East Lansing residents are still discussing last week's emotional move to reconfigure the district’s schools.
By a 5-2 margin, the school board reaffirmed a decision to convert Red Cedar Elementary to administrative and other educational uses. That will reduce the number of elementaries from six to five in 2014.
The late night vote took place after several dozen speakers voiced sometimes heated opposition to closing a neighborhood school. They also cited vulnerability to its high minority population and its academic performance. However, two newly elected board members are mulling over a reversal of the move.
Since it was first proposed 18 months ago, many Red Cedar families and staff, and some others, have resisted the plan to re-purpose the school. The proposal even triggered a federal civil rights complaint, alleging it was based on race and would disproportionately impact minority students. The complaint was later withdrawn.
Incoming board member Kathleen Edsall claims the community is riled up.
“I’ve talked to people from all over the community and people are talking about recall elections,” she says. “People are talking about voting against the tech bond. People are talking about, you know, just about everything under the sun that could possibly be done because of the level of anger and frustration.”
Edsall and Nate Lake join the board in about six weeks. Edsall feels it would be easier for the community to accept reconfiguration if it were discussed again after they’re seated. She says her vote tally in the election shows the larger community supports keeping Red Cedar as an elementary.
A late summer phone survey figures into the dispute. It suggested wide backing for the reduced, five-elementary system. Opponents say the survey didn’t make clear that questions were predicated on the closing of a neighborhood school.
Edsall and some others passionately argue that Red Cedar offers non-white students something important--a learning environment apart from the challenges of what she calls the “majority culture.” She says she gets frustrated by comments from stakeholders in the district who say their schools would benefit from some of Red Cedar’s ethnic diversity.
“It is not the job of the person of color, or the child of color, to provide a diverse environment for the white person,” she says. “That’s not their job. And so that’s why that sort of statement really, really frustrates (me) and makes me sad. There’s so many in the community that just don’t get that.”
The other incoming board member, Nate Lake, feels the community generally supports the decision. Still, he says he’ll keep an open mind if the subject resurfaces. He worries that last week’s decision harms the perception of the district.
“It’s going to hurt a lot of people’s thoughts and feelings about how East Lansing feels about diversity and inclusion,” he says. “And there needs to be some more conversation.”
East Lansing Superintendent Dr. Dave Chapin says that various forces have been driving the district toward reconfiguration for several years. They include reduced state aid, declining enrollment and the desire to streamline student transitions. But he admits he disliked how suddenly the Red Cedar proposal re-surfaced and was voted on. Without prior notice, supporters made it an action item six days after Edsall’s and Lake’s election. Early on November 27, the lame duck board passed it.
“Certainly the way it happened, some could pass judgment—as I did myself—on process and the way this happened in the last two board meetings,” he says.
Chapin says it’s his job to work with all members of the board whether he agrees with them or not. But he says he’ll oppose a reversal.
“If there’s a vote and if we change our course of direction, I won’t advocate for that or recommend that we do that, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he says.
Many in the community support the decision. And both sides appear eager to move on to other challenges like the achievement gap, technology and a strategic plan. It’s not clear how the reconfigured board might delay that process. The two new members begin their tenures on January 14.