County school board races are an aspect of election season that is all too frequently overshadowed by larger state or federal campaigns. And yet, public schools remain the heart of many communities– Livingston County included.
There are seven candidates competing for three seats on the Fowlerville Community Schools Board of Education. Trisha Reed and Ron Drinkert have both dropped out of the race, though their names will still appear on the ballot. All candidates were extended an opportunity to respond to a GIGO News survey to educate the public on their beliefs, values, and perspectives. Of the seven, Diana Dombrowski and Sandra Helzerman responded.
Diana Dombrowski has always considered running for school board. As a retired Fowlerville teacher and a parent of three Fowlerville alumni, she notes that her primary goals are to “ensure an equitable learning experience for ALL students, to promote staff support and retention, to increase student and staff safety, and to provide more support for students with dyslexia.”
In a questionnaire for the Livingston Post, Dombrowski elaborates on her endeavors in support of students with dyslexia. As a teacher, she was able to develop and implement a program integrating the Orton-Gillingham method to address the specific needs of specific students. With support from parents and counselors, she was ultimately successful in piloting English classes specifically designed for students with dyslexia at grades 9, 10, and 11. Dombrowski was also the driving force behind the creation of the Fowlerville Community Theatre.
Dombrowski also addresses some of the critical issues facing education. First and foremost is what she describes as a “concerted national movement designed to attack public schools and educators in order to drive a wedge between the parents and the schools.”
“If parents believe the propaganda and stop believing in their school districts,” she continues, “they are more likely to support legislation that gives public money to private, parochial, or homeschooling options. This, in turn, will financially devastate the public school system.”
The teaching profession, she adds, is bearing the brunt of “untruthful accusations of indoctrinating children in CRT, SEL, and a gay agenda. Quality education suffers when educators have to spend valuable time fighting off attacks on their profession.”
Dombrowski also references the all-too-common trend of mass shootings in schools. She adds that, in an ideal world, there would be more counselors available to provide mental health support and resources for students. In the event of her election, the hiring of additional qualified counselors would be a priority. However, Dombrowski does point out that the current Fowlerville board has hired security guards, a district liaison officer, and a Director of Safety, an endeavor she fully supports.
Of the 17 candidates endorsed by the Livingston County Republican Party, only four have completed any questionnaires offered by news sources. Of those four, only two accepted GIGO News’ invitation to share their views with Livingston County voters. Through this act of transparency, Sandra Helzerman has already set herself apart from the crowd of similar-minded candidates.
Helzerman is a stalwart Republican, as seen through her advocacy of family values and parents’ rights. She explained the issues she believes are most detrimental to public schools, making mention of the state board of education’s implementation of “absurd directions to teachers that would exclude parents from decisions concerning their own children.” She also expressed concern over “culture change agendas”, which she described as flooding schools, harming and confusing students.
“The basics,” she added, “are too often being discarded for radical indoctrination.”
Though Mrs. Helzerman didn’t specify exactly what this radical indoctrination entailed, it is not unreasonable to surmise that this is indeed a reference to the popular conservative talking points of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).
Despite the frequent Republican reiterations on the theme of CRT-based indoctrination, there is no set curriculum for CRT in elementary or secondary education. Meanwhile, the National Conference of State Legislatures defines SEL as a range of skills necessary to deal with (and succeed in) life. This includes bolstering skills such as critical thinking, emotion management, conflict resolution, responsible decision-making, teamwork, self-awareness and management, social awareness, and relationship skills. All of these aspects of human development are undeniably crucial skills for everyday life. This philosophy is far from a new development: for decades, both parents and children have turned to the likes of Sesame Street and Mister Rogers to better navigate the Piagetian stages of development. Yet many conservatives believe SEL is a covert means of teaching CRT and sex education to children.
Helzerman also points to “state and federal controls” as a threat to education. These stringent limitations, she proposed, result in educators only teaching to a test as compared to “being free to teach for the benefit of the students.” Interestingly enough, this perspective lies in stark contrast to the views of the GOP. An abundance of Republican voters and legislators have worked to enact bans on curriculum, effectively barring students from accessing a wide range of sources from math textbooks to literature. The National Education Association has condemned these efforts as an attempt to undermine public education.
Ironically, the Fowlerville Board of Education has mirrored these limitations. In May 2022, the board enacted an “approval process” that essentially dictates what plays and musicals can and cannot be performed by high school students. This policy was adopted as a result of conservative backlash from district officials to the school’s spring production, which was perceived to be a promotion of LGBTQ+ themes.
