Grosse Pointe school board candidates and their supporters campaign outside Maire Elementary School in Grosse Pointe City Nov. 8.

Grosse Pointe school board candidates and their supporters campaign outside Maire Elementary School in Grosse Pointe City Nov. 8.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

Contested school board race ushers in 3 newcomers

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published November 15, 2022

GROSSE POINTES — A hotly contested race for the Grosse Pointe Board of Education that saw 10 candidates vying for three seats resulted in the defeat of two incumbents in favor of three newcomers, all of whom will serve four-year terms.

Businessman and attorney Sean Cotton, of Grosse Pointe Farms, was the top vote-getter, with 12,494 votes, according to unofficial vote tallies available at press time. Cotton will join the board alongside public health consultant Valarie St. John, of Grosse Pointe Park, with 10,712 votes, and Ginny L. Jeup, of Grosse Pointe City, who is self-employed in the vacation rentals business.

Only 14 votes separated Jeup from the fourth-place contender, Timothy Klepp, who received 9,875 votes to Jeup’s 9,889.

Current Board President Joseph Herd, of Grosse Pointe Woods, and Board Secretary Christopher Lee, of Grosse Pointe City, did not win reelection. Margaret Weertz, who had been the board’s vice president, didn’t seek another term.

Other candidates who ran for the board included William K. Broman, Terry Collins, Clint Derringer and JeDonna Dinges.

Herd, who made history as the first Black member of the school board and first Black school board president, was appointed to the board three years ago to fill a vacancy. He was elected to the board two years ago, and his fellow board members chose him to become the board president.

“It was an honorable campaign that was reflective of the community we serve,” Herd said. “The things we did as a board, I’m very proud of. We accomplished quite a bit and set the stage for the next board.”

Herd thanked his supporters, including Lee, Weertz and Board Treasurer Colleen Worden.

“For the people that got elected, I hope they do well,” Herd said. “I’m a fan of the community, and I want to see positive gains continue to be made.”

Supporters of school board candidates — as well as the candidates themselves — were out in force at polling locations across the district on Election Day.

Michael Doyle, of Grosse Pointe Farms, was outside Brownell Middle School in the Farms to show support for Collins, Cotton and Jeup.

“I want to see them hopefully deliver better results for our rankings and test scores,” said Doyle, who said the district’s rankings and test scores were slipping. He was also upset about the closures of Trombly Elementary School in Grosse Pointe Park and Poupard Elementary School in Harper Woods, which happened in spring 2020.

Current school officials dispute the assertations by some of the candidates and their supporters. Herd said misinformation — especially as spread by social media — led some voters to believe the school system was faltering, something he said isn’t the case. He said they have a “good, solid administration,” a 12% fund balance and are ranked in the top 2% of public schools in the country.

GPPSS students have been back in their classrooms since March 2021, Herd said.

“There wasn’t that substantial drop in test scores … because we have a community that values education,” Herd said.

Lee, who will complete his first four-year term at the end of the year, thanked his supporters, including daughter Dana Moir, Worden, Weertz and her sister, Anne Weertz.

“I just wish the new school board luck and hope they have a good run,” Lee said after the election. “I would like to say I was very proud to run with Joe Herd. He’s a very fine person and a terrific school board president.”

Lee said the board faced unprecedented challenges over the last few years.

“It was a pleasure to serve on the board,” Lee said. “There was a lot of action during those four years. We closed two schools, we reconfigured the grades and we dealt with COVID. It was just a tumultuous time to be on the school board.”

He said he’s “very proud of the work” he and his fellow board members did. Although Lee still has three children in high school, he said he probably won’t run again for the board.

The newly elected board members know they have a lot of work ahead of them but said they’re eager to get started.

“I’m really excited to be the first openly gay person to be elected in the Grosse Pointes,” St. John said. “It shows how far the Grosse Pointes have come.”

St. John and her wife are parents of a young son in the Grosse Pointe Public School System.

“I wanted to run for school board to make sure we protect public education,” St. John said. “I just hope we can all work together to do what’s best for our students. … I’m looking forward to working together with my fellow new school board members to make sure our schools are the best they can be.”

St. John, one of the candidates who was endorsed by Grosse Pointe teachers and staff, thanked all those who supported her.

“This is definitely a team effort,” St. John said. “I had so many people working really hard throughout the election season.”

Cotton is also a parent with children in the district. He has two sons at Brownell.

“I’m looking to increase the focus on academics,” Cotton said. “When reading the strategic plan, I don’t see academics (made) as prominent as it should be.”

“I want to see a strategic plan that has real goals,” said Cotton, who said the strategic plan had “a lot of soft goals and you need hard goals.”

He said he wasn’t calling for the creation of a new strategic plan but would like to see the current one undergo some revision.

Cotton, who owns the Grosse Pointe News, said he stepped down as publisher of the paper after he decided to run for the school board. He said he hasn’t put any pressure on it to cover him differently than it would any other candidate, and he said he paid for all his campaign ads in the paper at the same rate paid by other candidates.

“I talked to all of my staff about it,” Cotton said. “They know how much integrity I have. … I believe that we were very fair.”

Cotton would like to see a skilled trades program in the schools. There’s a nationwide shortage of skilled tradespeople, and these jobs often come with good salaries and plentiful opportunities for employment.

“There are so many successful paths in the skilled trades,” said Cotton, who felt this kind of training could start with students even before they reach high school. “Not everybody is scholastically focused. We could teach people a lot of real-life skills they could use right out of high school.”

While they might have run against each other for the school board, this seems to be an area of common ground between Cotton and Herd, who said the GPPSS recently expanded its career technical education program.

“I hope the future board will make sure everyone is included in lifting up their abilities to the greatest extent possible,” Herd said.

He said the district has “always been excellent academically,” but some students might have a greater interest in skilled trades, which are another great path to pursue.

Many Cotton supporters also backed Jeup.

“I am so grateful to have been elected to the Grosse Pointe Public School System’s Board of Education,” Jeup said by email. “Our community deserves the best, and I am ready to get to work for our teachers and students. Our board has a great opportunity to work together to support our kids and staff, and to help set them up for success.”

The new board members will take office in January.

The Grosse Pointe Public School System encompasses all five of the Grosse Pointes and part of Harper Woods.