Give U.P., Wayne County same chance at education board seats, Senate panel says

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News
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Lansing — A Senate panel advanced a bill Tuesday that would effectively give residents of rural northern Michigan greater chances to serve on the State Board of Education than those who live in more populated areas.

The proposal, which the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee approved in a 4-2 vote, would divide Michigan into eight regions, based on county lines and geography, not population. Then, the state's political parties would have to nominate candidates from the individual regions to fill seats on the eight-member board, which oversees public education. Currently, nominees can come from anywhere in the state.

Democrats said the proposal is an attempt to gerrymander the state board and would prevent some residents from running in multiple elections. GOP lawmakers say the legislation is about promoting "a diversity of perspectives" and emphasize that the votes themselves would still be statewide.

Sen. Ed McBroom

Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, chairwoman of the education committee, argued the current system gives preference to urban areas.

"A rural district is a rural district is a rural district," Theis said after her Tuesday meeting. "A city is very different from a rural district."

As it stands, political parties nominate candidates for two seats on the eight-member board every two years. They are statewide positions, serving eight-year terms and all Michigan voters can vote in the races.

Currently, seven of the eight members are from southeast Michigan, and one, Democrat Pamela Pugh, is from Saginaw. Five of the eight members are from Macomb or Oakland counties. Under the proposal, Macomb and Oakland would be a single region.

Sen. Ed McBroom, a Vulcan Republican who represents the Upper Peninsula, sponsored the proposal. Under the bill, the U.P. would be one of the eight regions, despite having a small fraction of the population of other areas. But McBroom said it's been decades since a resident of the Upper Peninsula served on the State Board of Education.

The second smallest region in population would be a 27-county region in northern Michigan with 643,000 people. The most populated region would feature Oakland and Macomb counties with 2.1 million people.

Another region would include Kent County and reach from Ottawa County on the west side of the state to Midland County.  It would have about 1.5 million people.

The Michigan Democratic Party and members of the State Board of Education blasted the proposal on Tuesday. Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the Democratic Party, said the bill is "absolutely" an attempt to gerrymander the board of education, which has a 6-2 Democratic majority. Barnes said if McBroom wants board members from the Upper Peninsula, he should work with the GOP to nominate someone from the area.

During a State Board of Education meeting Tuesday, state board President Casandra Ulbrich said, under the bill, a resident from Wayne County could run for a position in 2022 but would be barred from campaigning in 2024, 2026 and 2028, when other regions' seats would be on the ballot.

"I find this to be highly problematic and very, very concerning,” Ulbrich said of the proposal.

The Michigan Democratic Party created this map at what State Board of Education regions would look like under a proposal from Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan.

Tom McMillin, a former Republican lawmaker from Oakland County who now serves on the board, said McBroom's bill didn't make sense to him. But Nikki Snyder, the other Republican board member from Dexter, defended the legislation, saying schoolchildren from some regions of the state are "disenfranchised" by not having someone from their area on the board.

McBroom contended that the political parties are focused on winning the State Board of Education seats and nominate candidates that are well known.

He's not interested in which party has a majority on the board but wants the panel to represent the diversity of school districts in the state, McBroom said.

Asked if he would be OK with state Rep. Sara Cambensy, a Democrat from Marquette, representing the Upper Peninsula on the board, McBroom said he would support her. He also noted that he's introduced a similar proposal in past sessions, including when he was in the state House in 2015. That year, he had eight Democratic co-sponsors.

The Republican legislator's new bill exempts current board members from the geographic requirements, meaning they could seek reelection regardless of the policy.

The bill will next be considered by the full Michigan Senate.

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