Like the sprouting campaign lawn signs, developments are emerging in the 2014 Grosse Pointe Public School System Board of Education election.
In traditional elections party affiliation alone largely defines the candidates. Alternatively, candidates’ positions on issues well-known to the electorate inform voters.
School board elections are not only non-partisan. They also typically lack the well-known issues that allow candidates to distinguish themselves from one another. This is why the residency issue is often interjected into G.P. school board elections. A position on that issue allows candidates to categorize themselves conveniently for the voters.
With seven weeks until the election, the residency issue has yet to surface, but no issue really has that helps to define the seven candidates. But three of them know enough of each other to have decided to campaign together.
Both in constellations of lawn signs, letters to local papers, campaign events and social media postings, candidates Jake Howlett, Brian Summerfield, and Margaret Weertz are associating themselves with each other. It is not plainly evident why these three have chosen to do so and not the others among Tara Burdick, Guy Gehlert, Ahmed Ismail and Cynthia Sohn.
Slates and affiliations are nothing new in school board elections nor is there anything nefarious about them. In 1996 candidates Steve Matthews and Jack Ryan affiliated and rode to victory as a tandem. More recently in 2008, Judy Gafa and Darryl Miller campaigned together against a similarly affiliated Ahmed Ismail and Chris Cornwall. Voters opted to split both tickets, electing Gafa and Ismail.
These two former political rivals now may be facing off again as social media posts indicate Gafa (as well as fellow trustee Dan Roeske) favors the Howlett, Summerfield, and Weertz trio while Ismail seeks his own seat.
The public would do well to try to understand the basis of these affiliations and the candidates would do equally well to share why they have chosen to do so.
As I have written before, three issues should dominate voter analysis of this election: positions on a tech bond, on the renewal or dismissal of current superintendent Tom Harwood, and stance on GPPSS employee contract Appendix C. (UPDATE: Declining enrollment is really the fourth key issue. At the meeting tonight, the Board will receive an enrollment update that shows 107 fewer general education students than expected and 35 more special education students than expected. This is easily a $1 million plus negative effect on the 2014-15 budget.)
We do know that Gafa, Roeske and Summerfield were all major tech bond supporters, as are some of the outspoken Howlett, Summerfield and Weertz supporters – some of whom chaired the tech bond support committee. Whether stated outright, tech bond and tax increases in general are bound to be a significant determining factor in this election.
As for the Harwood issue, Gafa, Roeske and Summerfield have all voted publicly to renew or even authorize bonus compensation for the superintendent while at least Ismail has been publicly critical of him (after previously supporting him).
Positions on Appendix C, the oft-discussed “formula clause” that bound employee compensation to fund equity levels, will be harder to come by without direct questioning of the candidates. I’ll be publishing more background on this issue in the coming weeks to promote dialog on the topic.
Social media has emerged as a legitimate news source for the school board election, breaking the lock the candidate forum (scheduled for October 7) has long had as one of the only ways for voters to learn about the candidates. A majority of the seven candidates have Facebook and/or web pages.
We’ll see if this proves to be a reliable information stream as voters seek to learn more about the candidates and how they view themselves differently from the others.
But we now know that among themselves, they do indeed view each other differently. Now we ought to learn why.