Nov. 15 2018 10:21 AM

Williamston board president unseated in recall election


Policies designed to protect transgender students at Williamston Community Schools could still be on the chopping block following a contentious school board recall election.

Three trustees — Nancy Deal, Sarah Belanger and Christopher Lewis — were able to survive the recall effort. But Greg Talberg, the school board’s president, lost to Karen Potter, an opponent of the board’s controversial trnsgender policies. As a result, there could be enough support to amend or eliminate the policies.

“I’m concerned about the district continuing to protect with equity and equality the rights and protections of all students in our district,” said LGBTQ advocate Nicole Ellefson. “That should be the basis of all people’s concerns that are having to do with the school board.”

Ellefson, the mother of a teenage transgender student, avidly supports the policies that the board passed last year that were designed to ensure all students can feel safe and welcomed within the district. She has since become a sort of de-facto leader for those student protections.

Policy 8011 requires district officials to accept students regardless of their chosen gender identities. Policy 9260 mandates alternatives to “gender-segregated” restrooms, locker rooms and other student-used facilities.

The controversial protections triggered a recall election against four board members. And a deep, community divide.

Some parents were simply intolerant of transgender lifestyles. Others, backed by the Bible, claimed their religious beliefs clashed with the policies. Many more took issue with “and/or” language in the policy that essentially gives district administrators discretion over whether parents should be involved in the conversation.

“I would just hope school board members would take this very seriously,” Ellefson added. “It’s their job to protect students and balance that against the rights of parents. If they put a policy into place that would not allow for any exception” for parental involvement, “that’d be fiscally irresponsible.”

Policy 8011 states that staff shall accept the chosen and genuinely held gender of a student “once the student and/or his or parent/guardian, as appropriate, notifies District administration” of their intentions. It was passed by 6-1 vote, with recently reelected board member Jeffrey West serving as the lone voice of dissent.

The board has repeatedly insisted that the “and/or” statement regarding parental notification was designed only for adult students and emancipated teenagers. Some officials floated scenarios where student safety concerns could also necessitate parents being left in the dark but parental engagement has otherwise been kept a priority.

“I’m concerned about the district continuing to protect with equity and equality the rights and protections of all students in our district.”

- Nicole Ellefson of Williamston

Others, however, think the policies gave district officials an undue ability to push parents out of their child’s education. West, for example, still wants an amendment to provide clarity and mandate parents to “always” be involved in any discussions regarding student gender transitions, he said.

But largely because Superintendent Adam Spina has refused to provide any operational clarity, residents have been left to decipher for themselves how the policy would work. And interpretations vary wildly from person to person.

Ellefson also suggested that rescinding the policies could eventually lead to lawsuits against the district.

Potter, West and newly elected trustee Julie Conley have voiced a desire to either amend the policies or eliminate them in their entirety. Deal, Belanger and Lewis have each said they aren’t interested in adjusting the language. Those board members, should they revisit the topic, would likely face a deadlock — if not for Scott Gaffner.

Gaffner, who ran unopposed for another seat on the board, has managed to keep a relatively low profile during the recent election largely for that reason. He wasn’t on the board during either policy vote. He didn’t respond to a survey from the League of Women Voters. He also hasn’t returned multiple calls from City Pulse.

But Common Sense in Education, an organization that backed the challengers and criticized the policies, opted to throw its public support behind Gaffner in the weeks that preceded the election. His personal thoughts on the topic remain largely unclear, but his supporter base provides at least some insight into his potential leanings.

“I’m not going to speculate,” Potter said. “We’re really going to have to work through this. When the dust settles, we need to bring everyone back to the table and restart the process. Parental rights need to be mandated. I also don’t think we can come up with a plan without talking with the community.”

Lewis said any amendments would need to go back through the board’s policy committee before any suggested changes can come to fruition. He said there would need to be “some big, substantial changes” to make him want to reconsider any portion of the policy. If there’s a valid reason, however, he said he’s open to the conversation.

“I just don’t know for sure,” Lewis added. “I know that the three of us that got reelected feel strongly that the policies are needed to safeguard all kids in our district. It hasn’t gone back to the policy committee. There have been no motions. That doesn’t mean in the future there won’t be a push to do that. It’s really hard to say.”

Talberg, one of the most steadfast supporters of the policies, however, will be absent from the conversation. He lost to Potter by fewer than 60 votes, according to unofficial tallies. He didn’t return calls this week but told the Lansing State Journal that Williamston remains a “great district” and said he had no plans to request a recount.

Ellefson suggested Talberg’s narrow defeat could be at least partially blamed on a Facebook post he made in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. He spoke out against arming teachers in the classroom and could have further polarized his voting base in the process.

“The NRA should not drive this bus,” Talberg wrote. “They should get run over by it.”

Potter, when asked about the post, suggested that “keyboard cowboys” don’t tend to think through the implications of their social media messaging in the heat of the moment. But she, too, faced criticism of her own when one of her Facebook posts also started to circulate around social media in the weeks before the election.

She wrote that transgender students are “confused and need their parents, not enablers who let them continue to make poor life choices” and appeared to liken transgender lifestyles to drug use, gambling and gluttony. She has since backtracked on the statements, noting the post was both poorly phrased and taken out of context.

Four of the seven board members will ultimately need to reach a consensus before any of the policies can be changed. But it only takes one to bring the topic up for discussion. Potter suggested she plans to talk with her colleagues about how to “attack” the policies after she has some time to acclimate herself on the board.

The Rev. Chris Beard, of First Baptist Church in Williamston, one of the more ardent critic of the policies and transgender lifestyles, was still pleased with the election results even though three of the challengers he supported weren’t able to nab a seat at the table. He said the divided results still represent the overarching viewpoints of the community.

“I think there’s a very good chance with the two new board members along with Jeff West and Scott Gaffner to make some changes,” Beard added. “I don’t know. It’ll really be up to the new board but I’d hope they’ll listen to the community as a whole. I’d hope they’d just rewrite the policy once and for all and clear some things up.”

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