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The GIGO Guide to School Board Elections: Howell Edition

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 three seats up for grabs on the Howell Public Schools Board of Education, with eight candidates on the ballot. Of these eight, Charlie Aberasturi, Christy Conn, and Tracy Flak completed the GIGO News questionnaire to share their platforms and perspectives with the community.

Charlie Aberasturi reflected that it was family that motivated him to run for the Hartland board in 1997, as his oldest daughter entered the school system. He went on to serve a total of 24 years on the board prior to his resignation in October 2021. Similarly, it is family that motivates him now.

“Some of you may ask why a 71-year-old grandfather wants to serve on a school board. The first reason is my granddaughter started kindergarten at Three Fires last year and my second granddaughter will attend Howell Schools in three years,”  Aberasturi shared with GIGO News. As for the second reason behind his campaign, Aberasturi worked as a financial manager in the automotive industry for 34 years. This experience has fostered in him a “talent for financial analysis and financial forecasting” that he wishes to contribute to impact the community. 

Charlie Aberasturi

“For thirty-four years in business and twenty-four years on a school board, I worked with others to determine the best course of action, based on all available data,” Aberasturi explained. “I am not quick to decide on important issues and wish to obtain as much data as is available. I am a numbers and facts-oriented accountant that understands the need for robust decisions that are made timely enough so the results can be properly acted on.”

Charlie Aberasturi is a unique candidate in that he’s pursuing a non-partisan position through a distinctly partisan campaign. While he has shared that he has no specific agenda, his conservative values are made very clear through his social media. It can be inferred that Aberasturi would bring these values to his decision-making as a board member. However, unlike many of his fellow conservatives, Mr. Aberasturi does not appear to rely heavily on the rhetoric of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Social Emotional Learning (SEL), instead focusing on his steadfast dedication to his core principles. 

In reflecting on his current campaign, Aberasturi recounted the advent of his career. In the span of 25 years between his first interview with long-time Livingston journalist Buddy Moorehouse and his recent interview with GIGO News, Aberasturi is proud to report that his campaign platforms have remained completely consistent. 

Aberasturi has a lengthy list of community involvement, ranging from coaching baseball and basketball to pastoral visits and extensive volunteer work through church organizations. In addition to being sponsored by the Livingston County Republican Party, Aberasturi has been endorsed by Right to Life of Michigan, State Representative Bob Bezotte (47th district), Wes Nakagiri of the Livingston County Board of Commissioners, and a bevy of other prominent political figures of the area.

Christy Conn

Christy Conn is a firm believer in community service, citing it to be “an important part of a full life.”

And during her tenure on the Howell Board of Education, Conn has certainly lived the experience to the fullest, demonstrating a remarkable level of investment and involvement. Over the last four years, Conn has served on the committees for Curriculum, Student Reinstatement, OneHowell, Human Reproductive Health Advisory Committee, Return to School, and Bond Steering Committee. Conn does point out that she’s never served on the finance committee. She does, however, have 20 years of business experience that have contributed to a comprehensive understanding of the budgeting process, appropriate investing, and responsible spending. Ms. Conn is also the only board member up for reelection who has achieved an Award for Merit through the Michigan Association of School Boards.

In addressing the most pressing issues facing public education, Conn presents a comprehensive view of topics ranging from sustained funding to teacher recruitment and retention. To resolve these dilemmas, Conn seeks to carry on with her efforts as a good steward of financial resources and continue to promote the OneHowell process. The process includes an adaptive blueprint to facilitate the recruitment and retention of qualified teachers and staff. In addition, Conn has already pledged her support to advocate for appropriate funding so the district is better able to provide competitive compensation. 

Conn adds that a major detriment to the public education system comes in the form of ”partisan politics inserting themselves into a non-partisan environment that should be focused on student achievement.” The best remedy for this is a level-headed, objective approach in order to maintain civil discourse.

This plan of action is intended to bolster the district and community as a collective: as Conn notes, a  strong, vibrant school system is an integral part of a successful community. 

Conn also points out that her experiences as a parent, volunteer, and human resource professional facilitate a better understanding of and respect for varying perspectives, adding that she is “open to hearing and respecting different perspectives and eager to build consensus through open dialogue and relationship building.”

Tracy Flak

As a former Howell High School teacher of English and ASL, Tracy Flak has a unique familiarity with and appreciation for the inner workings of Howell Public Schools.  

When asked to describe her motivations and objectives, Flak told GIGO News that she’d like to foster “a sense of unity to the district and community.”

Flak is a staunch supporter of students, and, if elected, seeks to emulate their best interests in board policy.  In addition, Flak expressed her support for the current board, citing that “they have always done their best in creating options (Highlander Virtual) for parents and students when they see the need.” This, she asserts, is one of the principal duties of a school board.

