The three Grosse Pointe school board candidates met for a debate Tuesday night and made their cases for how they would protect the district from legislative proposals and financial threats that could harm the quality of schools.
During a League of Women's Voters forum that ran about 90 minutes in the Grosse Pointe South library with about 25 people in attendance, two incumbent board members, Judy Gafa and Cindy Pangborn, and newcomer William Broman, presented their platforms and answered about 10 written questions from the audience. The questions centered around how to bring more funding to schools, how to increase technology in the classroom and what makes them qualified to serve on the board.
Residency enforcement - how to keep nonresidents from attending Grosse Pointe schools - was the hot button issue. It was a subject all candidates agreed is a priority, but they disagreed on how to go about doing it.
Pangborn wants enforcement of residency with a certified affidavit for all students and she will bring her request - again - to the board later this month. Broman proposes the district start by checking residency of students who are suspended as the district figures out an enforcement policy that's legal and fair. Gafa, who supported a residency proposal to report suspected residency violators online, wants the district to come up with a plan that is, "fair, efficient and effective."
The three are competing for two seats on the seven-member board in the Nov. 6 election.
The most noticeable difference between the candidates is age.
Pangborn is a lifelong Grosse Pointer, real estate agent and grandmother.
Gafa, a native of Berkley and mother of three children currently in Grosse Pointe schools, moved to Grosse Pointe for the education and the community 16 years ago.
Broman is a 2010 graduate of Grosse Pointe North High School and student at George Washington University, who brings a student's perspective to the race.
"I know what works and what doesn't work in the classroom," Broman said.
His age isn't the only standout aspect of his candidacy. Broman expects to attend some board meetings virtually, a communication style he says is the norm in business and would work for a school board too, especially as the district works on improving technology offerings to students. Being in Washington, D.C., he said, could be beneficial for the district as he would spend his mornings before class on Capitol Hill learning and lobbying on behalf of Grosse Pointe schools. Broman is treasurer for the GW's College Republicans and owner of a web development company.
Gafa, a Madonna University graduate and former ICU and critical care nurse for Beaumont hospitals, is nurse at Sunrise Assisted Living in Grosse Pointe Woods. As a longtime school and community volunteer, Gafa is known for her empathy to patients and families facing hardships in the district and her ability to work with others. She has spent much time in Lansing speaking and lobbying on behalf of Grosse Pointe Schools.
Pangborn, also a longtime schools volunteer and community activist, is known for taking strong stands, demanding district transparency and researching district issues while pushing for quicker solutions to problems. As a real estate agent, she sees firsthand the strong school-property value relationship.
She and Gafa believe their daily involvement in the schools and their regular access to parents and students better suits them for the board, and they aren't so sure that Broman's long-distance participation is a good idea.
"I'll use Google Hangout or video-conferencing tools. If anybody thinks that's going to be difficult, I'd say look at Fortune 500 companies," Broman said. "If it's working for billion-dollar companies, it can work for a school district with a $100 million budget," Broman said.
The point may be moot if the legislature passes a law for mandatory meeting attendance for school board members.
"I would do whatever it took," to be at meetings, Broman said if the measure passed. He hopes to help get the proposal voted down.
Gafa wasn't so sure.
"I agree many major corporations use video conferencing…I think there's something to be said about the presence of elected officials in the community. I think this is an interesting concept. I'm not sure how it would work. One question would be what kind of cost would it bring to the district."
Pangborn was not a fan.
"We're not a business. We're a school district….We educate our neighbor's children. There is a great deal of privacy associated with schools," she said, pointing out that parents with children with illnesses or behavior problems or other private issues will not want their information traveling electronically.
The debate was calm, polite and mostly agreeable, especially when it came to preserving and improving schools in order to protect property values and all would support programs that close the achievement gap that has struggling learners lagging far behind the high achievers.
The candidates did speak passionately and mostly on the same page about concerns such as residency rules that should prevent non-residents from attending Grosse Pointe Schools.
While Pangborn is pushing to require all families provide a certified affidavit of residency and asking that it be enacted as soon as later this month, Gafa and Broman are taking slower, more gradual approaches.
Here's some of what the candidates will bring to the board if elected:
Even before running for school board Broman was sharing his thoughts and suggestions for improving schools with board members and district officials. His biggest push, something he mentioned repeatedly, is for more education in a STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics - curriculum. His research into STEM and how it benefits today's students was published in U.S. News & World Report - a fact his opponent, Gafa, pointed out during the forum, calling him modest for not taking credit for it.
Besides pushing for a greater emphasis on STEM, he wants to work on behalf of the district to ensure it will be here and offer a top education when it's his time to have a family.
"I'm young enough to have little fear when putting ideas before the community," said Broman. "I also know when to listen."
He believes being a recent graduate puts him in a valuable position to understand how decisions from central office affect the classroom. And he believes his age and lifelong exposure to technology puts in a good position to offer an understanding of technology needs. He emphasized that his approach as a board member would be to let teachers and administrators lead and share their experience as part of decision-making, not micromanage them.
A board member for four years, Gafa talked about accomplishments she's proud of as a board. They include controlling class sizes, maintaining local control of schools last year against proposed schools of choice legislation. She spoke about the board's work of hiring a new superintendent and other high-level administrators and of fighting to bring back the Head Start program at Poupard Elementary. And she spoke about the beginning of important district and school improvement plans.
"I think being a parent gives you a very good idea of what" is happening day in and day out in the district "and what the needs are of our district."
Her two proudest accomplishments as an individual board member, she said, were the creation of online registration systems in middle and high school and her work to keep special education students at Grosse Pointe North on their own campus with people they knew rather than going to South for some classes.
While acknowledging the financial crunch facing the district and the challenges that could be brought on by a forced opening of boundaries, she ticked off several great classroom and athletic projects at schools across the district that enrich learning beyond the core curriculum.
"I am proud this is a district that values learning outside the four walls of the classroom."
Pangborn has served three years on the board and previoiusly served from 1996 until 2000. She attended Kerby Elementary and was a member of the first class to go through Brownell Middle School. She's a graduate of South High School, before there was a second high school at North. Her children have attended Grosse Pointe schools as do her nieces, nephews and grandchildren. She currently volunteers in the schools as a grandma.
She can be a lightening rod on the board, but fighting for change and making noise has been her way for years. She was elected to the board in 1996 after questioning the district's plan to sell its administration building on St. Clair. She said that sale was deemed illegal and that it never occurred. Before coming to the board she demanded that meetings be televised and for years she would film them herself, take them to a TV studio at the War Memorial and have the meetings aired on TV. After worrying about the safety of her son walking to school, Pangborn helped create the Emergency E cards that can still be seen in the windows of some Grosse Pointe homes. The cards tell children in danger that a a house with an E in the window is a safe place to go.
Other than pushing for the residency affidavit for all families she is looking for new revenue sources.
"The financial picture is grave, and my solution is to seek more funding. She is currently working with district administrators on a grant that will help cover utility and phone costs.
All candidates agreed on the general goal of maintaining - if not improving - the performance of Grosse Pointe Schools and protecting its reputation for providing a quality education.
To read more on the candidates' views, check out their websites:
William Broman: http://williambroman.com/
Judy Gafa: http://judygafa.com/
Cindy Pangborn: http://cindypangborn.blogspot.com/
Or watch the entire debate on Grosse Pointe Education TV, Channel 8 at 8 p.m. starting tonight, Oct. 10, through Wednesday, Oct. 17.