On Monday night, the Lowell Area Schools Board of Education gathered for a special meeting to interview candidates who applied to fill the board seat vacated by Dan Stephens. Earlier this month, at the board’s regular meeting, Stephens announced he was resigning due to a lack of time to devote to the board.
State law requires remaining school board members to appoint someone to fill a vacancy within 30 days. If a local school board fails to do so within that timeframe, then it falls to the intermediate school district board to appoint someone to fill the vacancy.
In total, nine community members applied for the vacant seat in Lowell.
The Interview Process
LAS Superintendent Nate Fowler started the meeting by giving a summary of what to expect and the process the board would follow. He explained that the board would meet with each candidate in an open session and that board members would take turns asking each applicant the same set of questions. Each interview would last approximately twenty minutes, and after their interviews, the candidates could sit in the audience and listen to the remainder of the meeting if they chose to do so.
After all the interviews were complete, the board would begin deliberation and discussion of the candidates. Any board member could put forth a motion to appoint a specific applicant, and if another member seconded it, there would be discussion about whether or why this person would be a good fit for the job. The board would then put the appointment of this person to a vote, and if the majority agreed (four or more board members), that person would fill the vacant seat.
The interviewees for the board seat sat down with the board one by one and answered questions. The candidates were as follows:
Chris German – German ran for election to the board this past November but lost out to Jen Dougherty, Jared Blough and Pat Nugent. German said that he moved to Lowell about 10 years ago and has four daughters, three of whom are still in Lowell schools at the high school. Over the years, he has volunteered in his daughters’ schools, coached track and officiated football. He said that if appointed, he hoped to bring “humble leadership” to the board.
Jeff Lambert – Lambert said that he was a transplant to Lowell from Colorado, although he had lived many different places over the years. He holds degrees in mathematics and business administration and came to the area initially to work for Amway. Lambert said that he also has children in the district and that he saw the role of the board as advocating for constituents, having a connection with the community and respecting their voice.
Annie Whitlock – Whitlock is an LAS alum, who graduated in 1999 and recently moved back to the area with her family, which includes two young daughters in the district. She said that she has spent the better part of twenty years in education, including many years as a classroom teacher and now as a teacher educator. She has served on many education-related boards, including the Lowell Education Foundation with current board member Pat Nugent. Whitlock feels that teachers and support staff should be a focus of the board going forward and that more effort should be made to retain and support the amazing staff we already have here in the Lowell school district.
Parker Liu – Liu also ran a campaign for a seat on the board this past November. A 2010 graduate of Lowell Area Schools, he served as the student council representative who sat in on the Board of Education meetings and gave updates about student goings-on to the board. Now a pharmacist and the father of a child who will begin Young Threes in the fall, Liu said that he has a passion for public education and that he hoped to be a voice for the next generation of Lowell students.
Jim Betz – Betz is a firefighter with the Grand Rapids Fire Department who moved to Lowell 10 years ago when he and his wife were expecting twins. He is a parent to three kids in the district and spent time volunteering in his children’s schools, assisting with the PTO and coaching lacrosse. Betz said that he thought that LAS was headed in a great direction and that he’d like to serve on the board to help safeguard and continue that trajectory.
Melisa Gagrica – Gagrica moved to Lowell from Texas in 2017 and has two children in the district, one at the middle school and one at Murray Lake Elementary. Gagrica now works in emergency medicine and said that she was inspired to apply for the board after growing up watching her mother serve as a school board member for many years. When asked about what she thought was the biggest challenge currently facing the district, Gagrica said that she thought that this was a very polarized time with many different opinions and different agendas potentially affecting the district, not just here in Lowell, but also across the nation. She said she’d like to serve on the board to help keep everyone’s best interests at heart.
Rossemary Salinas – Another parent in the district, Salinas has one child at the middle school and one at Cherry Creek Elementary. A native of the Dominican Republic, Salinas moved to the area 14 years ago, has a masters degree in human resources, and now works in HR at Network 180, where she is in charge of recruitment of staff. She also spent several years working for Grand Rapids Public Schools. Salinas said that she wanted to serve on the board because she wanted to give back to the district that has done so much for her kids.
Jessica Curtis – Curtis previously served on the Lowell Board of Education for two years and then lost her seat in the last election. A 1999 Lowell grad, she has three children who are students at LAS: one in high school, one at the middle school, and one still in elementary school. Curtis has volunteered her time within the schools and in the greater Lowell community with such organizations as the Lowell Education Foundation, Lowell Athletic Boosters, Gilda’s Club and Pink Arrow. She said that after two years on the board, she really felt like she was getting the hang of things and hoped that she might be given the opportunity to work with the board again and give back to the community.
Robert Rogers – A Lowell native, Rogers said he attended kindergarten in the very building (Lowell Admin Building) where the Board of Ed meeting was being held. Rogers has two daughters in the district, one at the middle school and one in high school. Rogers has volunteered with numerous community organizations, serving on Flat River Outreach Mission’s board for the past six years, helping to coordinate Love Week with Impact Church, and participating in Kids Hope, a mentoring program for kids in Lowell schools. Rogers said that he has a passion for the Lowell community and says of the school district, “I like where it has been, where it is, and where it’s going.”
Board Discussion/Decision About Board Seat
Several board members stressed that appointing a new board member would be a really difficult decision because there were nine quality candidates from which to choose, and all of them seemed to be able to bring something unique and important to the board.
Board member Laurie Kuna said that all of the excellent interviewees spoke to the excellence of our school district and our community as a whole and that she was strongly considering those candidates with an education-based background.
Pat Nugent said that it mattered to him that three of the candidates (German, Liu, Curtis) put their time and energy into running a campaign last November for a seat on the board and that it spoke to him of their commitment to wanting to serve the district.
Board member Tom Kaywood made a motion that the board consider Jessica Curtis for the seat, and Nugent seconded the motion.
During board discussion of Curtis as the nominee, Dougherty pointed out that she had the next highest amount of votes in last November’s election, out of eight names on the ballot. If there had been four spots to fill on the board during the election, rather than three, Curtis would already have a seat on the board, Dougherty said.
Nugent said that he appreciated that Curtis was a “known entity,” that he felt comfortable working with her, and that she fit well into the existing “culture of the board.”
After discussion, each board member needed to vote whether they’d like to see Curtis back on the board. It was a yes from five of the board members, with Jared Blough shaking his head “no” to vote against the motion. Blough didn’t provide a reason for his vote or indicate whom his preference was to fill the seat.
By a vote of 5-1, the motion passed, and Jessica Curtis will serve out the remainder of Dan Stephens’s term, which puts her up for reelection in 2024.
The next Lowell Area Schools Board of Education meeting will be held on Monday, February 13, at 7 pm in the admin building at 300 High Street.
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