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Chelsea school board candidates answer questions during chamber forum

By Crystal Hayduk

Four candidates who are vying for two six-year terms on the Chelsea School District Board of Education in the November election gathered virtually on Oct. 15 to answer questions during the forum hosted by the Chelsea Area Chamber of Commerce (CACC). Incumbents Dana Durst and Tammy Lehman are challenged by newcomers Eric Wilkinson and Mark VanDeWege. VanDeWege is a write-in candidate.

Paul Schissler, CACC board member, moderated the event; Terris Ahrens, CACC executive director, was the timekeeper. A recording of the one-hour forum, which includes auto-generated captioning, is available at https://chelseamich.com/chelsea-school-board-virtual-candidate-forum-2020/.

Voters are encouraged to view the forum to hear the candidates’ answers in full. Any responses in this written review are only summarized.

In his opening remarks, Schissler said that being a school board member is “not for the faint of heart,” nor for the casual volunteer, but for those who are devoted and concerned about the district and its students. It is a lengthy and time-consuming commitment.

For more information about meeting agendas, minutes, and board policies, visit https://www.chelsea.k12.mi.us/boe/index.

With the order of candidates based on a coin flip, they responded to the first question in reverse alphabetical order; the order alternated with each question. Candidates introduced themselves as they answered the first question, and provided closing remarks not associated with a question.

The candidates were asked eight questions, some written by CACC board members and some submitted by community members through email prior to Oct. 13. Questions needed to pertain to and be answerable by all candidates.

As an introduction, candidates were asked why they chose to run for a seat on the school board. Wilkinson, a resident of Sylvan Township and father of three, said he wants to do his part to improve educational opportunities for the district’s children. He’s concerned about educational challenges as a result of the pandemic, as well as making the district a welcoming place for all.

VanDeWege is the father of two young children who said he had a cancer scare a year ago and realized he needed to move forward with his desire to give back to the community. After witnessing the Anti-Racist Chelsea Youth (ARCY) protests and local response, he was inspired to be a voice and advocate for all students.

Lehman, the mother of a 2020 graduate, said she is running for re-election to provide a fair and impartial voice for the community and to promote quality education for all students. She also desires to continue her work on the bond committee, which makes decisions about the use of the $81 million voter-approved bond funds.

Durst is the mother of four and also running for re-election. She said she cares about the school district and the people in the schools, and being on the school board means having an active role in contributing to caring for people. When her children were young, she said she loved being an active volunteer in the buildings. Now that they are older, serving on the school board allows her to remain actively involved in the district.

Candidates were asked questions regarding a board member’s role, the board’s role in supporting the superintendent, ideas for preserving students’ religious freedom in the schools, recommendations for addressing and stopping bullying, opinions on stopping racism in all forms, and their plans for communicating with constituents.          

Additional questions and answers

Q: What strengths do you bring to enhance the current board?

A: VanDeWege said he is a good listener who looks for a diversity of opinions. Lehman said she is involved in the community, is approachable, and has experience serving on a variety of board committees. Durst said her biggest strength is her deep care for the school and its people; she has a sense of positivity and is a good listener. Wilkinson said board members need to be open to hearing residents’ concerns, be good stewards of funding, and use their best judgement to handle issues that arise.

Q: What do you think is going well with how the district has responded to COVID, and what, if anything, would you change and why?

A: All of the candidates agreed that district administrators and teachers are working hard to meet the needs of students. Wilkinson said the district’s previous decision to provide iPads to every student has been a basis for the flexibility to meet current needs. He believes the pandemic response will bring opportunities for additional ways to educate students and to expand the district’s online resources.

VanDeWege said he appreciates the superintendent’s clear plan of steps using health department data, as well as the flexibility that’s been offered to families.

Lehman said the district’s investment in technology has been important, and also recognized the benefit of hot spot distribution to improve internet access in rural areas. She said permitting the choice between hybrid or virtual has reduced some of the stress for families.

Durst credited the people with doing amazing things under difficult circumstances and handling issues as they arise from the task force, administration, and staff to students and families. She said the pandemic itself cannot be changed, but the district will continue to advocate for the students and get back to in-person learning safely when the time is right.

In their closing statements, Durst said she hopes she is given the opportunity to continue to serve the district, to help it to continue to improve, and to support and advocate for the people who make it incredible. She has completed the 100-level CBA courses, so she is a certified board member, but there is still much more to learn and do.

Lehman said that in addition to work with bond issues, she wants to continue with providing a quality education for all students. Clarifying that school board members are non-partisan, she promises to be a fair and impartial voice while making difficult decisions. She discourages racism, bias, and all forms of discrimination.

VanDeWege said he values diversity of all kinds, wants students to feel safe in school, wants to measure the bullying issue and take action to address it, and to be transparent with the community. 

Wilkinson encouraged voters to seek out the candidates’ websites and Facebook pages to find their answers to other questions so they can make informed choices on their ballots. He promises to be open to hear concerns, be a good steward of district funds, and to attend board meetings prepared to address issues.

Schissler ended the forum by encouraging voters to review the recording and read information in the news in order to make an informed decision. (Related story here: https://chelseaupdate.com/q-and-a-with-chelsea-school-district-board-of-education-candidates/.) The direct link to the forum video is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwWZRbK6gww&feature=youtu.be.  

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