Three trustees resign from MDPS Board of Education

Board begins to fill vacancies as general election draws near

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison-Park News | Published September 15, 2022

 The three trustees who resigned made their announcement during closing comments Aug. 15.

The three trustees who resigned made their announcement during closing comments Aug. 15.

Photo taken from Aug. 15 board meeting video


MADISON HEIGHTS — Three trustees have resigned from the Madison District Public Schools Board of Education, citing compatibility issues with the rest of the board, and unease over social media discourse around a previous superintendent.

Debra Ott, Barbara Kastle and Mark Holcomb announced their resignations at the board meeting Aug. 15. Kastle, Ott and Holcomb had been serving since 2019. The terms of Kastle and Ott expire at the end of 2022. Holcomb’s term expires in 2024.

Mary Harp was appointed to a two-year seat at the meeting Aug. 29, serving the remainder of Holcomb’s term. Merri Busch was appointed Sept. 12 to one of the vacancies that ends this year. Busch is also running as a write-in candidate in the general election Nov. 8. The board did not appoint anyone to the remaining vacancy Sept. 12. At press time, it was up to Oakland Intermediate Schools to make that determination.

Looking ahead to the general election, Mark Kimble, a former board member, is running for a four-year term. Gloria Thompson, a current board member, is also running for another four-year term. Both are running unopposed.

The three trustees who resigned made their announcement during closing comments Aug. 15.

“First of all, I would like to thank the people that supported me here the past two and half years or whatever, but today I am going to resign,” Holcomb said. “I don’t like the way the board direction is going and I couldn’t stand for it. I don’t like the rudeness.”

He pointed to social media discourse around the previous superintendent, Angel Abdulahad, who earlier this summer left to serve as superintendent of Oak Park Public Schools. Abdulahad had served as the superintendent of the Madison District Public Schools since early 2019. Patricia Perry, the principal of Madison High School, is working double duty as the interim superintendent while a permanent replacement is sought.

Ott followed Holcomb in announcing her resignation.

“This is nothing personal — nothing personal — but I too feel it necessary that I take my leave. Like Mark said, it’s the direction of the board. This board — we are not compatible. There’s rudeness, condescending attitudes. And my mental and physical health — it’s time for me to step down. So as of today, I resign as well.”

Kastle was the last to announce her resignation during closing comments.

“In light of what the two just said, I am also going to resign. I just don’t feel that this board is ever going to come together,” Kastle said. “I’m sorry for what’s happened. We continuously keep bringing up Mr. Abdulahad. He did a good job for us — the best he could under the circumstances. He’s being smeared daily, and he’s gone. I just can’t do this anymore — I’m really sorry. So tonight is my last night — thank you.”

Reached for comment via email, Abdulahad shared his thoughts.

“I worked from January 2013 until 2022 at Madison District Public Schools. I have learned a lot and have grown a lot,” Abdulahad said. “I am extremely grateful for all the success I was able to enjoy during my tenure. I was rated ‘highly effective’ every year as superintendent, and take great pride in that accomplishment. I want to wish (the district) good luck in their superintendent search, and have no doubt they will select the best candidate for the district, its families and staff. I want to wish Madison families good luck during their academic school year, and wish them, the staff, and the district nothing but the best in their future endeavors.”

In a follow-up email, Ott spoke to some of the accomplishments that occurred while she and the others who resigned were on the board.

In 2019, an audit conducted by Plante Moran showed the district had a surplus of nearly $3.3 million in 2012, but was overspending up through the 2019 fiscal year, putting the district on the brink of collapse, with a deficit of $1.5 million projected for the following year. A series of corrective measures were implemented to stave off a deficit, which included cutting $1.5 million from the 2019-20 school year budget.

Since then, the district has been bolstering its fund balance. This led to the district’s removal from a state watch list that requires districts to maintain 5% or more of their expenditures in savings. The district has exceeded that goal with a fund balance around 10% and growing.

In early 2021, the district celebrated additional good news, selling its 2021 refunding bonds for roughly $9.6 million, resulting in interest payment savings of $747,000. The savings represented nearly 8% of the bonds that remained.

The sale of the former Edison Elementary School to the charter school Keys Grace Academy provided the district with another $1.3 million. The district agreed to continue to be the fiscal agent for Keys Grace for the next 10 years, for which the district stands to gain another $1.3 million, for a total $2.6 million.

In addition, the board reworked the K-8 curriculum, added smart boards to each classroom, provided Google Chromebooks for each student, introduced a tuition-based program for students at the Early Childhood Center, and implemented a social and emotional learning program called “Capturing Kids’ Hearts.” Holcomb himself organized a career day for 22 students in Howell and donated two bikes as prizes for essay writers who wrote their own motivational sayings. The winners also had their sayings machined onto aluminum plaques that were mounted in their schools.

“We did a lot of good things,” Ott said in an email. “The choice to leave was a hard one, but we believe the right one.”

Harp, one of the new appointees, said in a phone interview that she is eager to serve. She has already served in another way, as a veteran of the Navy Reserve. Her husband is a veteran of the Marine Corps.

“My husband and I moved to Madison Heights four years ago … and although we don’t have children or grandchildren of our own, once you grow acclimated to a community, people start talking about issues — their satisfaction and dissatisfaction — and I’ve noticed that more and more kids in our own neighborhood were choosing Lamphere. And while I support school of choice, I want our district to be where families want to be. So, when I saw a posting online saying that the school board was looking for candidates, I applied,” Harp said.

“I feel it’s important we have a school board that listens to families,” she said. “My husband and I both believe that community and education are everything. That’s what motivated me — I want to step up for the community. I want to be involved in making this district the best it can be.”

Busch shared her thoughts on joining the board as an appointee and running for a full term as a write-in candidate this November. She said that recent years have been difficult for the district.

“I especially appreciate the women who have remained (on the board) … who have worked despite physical and emotional fatigue to dial back hostilities in the community, and bring a tone of professional civility to the conduct of the board and the management of the administration,” she said. “For the first time in a long time, I believe we can get back to the business of educating the children of the district. I’m hoping that when we get done putting out the employee turnover fires, we can start to revisit the vision of the board, and at least a five-year strategic plan for bringing the district into better alignment with the necessary education for the students to have lifelong success.”

She observed that many students in the district are from outside of the community, and that MDPS has seen more students migrating to other districts during the past 10 years.

“I am left wondering if that is the expectation of the taxpayers of this district — to support students from other parts of the region,” Busch said.

She feels the time is right to create a plan enticing parents in the community to re-enroll their children with the district. She also wants to see test scores improve across the board.

Alternatively, Busch said it might be appropriate to dissolve the district in full and merge with another one, or sell the district to a charter school to settle the debts of the district.

“Hiring a permanent superintendent who can bring the necessary skill set to these challenges is critical. And we need a realistic time frame for goals and progress measurement. These are not easy challenges, and are likely going to take three to five years to resolve,” Busch said. “Failing to meet these goals would be a signal to me that the (district’s) tenure as a community education provider should be coming to an end. That said, I am going to do everything in my power to keep that from happening. I know the rest of the board is also highly committed to improving our district.”

Kimble said he appreciates the work of the three board members who left.

“With respect to the three board members resigning, I understand their reason, and that’s certainly their decision,” Kimble said in a phone interview. “I thank them for their service that changed the trajectory of this district at a very crucial time for this district.”

Added Cindy Holder, the board president, in a phone interview: “Sometimes people perceive a person’s actions as rudeness. But I don’t think anyone on the board ever meant to come off that way. When you’re dealing with kids’ education, everything is passionate.”