proven that they have the commitment to our schools. They are committed to making sure that WCS is a safe place for all students.
We know what our choice will be: to stand alongside our recalled board members who have a track record of excellence in leading our school district and who took steps to protect ALL students in our schools.
(The authors all have children in Williamston schools. Ellefson also has a son who is transgender.)