FRIDAY, OCT. 26 — A forum last night gave board members at Williamston Community Schools a chance to defend their posts on the board of education against a recall effort. But the absence of their challengers in the contentious recall election created more of an echo chamber than an opportunity for a healthy, pre-election discourse.
Board members Greg Talberg, Nancy Deal, Christopher Lewis and Sarah Belanger gathered at Discovery Elementary School for a question-and-answer session hosted by the Lansing Area League of Women Voters. Notably absent, however, were the candidates vying to replace them on the board.
Karen Potter, Walter Holm, Craig Hagelberger and Debbie Hutchison either ignored or declined their invitation from the League. The stage, instead, was left to board members to defend a pair of divisive policies passed last year designed to protect the rights of transgender students within the district.
“I do feel like we’ve exposed some divisions in the community that already existed and we do need to work through those,” Talberg said. “I simply ask you to consider whether Williamston Community Schools has improved over the last four years while I’ve been on the board of education.
“If it has, I believe your choice in the upcoming election is clear.”
Policy 8011 — aimed specifically at transgender students — indicates district officials will accept all students for their chosen gender identities. Policy 9260 offers alternatives, like single-stall restrooms and locker rooms, for any child that requests them. And conservative backlash from the nationally controversial topic has been swift.
A petition to recall the quartet that supported the policies garnered more than 1,000 signatures, forcing board members to defend their posts at the ballot on Nov. 6. Challengers believe the policy language is too ambiguous and could foreseeably keep parents in the dark should their children opt to transition to a different gender.
Those viewpoints, however, were noticeably absent from the forum. Hutchison said she instead attended another unnamed event and declined to elaborate further. Holm said on Facebook he instead attended a town hall to support a local business. Holm, Potter and Hagelberger didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
“Will there be security for us from people who don’t even live in our city or pay taxes but might be there to bully or intimidate people?” Potter posted to Facebook earlier in the week. “I may need to reconsider my attendance.”
Board Vice President Jeffrey West and challenger Julie Conley instead served largely as the only voice of criticism regarding the pair of policies. West, who voted against Policy 8011 last year, suggested it needs to be reworked to provide a concrete guarantee that parents will remain involved in the education of their children.
Conley also prioritized changes to the policy. Only adult students and emancipated teenagers have the right to make those transitions without the involvement of their parents, she said. And she thinks the policy language, as written, doesn’t necessarily provide the important assurance that parents will be able to maintain that discretion.
Michele Bisard, another challenger for West’s seat, said a lack of education surrounding the implementation of the policies has only furthered the community divide. But she believes the language — as well as a previously implemented anti-bullying policy — are both necessary to ensure students feel safe and welcomed at school.
Scott Gaffner, who is running unopposed, also said the policies need to be “tweaked” but didn’t elaborate.
Meanwhile, a veritable palisade of campaign signage continues to line neighborhoods in the small, rural town. Some are opposed to the policies for religious reasons. Others just want more parental involvement. And the four facing a recall just want to maintain the status quo. None suggested they would revisit the policy language.
“I have friends against friends,” West said. “Of the eight people in the recall, I know seven of them and live near a couple of them. There needs to be healing. We’re going to focus on bringing trust back to the board. We’ve never had something like this before and we’ll probably never have something like this again.”
Talberg, the board’s president, said he didn’t know how he’ll go about repairing the growing divide sparked by the policies. But he thinks the tension in the community — regardless of the outcome of the recall efforts — will likely dissipate after the election. He said he has already turned his focus to other issues and wants parents to do the same.
“I think a lot of the divisions and divisiveness was here anyway. It was just hidden below the surface,” Talberg added. “We took on a difficult issue. We took that on because we have students that need to be clearly told they’re accepted. If it takes a while to come to grips with that, time will be what it takes for these divisions.”
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Editor's Note: This story was updated to more accurately reflect Jeffrey West's voting history on the board.