Okemos School Board candidates in their own words

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Across Greater Lansing, voters have begun to cast ballots for the 2020 general election – absentee ballots are being sent out, with in-person voting to follow on Tuesday, November 3.

LSJ asked area candidates running for office to share their backgrounds and answer a few questions on major topics to aid voters in their decisions. Read excerpts from their answers, in their own words, below.

Katie Cavanaugh (Incumbent)

I am an Okemos native and an OHS graduate. I have two children in Okemos Public Schools. I joined the OPS Board of Education in 2018 after having been elected to fill a partial term. 

I have a BA in English and Anthropology from Albion College and a MA in American Studies from George Washington University. Formerly, I was Assistant Director of the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame. I have been in the classroom as a substitute teacher in several districts, and taught college courses in cultural diversity and English. I am now fortunate to be home with my kids while managing my husband’s medical practice.

I have a longstanding commitment to community service having volunteered with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, served as a Board Member of Michigan Capital Council Girl Scouts, served as a Board Member of the Michigan Women’s Studies Association, coached many youth soccer teams, and am a regular volunteer in my kids’ schools.

Joe Freidhoff

Joe Freidhoff grew up in the Upper Peninsula in Escanaba and has lived in Okemos since 2010. He has three sons in the Okemos School District. Freidhoff is a former high school teacher with 20 years in K-12 education, 10 of which were in K-12 online learning. Freidhoff also has a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology.

Thomas Gorman

My name is Thomas Gorman, and I grew up and went to school in Okemos. I graduated from Okemos High School in 2020, and am pursuing my bachelor’s in computer science from Michigan State University. Throughout school, I participated in Chieftain Champs mentoring, as well as volunteered for Hiawatha and Kinawa PLC after-school care.

Melanie C. Lynn (Incumbent)

My husband and I have lived in the Okemos community since 2007.  We are the proud parents of three Okemos Public School graduates, class of 2012, 2014 and 2016. 

I am an Electrical Engineer, and I have an MBA.  I currently work with Consumers Energy (Jackson, MI) managing strategic projects/programs. Additionally, I have experience teaching career and technical education at the high school and post-secondary levels. I have served on the Okemos Board of Education since 2010.

Andy Phelps

Andy Phelps, Okemos School Board candidate (Photo: Andy Phelps)

I am originally from Dearborn but have lived in the Okemos School District for the past 12 years. My wife Amanda and I have two children at Bennett Woods Elementary School. I am on the board of the Wardcliff Neighborhood Association. I am a Current Manager with the State of Michigan.

Jayme Taylor

I grew up in the Holt/Dimondale area so I am a Holt High School alum. I Have lived in Okemos for 14 years with my husband and our three boys, ages 24, 21, and 12.  I am currently serving on the Board of Directors for the Capital Area United Way and have been a member of their PR & Branding Committee for 15 years. After a successful 20-year career in broadcast media, I started my own marketing firm Taylor’d Marketing & Consulting in 2015. My past political experience includes volunteering for political campaigns, and advocating at the state level for Alzheimer’s Association.

Questionnaire section

Candidates answer questions on major topics

Why do you want to be a member of the school board and what qualifications do you bring?

Cavanaugh: I currently serve on the OPS Board of Education and I am dedicated to strengthening the District’s work of providing the best opportunities for our children with an outstanding and diverse faculty in safe and supportive schools. During my tenure on the board I helped lead the successful 2019 school bond campaign that provided funding for many things including new computers for all students and school renovations. I also assisted with the new Strategic Plan that guides our district, served on the Policy Committee that sets policy within our district, and helped guide OPS through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Freidhoff: Ensuring strong online options exist for students is likely to be a priority over the next several years. I am running for school board to serve and share my unique expertise in this area. I have spent the last decade specializing in K-12 online learning and am a nationally-recognized expert in this field. I serve on the leadership team for the national standards, and author an annual report on the effectiveness of online learning in Michigan. I know what strong online programs look like and where weaker ones fail. I believe such knowledge would be extremely helpful to the district.

