Local candidates talk education issues at town hall forum

Residents gather at Little Auditorium for the candidates forum

In less than two months, Michigan voters choose new legislators and other state leaders. Some area voters see education as a major campaign issue.

At a candidates’ forum focused on education issues, about 100 people turned out on Tuesday, Sept. 11 at East Grand Rapids High School. The forum was organized by the Friends of Kent County Schools and the East Grand Rapids PTO Legislative Committee.

Moderators were Dr. Michael Shibler, superintendent of the Rockford Public Schools, and Dr. Heidi Kattula, who was hired in late spring as superintendent for the East Grand Rapids Public Schools.

“What we hope you see is community passion for these issues,” said Laura Kozminski, co-president of the Friends of Kent County Schools. “We are a bipartisan group, and our sincere hope is that candidates on both sides begin to see funding for public schools as a winning issue. We believe it is. We hope that you will go into office making public K-12 legislation a priority.”

Here is a sampling of the candidates’ answers to questions submitted by the audience.

Candidates at the forum

Eight candidates running in four Kent County legislative races — three state House races and a state Senate contest — participated in the forum:

  • 29th District state Senate race: current 73rd District Rep. Chris Afendoulis, R-Grand Rapids Township; and current 76th District Rep. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids.
  • 73rd District state House race: Lynn Afendoulis, R-Grand Rapids Township, director of corporate communications for Universal Forest Products; and Bill Saxton, D-East Grand Rapids, a small business owner and software developer.
  • 74th District state House race: Mark Huizenga, R-Walker, mayor of the city of Walker and an independent healthcare consultant; and Meagan Carr, D-Rockford, a senior analyst with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan.
  • 76th district state House race: Amanda Brand, R-Grand Rapids, marketing manager for Mindscape and former radiology instructor at Grand Rapids Community College; and Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids, a project manager for Chase Park Grants and Dig Deep, and former executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

K-12 Funding Question

When Proposal A was established, funds were intended to be devoted to K-12 needs. Gov. Granholm used a small amount of the K-12 pot for community colleges. That amount has now grown to a large chunk, to fund community colleges and universities. Do you believe this is proper?

(Background: Nearly 25 years have passed since Michigan voters approved Proposal A, a measure that changed the funding formula for the state’s public schools. It eliminated local property taxes as the chief source of school funding, made the state responsible for paying for the schools and raised the state sales tax to do that.

In 2009, the governor and state lawmakers approved taking out a $200 million loan from the K-12 school aid fund to cover state payments to community colleges. A report last month from the Michigan League for Public Policy showed about $4.5 billion has now been diverted from the school aid fund and given to community colleges and universities.)

Candidates at the forum generally agreed that Proposal A and the School Aid Fund need to be looked at in the next legislative session.

“It’s abhorrent what has happened,” said Bill Saxton, candidate for the state House 73rd District. “I understand we need to fund community colleges 100 percent. But K-12 doesn’t have the (financing) options that community colleges and (four-year) colleges have. We made a deal 25 years ago that we’re not going to fund (K-12 schools) through property taxes, you’re going to rely upon the state. We’ve got to keep our end of the deal.”

“I think that a legislation that is 25 years old and is struggling needs to be looked at,” said Lynn Afendoulis, his opponent. “I think everything should be on the table when you look at the outcome of our schools. These are our children who are suffering and who will suffer if we don’t fix things.”

Lucy Shair, co-president of the Friends of Kent County Schools, introduces the candidates

Standardized Testing/M-STEP Question

Despite a decade of education reforms, M-STEP results show Michigan continues to decline in student achievement. Why do you think this is, and what needs to change?

(Background: Three years ago, the state instituted a new standardized test, the Michigan Student Test of Education Progress or M-STEP, given annually to students in grades 3-8 for math and reading, and in grades 5, 8 and 11 for science and social studies. Results released recently showed a statewide decline in most subject areas in the 2017-18 test from the previous year, leading some to question whether testing adequately measures student performance. Readers can find student reaction to standardized testing and an extensive explanation of the M-STEP.)

