Farmington Public Schools trustees on Saturday interviewed nine candidates for the open seat created by the October resignation of Jim Stark.
Board president Terri Weems, vice president Terry Johnson, and secretary Angie Smith conducted the interviews; trustee Jessica Cummings was unable to attend due to an “unavoidable conflict,” Weems said.
Board members Mark Przeslawski and David Turner did not take part on the dais, as they are among the applicants.
Candidates responded to questions from trustees and local residents on topics like racial issues within the district, the decline in test scores, the achievement gap among minority students, and school safety and security.
Here are highlights from the two videos, morning and afternoon sessions, posted at https://tv10.viebit.com/:
A Wayne State University professor, Grynaviski said he has lived in the district for about seven years and chose Farmington for the great reputation of the schools. He said he was hired to help address the school’s race-based achievement gaps, and the college’s program has been successful.
Grynaviski said during his campaign, he wanted to raise awareness of the district’s pre-K program, which he said is not being well-communicated, and the issue of data transparency, with more accurate data based on each school available to the public.
“There’s lots of data that’s out there, and we’re not using it as a district,” he said. “We’re not even collecting it yet… I really would push this board to start pushing the superintendent and central administration on data.”
Johnson asked whether Grynaviski would support teachers carrying guns in the classroom. “Teachers should focus on the safety of their students, not on killing the gunman,” he responded.
Asked why trustees should support him, even though he lost the recent election, Grynaviski pointed out he was a relative unknown, but received almost 9,000 votes. “I think that speaks volumes about the quality of the campaign I ran.”
Przeslawski still has children in the district and said he wants to “continue what I feel I’ve accomplished during my term.” He also wants to be part of the process of closing Harrison High during the next year.
“That’s one of the very near and dear things to me, not just because I have kids at the school, but the kids have had a rough time,” he said. “These kids have been to five or six schools. We have settled that down as a board. This is the last big closure.”
With regard to racial issues among students, staff, and in the community, Przeslawski said officials need to “do the best job we can.” He would like to see students lead more, with help.
“Get them to be talking and working on it,” he said. “That’s one thing I don’t think we’ve done enough of in the district is work from the kids up and see what’s going on with them.”
While he came in a close third in the last election, Przeslaski said he wants to “keep working for the kids of this district.”
LaPan has worked with a nonprofit in middle and high schools across Michigan de-stigmatizing mental illness and suicide prevention. She currently co-owns a property management and logistics company that she said, “allows us access to what companies are looking for in employees.”
“We’re able to see why people are locating, where they’re relocating to, and what their reasons are for moving in and out of districts,” she added.
With children in 5th grade and 3rd grade, LaPan said she has a vested interest in the district. She’d like to work more with the business community, encouraging more CEOs and employees to live in the community, and to organize a symposium to learn what business owners look for in employees and how they can become more involved.
The district’s biggest challenge, LaPan said is preparing students for the global marketplace. “I want Farmington Hills to be a destination for education. I want to see our students striving for something that’s larger.”
A resident of eight years, Spitsbergen has two children in the district and said he’s excited in many ways about the direction of education, but “I think there are some things… that really need some attention. That’s why I’m here.”
Having worked in the field of behavioral health and substance abuse disorders, Spitsbergen said he has worked with every school district in western Wayne County. He cited his ability to collaborate and communicate as a strength he would bring to the position.
He also believes that the district has opportunities “to get better and be pre-emptive about” identifying substance abuse issues. As an example, he said, “We have a vaping issue that’s really difficult to get people’s arms around. If we’re really not out in front of those kinds of things, tragedies happen.”
Asked about an incident involving a Harrison High administrator placed on leave and reassigned over an inappropriate comment made about a cheerleading routine, Spitsbergen said, “I think it’s a mistake the way that was handled personally. If people are unhappy and they feel unhappy, then I feel as part of the board’s responsibility or mine, that needs to be taken into consideration and that needs to be not only investigated but supported and validated… If people don’t feel like they matter, then everything kind of falls apart.”
A 14-year district resident, Langley holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration and has a son at Harrison High. She works as a college administrator, helping students with career preparation. She applied for the position because she wants the opportunity to impact the community.
Langley cited declining enrollment, ensuring student safety, equity in student resources between buildings, and addressing gaps in student achievement as the district’s biggest challenges. She wants to make sure residents are aware of resources available, and that the district is communicating with parents, students, and the community.