Gorman: I want to be a member of the school board to help secure a brighter future for the next generation. As a 2020 graduate of Okemos High School, I have first-hand experience with many of the issues facing our students today. While I had a wonderful experience in Okemos, I also realize there are areas in which we can improve. My youthful insight and upbringing in Okemos make my voice accurately reflect the needs of our students.

Lynn: Board of Education (BOE) service is a convergence of my passions – service to my community, supporting youth education/development and effective governance.  

I am honored to have served as a BOE member since 2010.  Our educational community has delivered excellence through economic fluctuations that significantly impacted the general fund budget, re-configuration of schools, school closings, changes in district leadership, district strategic planning and envisioning/strategically planning our equity journey.  There is much work that still needs to be done. My leadership, BOE experience and learnings can support the COVID-19 challenges and address the outstanding work in our equity journey.

Phelps: I am running for Okemos School Board because our children deserve the highest quality educational experience. I will work every day with our amazing staff to ensure this happens.

Like many of our neighbors, my wife and I purchased a home Okemos because we knew it was the perfect place to start a new family and were eager to be part of a great community that shares our values of providing the best possible education for all students.  We are frequent volunteers at our kid’s school and I was proud to be a member of the 2019 Okemos Bond Committee.

Taylor: Why do you want to be a member of the school board and what qualifications do you bring?  I have been advocating for my boy’s educational needs for 17 years and it is my desire to use my voice for others, for my community.  We have lived in Okemos for 14-years and I have been active in the school district for all of them.  From serving as President on various Parent Groups for 10 years, to participating in two district Strategic Planning committees, and the Say Yes! To OPS bond committee, to the Okemos Youth Football Advisory board. My dedication to the district is unwavering and I am eager to continue striving for the education excellence our community expects and deserves.

What are your priorities if elected?

Cavanaugh: My priorities as a BOE member are dramatically different now than they were just 7 months ago.  Successfully navigating the challenges of Covid-19 has become my number one priority. We have made hard decision, and I have had many sleepless nights over them. These decisions are not over yet. Currently, OPS is preparing for how our students and staff can come back to in person learning once our area moves into Phase 5. Equity and diversity are also among my top priorities. While OPS has taken steps to achieve more equity for our students and staff, there is more work to be done.

Freidhoff: Okemos has an incredible tradition of academic excellence. I want to help shape a future where that excellence is consistent across in-person and online instruction. I strongly support athletics, fine arts, and extracurricular activities; I view these as essential learning environments for our children. Finally, I want to make sure we are dedicating appropriate resources to the well-being of our students and staff. The pandemic has been traumatic. We must ensure our teachers and staff are provided with proper training, and we need to surround our students and staff with tools and resources to help them heal and grow.

Gorman: Ensuring the safety of our students and the community would be my first priority if elected. Along with protecting our community from this pandemic, I would focus on maximizing student engagement, ensuring adequate mental health resources, and bringing awareness to our growing student population, especially at the elementary level.

Lynn: I am passionately committed to the District’s equity work. It is important, critical and urgent.  Current students/faculty, alumnae and community members affirm that equity remains a critical area of opportunity that challenges Okemos’ delivery of an excellent educational experience. 

The policies that support planning/transition to MI Safe Start Phase 5 and 6 are a basic priority. The educational, social/emotional and mental health impacts of the pandemic are significant factors to the educational experience.

Continuing to practice “good governance” is particularly important to me. My definition of effective board service is orderly/transparent policy and decision-making, engaging community and student voices and building consensus.

Phelps: If elected my priority would be to provide the absolute best education experience to all Okemos students. The identity of our community is based on the excellent reputation of our public schools. We need to build off of our equity plan to ensure no student is left behind and all are provided all the necessary tools to succeed.  Our families and community expect that our schools are amongst the best in the State, and I look forward to working with the administration to ensure we have the resources to maintain these standards.

Taylor: Equity. Ensuring every decision, we make is through an equitable lens. Our students, staff, and families deserve to feel safe, supported, and heard. Transparency and Accountability. The Board of Education and Administration should operate with transparency and accountability to all their stakeholders. Consistency. Promoting common language, messages, processes and cultures from building to building and across all departments of the district.