“When I talk to teachers, often times what I hear is that they are teaching to the (test) scorecards,” said Mark Huizenga, candidate for the state House 74th District. “A benchmark is important. It’s important to know how the overall group is performing, and we as taxpayers want to ensure that every child, every student across the state is taught well. At the same time, we need to give teachers the latitude to teach students that are having a more difficult time, to give them the resources to help them.”

“The focus on qualitative data will never give us the entire picture,” said Meagan Carr, his opponent. “We’re putting way too much emphasis on testing. We’re not giving our teachers or our students a fair chance. We need to come up with a framework that allows more qualitative data, a lot more insight into what is actually happening in the classroom.”

29th District state Senate candidates, 76th District state Rep. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids (left) and 73rd District state Rep. Chris Afendoulis, R-Grand Rapids, field a question

Third-Grade Reading Proficiency Question

The Legislature passed a law mandating certain levels of success for third-grade reading, and requiring students be retained or held back if certain metrics are not achieved. Data shows 31,000 kids could have been held back under 2016-17 scores. Do you support this law in its current form?

(Background: Two years ago, Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a measure that could hold back third-grade students, starting in 2019-20, if they are one or more grade levels behind in reading.)

“This is supported by the (West Michigan) Talent Triangle, the ISDs and the business community,” said Afendoulis, candidate for the state Senate 29th District. (Rep. Afendoulis voted for the law in the House, calling it “a step in the right direction.”) “We’ve got to focus on reading. Let’s make sure we’re giving teachers the resources, and make sure we’re focusing on that. That’s got to be the key component on education.”

Rep. Brinks, his opponent, recalled seeing the reading bill in the House Education Policy Committee. When it was introduced, she said, it was “one of the worst bills I had ever seen.”

“It was about eight lines, and it basically said, if you can’t read by the end of third grade, you’re going to fail,” Brinks said. “There were no resources, no exceptions, no additional funding for schools and teachers to provide specialized intervention. What we worked really hard to do was to put into that legislation resources, to put in support for teachers, to add positions, to add dollars in the budget, and to make sure if we’re going to do this, that we provide as much support as possible.”

In defending the legislation, Afendoulis said that “numerous exemptions” can be made to holding back a child who falls short of the state requirements, with superintendents, building principals and parents having a voice in that decision.

76th District House candidates Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids (left) and Amanda Brand, R-Grand Rapids, answer a question during the forum

School Security/Guns In Schools Question

What do you think schools need to do to keep students safe? Do you support guns in schools?

“I do not support guns in classrooms or schools. I don’t believe the proliferation of more guns is going to keep our students safer,” said Rachel Hood, candidate for the state House 76th District. “I believe school security is a complex issue. I’ve participated in design work around school security, and I believe technology gives us new tools to use in our school buildings to create safe places. It’s realistic that schools need training in these issues, but I don’t believe guns are the answer.”

Amanda Brand, her opponent, echoed Hood’s sentiments.“We hire teachers to teach our students. They’re already having a hard time with limited resources, doing that and doing it well,” Brand said. “Having been in active-shooter drills as a teacher, it’s terrifying. I hope that never happens. I’m not a proponent of teachers carrying guns in schools. I think that the school districts should decide for themselves what best measures can protect their schools.”

Greg Chandler has worked as a journalist in West Michigan for 30 years. A graduate of Central Michigan University, Miami (Ohio) University and Grand Valley State University, he has written for The Grand Rapids Press and the Holland Sentinel, as well as several magazines. He is formerly the news director at WHTC-AM in Holland and also served as publicist for the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association. In addition to writing for School News Network, he is a correspondent for The Banner, the official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, and also broadcasts high school and college sporting events in the Holland area. He currently resides in Grand Rapids.

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