As for experience, Helzerman has 28 years of teaching experience and 16 years experience working at a credit union. As a result, she’s fairly knowledgeable on matters of curriculum and finance and assured GIGO News that, if she didn’t have enough knowledge on a particular matter, she’d adapt and figure it out.
“I have a desire for our schools to stay top-notch,” Helzerman concluded. “And I have former students whose children are now enrolled. They have the same goal. What happens in our schools affects the whole community.”
As far as the media or a digital footprint are concerned, incumbent candidate John Belcher’s campaign has been minimal. Belcher currently serves as the board’s treasurer and holds the unique distinction of being the only Livingston County candidate in any race to be endorsed by both the Michigan Education Association and the Livingston County Republican Party. When discussing endorsements, fellow board member Danielle DeVries describes him to Michigan Liberty Leaders– a far-right Facebook group– as “one of the strongest constitutional conservatives [she’s] met.”
DeVries herself chose not to share her campaign with GIGO News, though she did complete the League of Women Voters questionnaire.
Uniquely for a public school board candidate, DeVries is a proponent of charter schools, citing the choice such institutions provide parents. In addition, she’s also a strong advocate of the parents’ rights movement. The topic of Parents’ rights has become widely associated with extreme conservative rhetoric, with groups like Moms for Liberty making frequent use of the term in opposition to everything from mask mandates to literature. DeVries describes the role of the school board, stating that their primary task is to “set the direction the school heads by keeping the students as the main focus while incorporating our community’s beliefs… The board is accountable to the public.”
Essentially, DeVries outlines a system in which the school district is subservient to the school board, with the board being governed by public interest. This philosophy reflects a much larger, widespread schism as school board candidates, parents, teachers, and other stakeholders in the realm of education become increasingly divided over one simple question: is a school board supposed to be hierarchical or is it intended to be a system of checks and balances?
DeVries was also asked to provide insight into her vision and how it would support the economy and quality of life in the community.
“My vision for Fowlerville Community Schools is one where we educate all students to the highest levels of academic achievement possible and enable them to reach their full potential,” DeVries notes, adding that her goal is “for our schools help to create well-educated, confident individuals ready to pursue whatever path they choose after graduation.”
Amy Cook is a relative newcomer to the realm of school politics. Despite being an active community member, she has not served on a board before. As a mother of four, Cook cites involvement in numerous school fundraisers, clubs, and sports organizations as her main source of experience, alongside her work with the Livingston County Employee Appreciation Committee. In an interview questionnaire with the Livingston Post, she mentions that her candidacy is motivated by her desire to “improve opportunities for gifted and disabled students.”
Cook lists the three most pressing issues facing public education as a “lack of qualified teachers, overcrowding classrooms, and transportation issues.” These factors, she continues, prevent children from receiving a “much-needed and deserved education.”
Gary Helfmann is another candidate who has been remarkably quiet about his campaign. Helfmann appears to be running a campaign based on name recognition: he and his wife Mary have both been active in the Fowlerville community, with ties to the Fowlerville Community Theatre and the Fowlerville Rotary. The Helfmanns were grand marshals of the 2021 Fowlerville 4th of July Parade, with Livingston County’s Year-End Report citing that the couple “regularly volunteers their time and resources to contribute to their community and public events.” Helfmann is also the owner of A-1 Rent-All in Howell.
Gary Helfmann previously ran for school board in 2020 and is currently endorsed by the Livingston County Republican Party.
In responding to the Livingston Post, Denise Yon emphasizes that, through her education, she was “taught to look outside the box for solutions, to listen carefully, and make decisions based on the information provided, not just hearsay.”
This skill is evident in Yon’s campaign. After making the decision to run for school board, she started networking and listening to those she seeks to represent, seeking the perspectives of twelve educators to identify the three most pressing issues facing public education. The top two responses were unanimous: teacher shortages, burnout, and bullying. Yon adds that as a board member she would ensure that the district fulfills its responsibility of providing a safe environment for both students and staff, citing the district’s firm ‘No Bullying’ stance.
Yon also references her background as a healthcare manager, pointing out that she’s always been guided by the philosophy that “you can only be as good as those you surround yourself with.”
“My directive is to make those near me successful and then I too will be successful by organizing, streamlining, implementing policies and procedures that enable one to be fulfilled in their work environment,” Yon said, adding, “I take pride in assisting others to be successful.”
For more information on upcoming elections, including candidate lists and polling locations, visit the Livingston County Clerk Elections Division.