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District leaders, teachers seek to heal community following superintendent’s resignation

Interim schools chief appointed


Despite a contentious community divide that ultimately ended in the resignation of Cedar Springs Superintendent Laura VanDuyn, both sides agreed it is time to move forward and find a way to heal.

On Monday, the Board of Education voted 5-1 to approve a resignation agreement with VanDuyn, whose last day as superintendent is Friday, March 30. The agreement calls for her to continue as an ad-hoc consultant through June 30. Trustee Tim Bauer voted no and Shannon Vanderhyde was absent.

The board appointed Mark Dobias, former superintendent of the Allegan Area Educational Service Agency, to serve as interim superintendent. Said board President Heidi Reed, “Our strong building leadership coupled with his operational background will assure a seamless transition as we begin the search process for a permanent replacement.”

VanDuyn’s removal may begin a much-needed process of Cedar Springs reunifying behind its schools, a leading critic said.

“Our hope is that our community can move together in a direction that is supportive and safe for staff and students,” said teachers’ union representative Jennifer Kahler, who was among those who had pushed for VanDuyn’s resignation.

VanDuyn, a former special-education director from California with Michigan roots, has been at the helm of the district since early 2014, when she was hired to replace retiring Superintendent Ron McDermed.

Although VanDuyn’s tenure proved controversial, Reed praised her contributions.

“During her almost four years with our district, Dr. VanDuyn’s leadership has blessed our district with talent and new ways of thinking while challenging us to rise to a higher standard,” Reed said.

Progress and Problems Cited

According to Reed, the district’s accomplishments under VanDuyn included zero-based budgeting; increased student reading proficiency through Reading Now Network; investments in professional development for staff; more secure entries of all buildings; and an A+ rating by Standard & Poor’s for prudent financial management.

Also during her tenure, Cedar Springs saw an increase in Advanced Placement courses, was named to the College Board’s AP Honor Roll and given the U.S. New & World Report’s Silver Rating, Reed noted.

“Dr. VanDuyn’s top priority has always been the children and creating the best environment to promote academic growth and development,” Reed said. “Her exceptional beliefs and leadership built a strong foundation for our journey to excellence.”

Despite such praise from some board members, VanDuyn faced a vocal challenge from community members and district staff who called for her resignation. Monday night’s board meeting was moved to the high school auditorium to accommodate the large crowd, after a town hall meeting last week generated harsh criticism that VanDuyn was not collaborative or open to others’ ideas.

According to Kahler, a fifth-grade teacher at Cedar View Elementary who serves as a building  representative for the Cedar Springs Education Association, 88 percent of CSEA members — or 112 out of 128 votes cast — voted in favor of a resolution of “no confidence” in VanDuyn’s leadership.  There were “major concerns about a toxic environment” between the staff and the administration, said Kahler.

According to a petition circulated by a group called Concerned Citizens of Cedar Springs, and signed by more than 1,900 people, 75 staff members have left the district in the last three years and student achievement has lagged. The departures of administrators such as Assistant Superintendent David Cairy, Cedar Trails Principal Jennifer Harper and Athletic Director Autumn Mattson have roiled school board meetings, where staff and residents have spoken both for and against VanDuyn.

VanDuyn declined requests to comment. But in a recent post on her blog, she asserted the district has made “immense progress” toward its goals, citing student achievement gains to argue “we are paving our journey to excellence.”

Laura VanDuyn

Time to Heal

Teachers union members are “looking forward to the return of our collaborative foundation and mutual trust and respect with our district leadership team,” said Kahler, noting that the union regularly invited district office administrators, including VanDuyn, to open dialogue.

Even when there were no contract negotiations, the group generally met every month with district leadership to work through issues, according to Kahler. However, “these meetings haven’t taken place in almost 15 months and we are hopeful that the next leader of (the district) will value this process as our union leaders do,” she said.

Kahler expressed hope that the community can move past this controversy to a better place.

“Cedar Springs is a community that comes together in the face of adversity and tragedy,” she said. “(During) the public comment section of the board meeting, a common plea to the community was to return to the unity we have so greatly missed.”

‘The education landscape is ever-changing, and this divide within the community can only mend if we take time to reflect.’ — school board President Heidi Reed

Speaking for the Board of Education, Reed agreed that it is time for the community to heal.

“The education landscape is ever-changing, and this divide within the community can only mend if we take time to reflect,” Reed said. “To stay sustainable for future students, we have to embrace new ways of thinking.  Not all constituents will agree with all the decisions our board and leadership make, but I do ask that collectively, we look at the bigger picture and use that as our driver for academic excellence.”

The board itself faces challenges following the December resignations of Michelle Bayink and Ted Sabinas, and Patricia Eary stepping down in January due to a move out of the district. Tim Bauer, Traci Slager and Matt McConnon filled those vacancies, but Bauer also resigned after Monday’s meeting.

Dobias will begin his responsibilities as superintendent on April 9. Before retiring, he served as superintendent of Allegan Area ESA from 2008-2016. Previously, he was superintendent of Fennville Public Schools and served as both a principal and special education teacher.

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Janice Holst
Janice Holst
Janice Holst is a reporter covering Kent City and Sparta. She has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and enjoys spending some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts. Read Janice's full bio or email Janice.

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