Given her background as an educator, it’s no surprise that Flak is also a strong advocate for teachers.

 “I would like to see teachers treated as experts in their field because that is what they are,” she explained. “I understand the difficulties that come with the job and what teachers face on a daily basis in the classroom.  I fully support the staff (teachers and beyond) that have helped raise our two boys because it certainly takes a village. I am proud to have raised our children in this district and to have called Howell home for the last 20 years.”

Don Banfield

Don Banfield is best known for his 24 years of service with the Howell Police Department. Between 2006-2009 and again from 2017-2021, Banfield worked as Howell Public Schools’ resource officer, utilizing his training as a narcotics detective to detect and prevent substance abuse on campus. Following his retirement, Banfield returned to the schools, where he served in long-term substitute positions in the classroom and as an administrator during the Pandemic. 

Banfield prides himself on running a completely non-partisan campaign free of any endorsements. He notes that he is “eager to be a part of a school board that has relentlessly focused on our children” and would like to be a “part of a forward-thinking, solution-focused, and creative board.”

Jason Bedford’s campaign consists of three basic principles: accountability, balance, and curriculum.

Jason Bedford

On his website, Bedford addresses his thoughts on curriculum in just two sentences: “CRT is divisive, poisonous and designed to tear down that which makes the United States the greatest country in the world.  Instead, our energy and resources should be focused on equipping our students with the knowledge and experience to excel.” 

Research has shown time and time again, in Livingston County and beyond, that no such curriculum for Critical Race Theory exists for elementary or secondary schools, nor has anything even resembling the collegiate level curriculum been implemented, or even proposed in any Livingston County district. It is concerning, to say the least, for a school board candidate’s only knowledge of instructional practices to be limited to a curriculum that does not exist at the K-12 level. 

This perspective influences Bedford’s approach to accountability, as he cites his goal as policy-making that reflects public sentiment and values as compared to “pushing a non-traditional agenda.” Again, Bedford does not elaborate on what this non-traditional agenda is, nor does he outline what a traditional agenda should entail.

The balance portion seems to have been tossed into the mix for stylistic purposes, simply to link points A and C alphabetically. Bedford neglects to detail his concept of balance, other than to state that balance should in fact exist for students, parents, and taxpayers. 

In a brief departure from waging war on non-existent educational programs, Bedford recently attacked the members of the Howell Carnegie District Library board for a lack of “leadership with traditional values.” Bedford did not respond to the Livingston Post’s request for clarification. One would imagine that, as a dedicated conservative devoted and indebted to the Livingston County GOP, Bedford is a firm believer in Republican ideology. Chief among these values is individual freedom of thought and action, a philosophy shared by public libraries, particularly those funded by Andrew Carnegie. A library is a place of unabridged freedom, a bastion of the bootstrap mentality typically championed by Republicans. And yet, Bedford, a proposed advocate for both education and Republican values, has made it clear that he is firmly opposed to the time-honored Howell institution.

Meg Marhofer appears to be running a joint candidacy with Bedford, adopting his accountability, balance, curriculum philosophy.

Marhofer’s individual campaign has been rather simplistic: a social media campaign consisting primarily of positive sentiments about the Howell community, ranging from high school athletics to fundraisers to Custodian Appreciation Day. But the idyllic imagery of football and fundraisers says very little, if anything, about her platforms, perspectives, and beliefs. If the most recent batch of flyers distributed to Howell residents is any indication, Marhofer is just as invested in the anti-CRT, ‘traditional agenda’ ideology as Bedford. Marhofer, like the vast majority of Republican-endorsed candidates, has declined the opportunity to address the public. However, according to the Livingston Lantern– a conservative blog platform connected to Moms for Liberty– Marhofer and Bedford have organized a collaborative meet-and-greet, presumably as an attempt to drill up votes as Election Day draws closer. Marhofer has since contacted GIGO News to clarify that she is in no way affiliated with the Livingston Lantern and that due to Facebook privacy settings, she was unaware of their promotion of her campaign.

Marhofer also pointed out that her answers to the League of Women Voters questionnaire were published after GIGO News’ coverage of the Howell School Board race. 

In her response, Marhofer expressed concern over how schools were impacted by the pandemic, particularly with the effect it had on district parents. Marhofer noted that “masking, safety, [and] distant [sic] learning were huge concerns that parents found themselves unexpectedly dealing with all at once.”  She elaborated that many parents– presumably herself included– felt “helpless, hopeless, and invisible when dealing with the board.” Her campaign was forged out of the desire to change this. 

Meg Marhofer

Marhofer also notes that, following the closure of her business, she has the time to dedicate to the school board and the community. She adds that she’s dedicated to transparency and open communication in interacting with district stakeholders. 

