Six candidates vying for three seats on the Muskegon Board of Education in the Nov. 3 election

MUSKEGON, MI – Six candidates are vying for three open seats on the Muskegon Board of Education in the Nov. 3 general election.

Muskegon Public Schools is one of the largest districts in the county with 3,514 registered students this fall.

School board trustees serve six-year terms and are tasked with a variety of jobs including, approving an annual budget, hire and evaluate the superintendent, and adopting policies that give the district administration direction to set priorities and achieve its goals.

Three of the candidates – Zachary Anderson, Billie Bruce and Louis Churchwell – are incumbents seeking reelection.

The other three candidate are new challengers – Kwame Kamau James, Nicholas Sima and Jonathan Witmer.

Here is some background information provided by each of the candidates:

  • Anderson, 27, attended Grand Valley State University (GVSU) and now works as a consultant. He has served on the Muskegon school board for the past six years and has pushed for transparency and accountability from the administration, he said.
  • Bruce, 77, is a Muskegon Public Schools graduate and earned her degrees from Muskegon Community College and GVSU. She has served as secretary on the Muskegon school board for six years. She is a pediatric Registered Nurse and earned a certificate for Elementary Drug Free School Zones from Concordia University.
  • Churchwell, 62, is a clinician and Group Coordinator with HealthWest Muskegon. He graduated from Muskegon Public Schools in 1977 and currently serves as the school board’s Vice President. He studied at Grand Canyon University and earned two master’s degrees: a Masters of Science in Professional Counseling, and a Masters in the field of Substance Abuse/Addictions. He is a former CEO of West Michigan Therapy, Inc. and founder of Transitional Living Center in Muskegon Heights.
  • James, 45, is self-employed and earned his associate’s degree from Muskegon Community College. He has two sons who attended and graduated from Muskegon Public Schools and was a Big Red Marching Band parent volunteer. He has worked as a youth mentor at Every Woman’s Place, which provides help for victims of domestic violence, a site worker at Site Worker, LA’s BEST After School Program, and a garden facilitator at Growing Goods Summer School Program.
  • Sima, 34, is a Technical Support Technician and has earned his associate’s degree.
  • Witmer, 41, is a real estate appraiser with two students in the Muskegon Public Schools system. He is a graduate of Muskegon Public Schools and earned a bachelor’s degree in geography at GVSU. He also completed graduate coursework in Urban Regeneration at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, United Kingdom. Witmer is president of the governing board at First Congregational Church UCC in Muskegon, secretary of the Nelson Neighborhood Improvement Association and youth soccer coach for Muskegon Soccer Club.

MLive Media Group has partnered with the League of Women Voters of Michigan to provide candidate information for readers. Each candidate was asked to outline their stances on a variety of public policy issues.

Information on all state and federal races and many of Michigan’s county and local races is available at Vote411.org, an online voter guide created by the League of Women Voters.

Publication of candidate statements and opinions is solely in the interest of public service and should not be considered as an endorsement. The League never supports or opposes any candidates or political parties.

Spelling and grammar were not corrected. Publication of candidate statements and opinions is solely in the interest of public service and should not be considered as an endorsement. The League never supports or opposes any candidates or political parties.

Here’s a look at how the candidates responded to key questions:

What is your education and experience for this office and how will it help you serve this community on the school board?

Anderson: I have been an active member of numerous campaigns and organizations in Muskegon. I attend neighborhood associations and have a continuous dialogue with many staff and parents. Furthermore, being the youngest candidate, I not only understand what challenges today’s youth are facing, but also have a fresh perspective on education being not far removed from the classroom myself.

Bruce: Three generation Big Red family- 5 children and 5 grandchildren. Active MPS Board Member: Treasurer, Chair of Library & Museum Committee, and Chair of Reinstatement Committee. Muskegon Big Red Band Parents Association, Past President of Marquette School PTA, Served on Board of Directors for Child Abuse Council, Served on Board of Webster House for Runaways, Active supporter of Athletic & Arts Programs, Mentor for Hope College Nursing students, and member of county task force “Good for our Kids” a teen violence & pregnancy prevention committee. I brought the JROTC program to Muskegon and was instrumental in developing the Robotics program and Chess Club. I was active in bringing the Boys & Girls Club to Muskegon. I build & maintain personal relationships with students, parents and staff of MPS. I am aware of what is going on in the buildings and the families to make sound decisions. I have connections to agencies and resources in the community to leverage them for our students.

Churchwell: Knowledgeable Current Muskegon School Board Trustee (Vice President) 35 years of community volunteer community advocate Past President Muskegon Public School Board Past President/Current board member Community Corrections Advisory Board Past Vice President of Muskegon Family Services Center Past Vice-President of Muskegon County Workforce Development Board Board member of 103,7 The Beat I Completed two Master Degrees: I have been a volunteer with this school district for more than 30 years, I have served on the Board diligently the past 11,years: Was apart of establishing a District plan that saw a $105 million dollar bond past with a majority vote: Helped raise the level of Graduates attending colleges or trade schools after graduation; Helped two raise the community awareness on the benefits of a quality education with quality leadership for our students.

James: My experiences caring for our young people have helped me get a feel for who they are, where they excel, and where they sometimes falter. I’ve also come to see how we adults, if we’re not careful, can overlook their real needs in the name of looking out for their best interests, especially with regard to their lives after Muskegon Public Schools.