Do you believe your school district is doing enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19? Do you agree with the decisions made in your district as it relates to in person, online or hybrid learning?  If not, why not?

Cavanaugh: Okemos has made the health and safety of our students and staff our top priority during the pandemic.  I voted to move school 100% online while in Phase 4 of the Michigan Safe Start plan.  The District ran through many scenarios of how to get kids back to in person school, but there were too many variables that left too many members of our OPS community exposed. Okemos is leading the state in providing an exceptional online education by teaming with experts at MSU to adapt our curriculum to this new format and provide online teaching professional development for our teachers.

Freidhoff: Moving completely online for the first quarter is pretty strong evidence that the district is committed to preventing further infection. I also think it reflects a recognition that offering a hybrid option where students could go part time face-to-face and part time online was simply too far of a stretch for the present readiness of the district. From that standpoint, I think it was a reasonable decision to start fully online and continue to grow capacity and comfort with online. I am pleased to see there is continued planning toward safely getting students back in physical classrooms and extracurricular activities.

Gorman: I agree with the board in its decision to start the year in its virtual learning plan and I believe our district is taking sufficient measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus. However, I wish that in the creation of its virtual learning plan, the district put further effort into the planning and distribution of mental health resources online.

Lynn: I support employing a conservative approach to safety/health measures.  Teaching and learning are occurring virtually during Phase 4. As the District develops the Phase 5 plan, I support a hybrid delivery model that employs an equitable approach to the teaching/learning experience (meeting individual needs). Additionally, I advocate for a consistently conservative approach to the Phase 5 safety considerations. Given the physical constraints of our infrastructure (building/classroom size, capacity of common areas, school buses) a reasonable balance of safety and educational utility is required. 

Phelps: The safety of our students and staff has to be at the forefront of all of our decisions which should be made based upon on the best information available from public health experts. However, these decisions have consequences and we cannot overlook serious equity concerns for how these decisions impact some families.  No matter the circumstances, the district must continue to provide the highest quality educational experience for all students.

The district must be creative. By reviewing best practices across the country, we can determine what works and adapt our policies as needed, with constant feedback from parents, teachers, and students.

Taylor: I believe Okemos is doing enough to prevent the spread of coronavirus.  As much as they can. The school district cannot control other people’s actions, so what is in their control, they are managing with the safety, health, and well-being of our students and staff at the forefront. Yes, I agree with their decision to be 100% virtual until October 30th, or as long as we remain in Phase 4.

Is your district doing enough to address diversity, equity and inclusion among students, faculty and staff?  If not, what should be done to improve diversity and inclusion in your school district?

Cavanaugh: OPS is fortunate to have a diverse student body, and we are dedicated to equity and inclusion for our students, staff, and families. We must ensure that all students are treated with the same respect and offered every opportunity for success in a welcoming and equitable environment. In a recent meeting on this topic, we heard from many current and former students. While we strive for excellence for each student, we need to do better to ensure each student is treated with respect and offered every opportunity to succeed. Part of this work will be to look at racial attitudes among students and faculty, ensure that discipline and advanced educational opportunities are free from bias, and actively recruit teachers and administration that more accurately represent our student body.

Freidhoff: Diversity, equity, and inclusion has been a frequent topic at the Okemos school board meetings. There is a clear commitment from the board and the superintendent to take steps aligned with its plan in this area. The voices of current and past students at recent meetings make it clear that more work is needed, and I support continued effort in bringing these issues to the forefront so that better solutions can be implemented.

Gorman: Okemos has been for the most part successful in addressing issues relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion among our students, faculty, and staff however, we are distinctly lacking faculty diversity. Looking forward, increased efforts should be made to hire POC faculty members in order to make Okemos a more welcoming district.

Lynn: Okemos has established a governance framework (strategic/tactical plans) for the equity work, however it has not been fully operationalized and institutionalized. Moving to an optimal equity state requires much work. Enhanced student/community engagement is important (equity discussions/working sessions/periodic updates).  We can establish administrative and operational structures for leadership, accountability and implementation of our equity endeavors such as a District Equity Director and Equity Coaches to support equity-advised teaching/learning. Ongoing student/faculty training utilizing researched-based models (MSU partnership) is another opportunity.

