The midterm election is just three weeks away. In mid-Michigan, one school board race has divided a community. Four of the seven members of the Williamston Board of Education could be recalled for their support of a controversial transgender student policy.
A year ago, political fireworks lit up the small town of Williamston...and ever since, a long, slow fuse has been burning towards the ballot box.
Last November, the school board approved a pair of transgender student policies. One was about restroom accommodations, the other about gender identity. The package passed on a 6-1 vote.
Board president Greg Talberg says it was the right thing to do.
“We have a policy in place that our administration and staff can respond thoughtfully and consistently,” says Talberg.
Now, that vote could cost four incumbents their seats. Talberg and fellow board members Christopher Lewis, Nancy Deal and Sarah Belanger are facing a recall election.
The district’s gender identity policy reads as follows:
“Williamston Community Schools shall accept the gender identity that each student asserts reflecting the student's legitimately held belief once the student and/or his or her parent/guardian, as appropriate, notifies District administration that the student intends to assert a gender identity that differs from previous representations or records.”
“The ‘and / or’ piece...absolutely, parents should have concerns about that,” says Williamston parent Lori Johnecheck.
Johnecheck says the policy gives schools the latitude to decide not to notify parents about their child’s chosen gender identity.
That, she says, runs counter to Michigan statutes.
“We’ve got a law that says the parents have the fundamental right to raise up their child and be in charge of their education,” Johnecheck asserts.
Board supporters say there’s no usurpation going on in Williamston.
“The district in no way wants to nor can legally abrogate parent rights,” says parent Nicole Ellefson. “They can’t do that.”
Ellefson has a transgender son who formerly attended Williamston High School. She insists there are valid reasons for an “and / or” clause. Ellefson notes that an 18-year-old high school senior is a legal adult. In other cases, a student may be an emancipated minor.
And there’s another reason.
“Unfortunately, there are some families, who if their child came out as LGBTQ would beat them, emotionally abuse them or kick them out of the house,” says Ellefson.
School board president Greg Talberg says the district is aware of that possibility. He says it was never the district’s intention to withhold information from parents.
“Parents will know what’s happening with their students in our schools,” he insists. “We just have to make sure we do it in a way that student safety is our top concern.”
But Lori Johnecheck says this issue goes beyond parental rights. She questions why the school board ever felt it needed a separate policy just for transgender students. Johnecheck says all students are protected under Williamston’s 1997 equal education opportunity policy.
She says the board was wrong to affirm any specific group of students...and, she says, it did so against popular will.
"Eighty to 90 percent of the in-district parents, students and community members said this is not something that’s even necessary,” Johnecheck says. “To ignore that and just champion a policy lets me and others know there’s something else going on.”
Still, Nicole Ellefson defends the policy as a best practice. She believes the school board majority that voted for the transgender policies took a proactive step in the interest of every student.
“So, to throw out these people who’ve done hard work, who’ve done massive learning about so many different things, who are dedicated members of our community, I think would be a huge mistake,” Ellefson says.
As Election Day nears, a lawsuit filed against board members Talberg, Lewis, Deal and Belanger, as well as two former members, is pending in federal court.
For now, though, board president Greg Talberg is focusing on campaigning. He says there’s other matters to attend to in the Williamston Community Schools.
“So, most of our conversations as we reach out to voters is just describing how proud we are of our schools and how we want to keep the momentum going that we’ve built,” Talberg says. “So, we’re up for election and we’ll do our best to keep our seats and keep our district moving forward.”
However, if Talberg and company should lose their seats, a recall will end their terms immediately.
That question will be resolved on November 6...exactly one year to the day since Williamston passed its transgender policies.