By Harold C. Ford
At a critical moment in the history of Flint Community Schools (FCS), three incumbent members of the district’s board of education have decided not to run for reelection in the Nov. 3 election.
Casey Lester, board president (with nearly two years on the board), Betty Ramsdell, secretary (11 years), and Blake Strozier, trustee (10 years), take more than two decades of Flint board experience with them as they step down.
Twelve candidates will be vying to fill the three seats about to be vacated. According to the website of the Genesee County Clerk’s Office, all 12 candidates met the July 21 filing deadline. And all 12 names will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot as none of the candidates opted to withdraw from the race by the July 24 deadline.
Candidates include (in alphabetical order); Timothy Abdul-Matin; Mario DeSean Booker; Michael D. Doan; Joyce Ellis-McNeal; Antonio Forte II; Ariana Hawk; Jaron Houston; Laura Gillespie MacIntyre; Billie D. Mitchell; Anita Moore; Roemon M. Murphy; Leondrew Wesley.
At first glance, the dozen candidates collectively offer up little name recognition in terms of elective experience. [Editors’ note: East Village Magazine will endeavor to profile the candidates prior to the Nov. 3 election]. An armload of existential challenges will face new FCS board members including:
• A persistent pandemic that is wreaking havoc with education systems worldwide;
• Ongoing issues of fiscal viability;
• Eroding student population and subsequent loss of state aid;
• The requirements of a three-year (2018-19 to 2020-21) state-imposed partnership plan that includes a 10 percent improvement in test scores, a 10 percent reduction in suspensions, and 90 percent student attendance;
• Adequate staffing of classrooms in light of persistent departures by educators; 78 left FCS in 2019 taking with them 1,014 years of experience; 14 more exited prior to the Aug. 5 start of this school year taking another 327 years of experience;
• Recurring reports of building climate challenges, both social and physical;
• Infrastructure needs—heating and cooling, parking lots, roofs—in aging facilities;
• A plan to rid the district of nearly two dozen empty buildings and 16 vacant properties.
All three departing incumbents responded in writing to questions posed by EVM. EVM asked their reasons for departure, the biggest challenges to be faced by their successors, and the most important accomplishments during their time on the board.
Lester served as the board’s president in 2020 following his appointment to the board in Dec. 2018. His LinkedIn profile at the time of his appointment showed him to be employed by Huntington Bank.
It was Lester’s background in finance that may have led to his election as the board’s presiding officer. Fellow board member Strozier told EVM, “Above all, I believe he has the information and the knowhow of financing to allow the board to understand the different components of what needs to be done.”
During Lester’s tenure, the district’s voters, by a substantial margin, passed a millage restructuring request designed to reduce the district’s massive debt.
Lester lauded the successful contract settlements with all three of the district’s employee bargaining units saying that, “…our employees are the driving force for success in the district…”. The appointment of Anita Steward as the district’s new superintendent and supplying more than 150,000 meals during the pandemic are additional points of pride.
Lester listed change and personalities as challenges for the future. “Public education is changing drastically,” he said, “everyday it’s something new that we have to figure out. Balancing that, as well as the blend of personalities on the board itself can sometimes be difficult.”
Lester advised student-centered decisions by future board members. “Every vote should be a vote for the students…,” he said.
Lester cited the demands of work and two toddlers as reasons for stepping down from the board. “The time commitment it takes to be a board member is simply something I don’t have at the moment,” he said.
Ramsdell has spent most of her life tethered to Flint’s public schools in one way or another, as a student (Flint Northern High School graduate), an educator (40 years), and member of the board of education (11 years).
A lifelong community activist, she has served the Flint Cultural Center Corporation, the Flint Classroom Supply Fund, and Flint Youth Theatre in addition to her years on Flint’s school board. In 2010 she was nominated for Resource Genesee’s annual Sybyl Award that honors the community service contributions of Flint citizens.
Ramsdell cited her 11-year stint on the board (“time for a change”) and age (“80 in October”) as reasons for stepping down from her position; she’s currently the board’s secretary. “I want to put energy into other things,” she told EVM.
Strozier told EVM that family responsibilities (husband, father of three) and his pastoral duties at the Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in Saginaw are the main reasons for his departure from the board. “While I still love my community,” he said, “I love my family and I love the responsibility that God has given me to pursue.”
Strozier said curriculum and calendar were among the board’s best achievements during his tenure. “I was glad to see us bring forth a new curriculum and then go to a balanced calendar was a great opportunity,” he said.
Strozier warned future board members about misplaced priorities. “What I’ve learned about Flint,” he said, “is that there’s plenty of loyalty, but not really to the students and to community, but to pre-existing relationships between board members and staff that take precedence over the business of the district.”
Strozier advised his successor to “be independent and open-minded…to work with the community… (to avoid) relationships that blind you to the needs of the people of this community.”
Board elections countywide:
Across Genesee County, there are more than 100 candidates running for 65 board positions in 21 school districts and Mott Community College. According to MCL 168.302 (state law), “A school board member’s term begins on January 1 immediately following the election.” Winners of positions on the Flint board will serve a six-year term ending in 2026.
EVM Education Beat staff writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at email@example.com.