Working to actualize this outstanding equity work is a primary motivation for me seeking re-election to the BOE. Important. Critical. Urgent.

Phelps: The current and previous boards have placed a high priority on equity within the district and currently have a strong equity plan in place. I would be proud to continue this work in our community, listening to all voices and making all necessary changes to assure Okemos continues to a leader in equity across the State.

Taylor: I firmly believe that there is always work to be done in addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion. Okemos has an Equity plan and is working diligently to continue that work through training, community input, professional consulting, and more. The moment we stop and think we “are doing enough” is the moment we have failed.

What should Michigan do to improve the quality of its public schools?  Explain the reasoning behind your answer, and if more funding is required, where in the state budget should it come from?

Cavanaugh: School funding is always an issue. As a school board member, I only have a say in my district’s budget, I have no decision making in the Michigan budget.  We should be electing state officials dedicated to increasing the per student dollar amount each district receives from a consistent state budget source.  The 2020 pandemic has turned education on its head and revealed systemic problems.  For example, while Okemos has computers for each student paid for with school bond funds, other districts throughout the state struggle to provide devices and internet access to their students.  These inequities between districts need to be addressed.  This summer, Michigan cut almost $2.4 billion from school aid which greatly impacts school districts.  For schools to succeed during these unprecedented times, emergency federal financial aid is necessary as states recover from the economic downturn.

Freidhoff: We need to be having more conversations about and a deeper focus on learning and spend less time talking about schooling issues. Schooling conversations include days and hours, regulations, and other kinds of rule making. No doubt, these are important, but the sheer collective volume takes its toll and detracts from attention to learning. We need to attract, train, and retain quality teaching staff; they make the biggest impact.

To address the funding aspect, given the impact of the shutdown on state revenue collections, time searching for new revenue, while admirable, would likely be better directed toward other areas.

Gorman: To improve its public schools, Michigan must continue to increase its K-12 Operations budget proportionally to the state’s overall budget increases, as well as maintaining funding for and re-investing in programs such as the Great Start Readiness Program. The Great Start Readiness Program, which allocates funding to increase the availability of preschool programs, and the 2020 budget’s investment in early literacy programs will help close the education gap and ensure a brighter future for all of Michigan’s students.

Lynn: Adequate funding is necessary to address many of the factors that would improve the quality of public schools in MI. Influencing the State Legislature to address the sufficiency of public-school funding can be supported by my individual advocacy efforts in addition to the collective voices of member associations such as MASB.  Specific areas of importance are early childhood education, innovation/agility in teaching/learning/assessment methods and training/adequate compensation for public school educators.

Phelps: In these uncertain times, it is not realistic to expect additional funds from the State of Michigan, though it may worth considering based upon the burden COVID-19 response and recovery has placed on local school districts. In lieu of additional money, the most helpful thing Michigan can do today is provide districts more flexibility in how they can spend their foundation allowances and their locally-raised tax dollars.  Providing districts flexibility would allow districts to meet their obligations to their students, families, and teachers. When it comes to education decisions, local is almost always better.

Taylor:It is a widely known fact that Michigan could and should do better with how they fund public schools. So yes, that is the first place to start.  Instead of education being at the top of the cut list when budgets need to be slashed, our Legislatures should be doing everything they can to increase funding instead of cutting funding. I am not a Legislature so I would be negligent if I told them where to pull that funding from.  What I can do though is continue to advocate for the funding and be fiscally responsible with the funding we do receive. I also think that Michigan could improve their standardized testing. “Teaching to the tests” is very real and driven by the State. Students are more than their standardized test and we should be more focused on shaping the entire child, and not just their test scores.

The above information was compiled from questionnaires emailed to each candidate. If you have questions about our process, email opinions@lsj.com. To support work like this, consider subscribing. For more information, visit LSJ.com/subscribe.

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