Asked about the Harrison High incident, Langley said the timing of the final decision to relocate the administrator “was spot on, from the standpoint that we didn’t just react, we stepped back for a moment and took time to reflect. Moving that person out of that situation at the time I think was most effective.”
Langley cited her background in work force diversity and exposure to students in different counties and cities, as strengths. She said she wants to bring her experience of working with students, and making sure they achieve after they graduate, to the table.
One of Fox’s three children attended Detroit Public Schools, the other two attended Farmington Schools, K-12. She holds a Masters degree in K-8 education and said she has spent 20 years training educators in academic software.
“I believe data helps you make those informed decisions to ultimately deliver the results needed,” she said. “I am a relationship builder, and above all, I am a doer. I get things done.”
Fox feels the decline in the proficiency of all students is the district’s biggest challenge, along with the large achievement gap among African-American students.
“I would highly recommend that the district begins to transition into more innovative kinds of things in terms of student readiness and achievement… using the universal design for learning, a framework that allows all students to access instruction,” she said.
Fox advocated for training teachers to be more culturally responsive in dealing with racial issues. “We’ve got to get back to working with teachers who may be frustrated,” she said. “There may be some bias going on. We’ve got to help those teachers with tools…If we get back to teaching and learning, building relationships, youngsters will feel safe.”
The father of three students and a resident of 10 years, Turner currently serves on the Board of Education. He announced his intention earlier this year to not seek re-election, but said the opportunity to serve a two-year term changed his mind.
He believes culture is the district’s biggest challenge – climate, curriculum, and human capital in the faculty, staff, administration, board, and community. He brings a background and 15 years of experience in K-12 and higher education to the table, including time as an associate superintendent in three other Oakland County districts, and considers human resources, board procedures and helping to deliver and administer policy as his strengths.
Asked how he would prevent racial polarization, Turner said that isn’t within his power.
“I do have the ability to be sensitive to some of the processes to deal with it and the impacts of racial polarization,” he said. “We have a very diverse community and very strong opinions on both sides of what occurred at Harrison High School and what’s occurring in our community… Dialogue is going to be the answer, but we have to be willing and courageous about hearing both sides of the conversation. Between the two points, you’re going to have some common ground somewhere.”
Turner also said that trustees are “sound boards” for the community, and he would encourage administrators to have conversations with small groups of community members, to ensure they are heard.
A Farmington resident for 15 years, Hafner has three children in the district and has been a Livonia Schools math teacher for 20 years. He also coaches swimming.
Hafner sees consistency as the district’s biggest challenge, “getting everyone on the same page and headed int he right direction.” He said the changes over the past several years have left many community members feeling disenfranchised.
“I know how to listen to the parents in the community, parents of students. I know how to communicate with students, with the parents, get the points across. And I know how to give direction,” he said.
Since both he and his wife are teachers, Hafner was asked whether he felt he could be impartial in contract negotiations and would recuse himself from decision-making, if necessary.
“The word fairness is the first thing that pops into my head,” he said. “We want to negotiate fair contracts, not only on the teacher’s side, but on the board’s side… Transparency is a huge thing that helps, because not every contract is going to be a great contract. There are times when there have to be cuts. When that’s explained and understood…that’s the most important thing, to be able to communicate that.”
Brink has three children in the district and has been actively involved in her children’s classrooms and the Hillside Elementary Parent Teacher Association (PTA). She works as a guest teacher and reading interventionist at Kenbrook Elementary, a position she would have to leave if appointed.
Asked how she would handle decisions that might be best for the whole community, but not her school, Brink said she would need to do research. “I like to go into situations unbiased…I like to have reasons behind situations that are brought up.”
The district’s biggest challenge, Brink said, is morale among staff. “I think it all starts from the basic needs as humans. Treat people the way you want to be treated.” She said students, parents, and teachers need to feel respected. “I really think we need bring it down to an individual level… we need to focus on the small right now, and that will lead to the big.”
Asked how she viewed race relations in the community, Brink said socially, “it all stems from the respect. Nobody is better than anybody else, and I think that to address that is something I would have to do a lot of research on and see what is happening in other areas of the United States.”
Brink said she doesn’t understand why there is a racial situation, educationally speaking. “Nobody is smarter than anyone else, nobody is dumber than anyone else. We need to figure out why that gap is there.” She said she would want to talk with teachers, and ask students and where they feel unimportant, disengaged, or not heard.