When asked to address the educational strengths of the district, Marhofer told the League of Women Voters that “teachers, staff, students, and parents are, without a doubt, what shines through and make Howell Schools a strong district.” She went on to say that supportive parents and dedicated educators are the heart of the district. 

Despite her professed appreciation for district educators, Marhofer also pointed GIGO News toward a social media post regarding the Howell Education Association’s endorsement of candidates. Throughout Livingston County, all school board candidates were offered the opportunity to partake in the Michigan Education Association’s (MEA) screening and recommendation process. According to the MEA, this process is designed to look at candidates’ stances on education and labor issues. Like school boards themselves, the MEA is a non-partisan institution dedicated to ensuring safe and stable educational conditions for students and teachers. In a post written on behalf of Bedford, Aberasturi, and herself, Meg Marhofer took this a step further by not only refusing to engage with the teachers’ union but vehemently criticizing those who did. Her sentiment was supported by Jennifer Smith, President of the Livingston County branch of Moms for Liberty.

As noted in GIGO News’ coverage of the Fowlerville Board of Education race, only one Republican-endorsed candidate in Livingston County chose to seek endorsement from the MEA. This is presumably due to the historical connection between the Democratic Party and numerous labor unions– including the MEA, UAW, IBEW, the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, and local branches of the Bridge Structural and Ornamental Iron Workers and United Food & Commercial Workers Union. In recent years, Republican leaders across the nation have characterized unionization as being inextricably linked to Democratic ideologies, citing them to be a detriment to business. As a result, increasingly few Republicans are aligning themselves with trade and labor unions, and unions are perceived as being political entities. 

One of Marhofer’s goals in pursuing a seat on the Howell Board of Education is the expansion of career and technical programs. As she tells the League of Women Voters, it is imperative to provide students with a wide variety of opportunities, as not all students are pursuing college degrees. Howell High School currently offers technical training courses through the Firefighter Academy, flight school, and Airforce JROTC, as well as programs in construction trades, manufacturing and engineering, and culinary arts. Marhofer notes that these programs are a good starting point, but that these opportunities could be improved upon by “connecting students with lifelong career opportunities that wouldn’t require a college degree.” In addition, she explains that such programs would also have economic benefits, aiding local businesses struggling to find and retain employees.     

Brent Earl

One thing that distinguishes Brent Earl from many of his contemporaries is his ability to remain non-partisan. Over his eight years on the board, Mr. Earl has proved to be reliable, consistent, and steadfast in his dedication to the school district and the community at large. The Earl name is a prominent one in the Howell area, and he demonstrates immense pride in his family’s heritage and deep Howell roots. It is this pride that drives Earl’s campaign for reelection. 

It should be noted that, as the spouse of a district teacher, Mr. Earl is unable to vote on certain contracts or financial transactions due to the Revised School Code’s conflict of interest law. Despite this, Earl’s track record in matters of policy reflects a desire to best serve the needs of students.

When asked by the League of Women Voters to address the strengths and weaknesses of the district as a whole, Earl referred to the district’s response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

“We are a model school in how, collectively, we managed through the challenges. Our teachers rocked it during a hard, hard time. They are why we are in as good of a position as we are.”

However, Earl also points out that many students are falling behind where they should be academically as a result of the Pandemic years. It is the duty of the district to bring them back up to speed. 

“Our administrative team and dedicated teachers are currently doing this job in getting our students to the level they should be,” he concluded. “I know first-hand how our teachers are helping our students. It is inspiring to witness.”

In a video statement, Earl also addressed the upcoming election, detailing the dedication and perseverance of the current school board. During the Pandemic, the board was faced with unprecedented challenges and decisions that they normally wouldn’t have had to make.

“I know some people have disagreements with some of the things we did,” he said. “but overall, we kept kids in school the best we could, and we kept students and staff safe.”

Earl spoke highly of his fellow board members, adding that, “if we can get through Covid… and we did, in Howell. Our board members didn’t agree on everything, but we did respect each other’s opinions.”

Brent Earl was also granted a congressional commendation by Representative Elissa Slotkin for his tireless dedication to the community during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Grace Trudell

While her campaign has been low-key, after multiple terms, incumbent candidate Trudell has both experience and a proven record of reasonable decision-making. 

“I believe my professional background experiences have allowed me to research and analyze data to make informed decisions, negotiate contracts and effectively resolve grievances,” Trudell told the League of Women Voters. 

Trudell is also endorsed by the Michigan Education Association and runs her campaign on the philosophy of putting kids first and maintaining strong community leadership. In order for an educational community to be successful, she notes, there must be a level of effective leadership for all parties, “from the Superintendent to the Board of Education to staff  to parents to students.”

For more information on upcoming elections, including candidate lists and polling locations, visit the Livingston County Clerk Elections Division.

Full disclosure- Leah Craig is the daughter of Howell Public Schools teacher and Howell Education Association President Kristi Craig.

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