The world they will make their careers in and raise families in will be much different from what we’ve seen, and in ways we really haven’t prepared for. We are well overdue to shift our educational culture and center it on empowering their creativity.

For (just one) example, it’s likely that somewhere along their career paths many of them will need to develop employment opportunities for themselves, in an economy that doesn’t require as many workers to produce as many goods. They will need to be broadminded, creative problem solvers, whose success will often depend more on their ability to foster collaboration than on their competitiveness.

Sima: If I am honest, I do not think I am specially qualified for this position. I have an Associate’s degree from Muskegon Community College and have been in a customer service (Technical Support) position for most of my career.

I have used my education and experience to connect with people from all walks of life to work towards a common goal. Generally that goal is repairing or troubleshooting a broken component in a network system, but I believe that being able to look at a daunting system and work piece by piece to repair it is a very useful skillset for almost any situation.

Witmer: The best experience I have is being the father of two students in the district – an 8th grader at Muskegon Middle School and a 5th grader in the Two-Way Spanish Immersion program at Marquette Elementary. This gives me a familiarity with the schools including seeing first hand how the district’s policies and procedures affect the students, teachers, and administrators of our district. As a 3rd generation Big Red raising a 4th generation of Big Reds, I have a deep pride, love, and appreciation for Muskegon Public Schools. As I serve on different boards in different capacities throughout my local community, I understand the roles of public officials and the rules associated with governing bodies. As someone who is new to public office, I promise to listen to the needs of the community and to learn as much as I can to effectively guide the district that’s serving our urban neighborhoods.

What are your top priorities if elected?

Anderson: 1.) Improving Academic Achievement. Keep increasing the amount of graduates attending universities and trade schools. MPS also needs to expand innovative programs like Two Way Spanish Immersion (TWI), Future Teachers, and JROTC to name a few.

2.) Community Engagement. Have a continual conversation through town halls and coffee hours to get community and parent feedback on how the district moves forward. Continue to improve and foster relations with community organizations such as Mercy Health, MAISD, Hackley Public Library, and many more.

3.) Focus on the Future. With the passage of the bond MPS has many tough and exciting decisions ahead. The biggest one being the finalization of blue prints to a brand new middle school. It has been an honor being on the Muskegon School Board and I hope I have earned your support and vote.

Bruce: Academic Achievement and Focus on the Future I will continue to advocate for hands on collaborative learning programs for our students. Innovative programs such as Future Teachers, Future Nurses, and Cadette programs will provide hands on learning opportunities for our students and attract students of choice. These will build on our current Two Way Immersion and Geometry in Construction programs. Youth learn a great deal outside of the classroom, I will continue to promote field trips and experiences outside the classroom to expand our students’ horizons. I will work hard to showcase our Honor Roll and National Honor Society Students and assure all students are supported. Continue to develop community partnerships with Muskegon Museum of Art, City of Muskegon, Hackley Public Library, colleges, and local industries among others. Leverage experience with bond proposals and balancing budgets to finalize plans for Hackley Middle School and district wide improvements.

Churchwell: SUCCESS FOR EVERY CHILD Every student should have access to schools and learning plans that fit their individual and unique needs.

RECRUIT & RETAIN THE BEST EDUCATORS We must recruit minority educators and be competitive with neighboring school Districts in retaining our best educators.

SMART USE OF TECHNOLOGY Knowledge is power, we must be aggressive about making smart use of technology to leverage what’s possible.

MAKE DIVERSITY AN ASSET We must take advantage of our diversity so children can learn to work across cultures.

EMPHASIZE COLLABORATION Parent, community agencies, teachers & students must be integral part of our decision making process Seeking to exploit the paradiam shift that has occured in our district and develope programs to help our students cope with the tradegy’s that often leave many of our scholars trying to cope with issues pertaining to life skills, poverty and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that is running rampant in our Society.

James: 1. Making sure every graduating Big Red understands business principles well enough to either start their own or run someone else’s.

2. Developing extensive trade skills opportunities alongside college-preparatory studies.

3. Collaborative decision making, in which teachers and administrators, parents and, yes, students too are included in every substantive decision.

We all know the idea that a college degree guarantees a good paying job with an established company that you retire from 30 years later is old mythology. As college has become more expensive, a four-year (or five-year) degree can actually serve as a liability, at least financially, for a decade or more. College is wonderful—and important for more than just finding a job—but it’s not everyone’s best option. To serve all our young people, our educational culture must honor that by extending opportunities for trade skills and entrepreneurship training.

Sima: I do not have a clear and concise plan for what I want to achieve. I see this role as a service position. My main goal is to make Muskegon Public Schools a place where families choose to send their children. Too often in my neighborhood and around the city, I see families advertising with yard signs that they’ve elected to send their children to other schools.

Witmer: My top two priorities, if elected, are good board governance and improving/expanding educational opportunities for students. Under the umbrella of good board governance, I promise to always strive for professional, respectful decorum at all meetings. I will take advantage of all trainings and learning opportunities from the Michigan Association of School Boards as well as the Muskegon Intermediate School District. I will work alongside the superintendent to make sound fiscal decisions with approved bond funds. In order to improve educational opportunities for students, I will encourage the exploration of hands-on learning opportunities with local businesses and organizations. I will push for the hiring and retaining of staff with a goal of reflecting the demographic makeup of our schools. I will advocate for the implementation of magnet programs (performing arts, science, athletics, etc) that will attract district residents that have chosen to enroll in other districts in the county.

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