School districts in Michigan generally allow voters to choose who will oversee the use of their tax dollars to educate their children. Such school board elections give voters some control over the public school system in their district, and the elections are intended to give parents and taxpayers a sense of ownership over local education.

But these democratic ideals can suffer in practice. Consider the Okemos Board of Education, which decided this spring to investigate the qualifications and personal life of an upstart candidate — a candidate who just happened to have taken on and defeated an incumbent board member in the most recent election.

Okemos is a school district located in the Lansing suburbs. In the May 3 school board election, candidate Judith Barton-MacGuidwin defeated an incumbent school board member by 49 votes out of nearly 2000 cast. At issue is a complaint lodged before the election by the incumbent candidate suggesting that Ms. MacGuidwin is not a resident of Okemos.

In the interests of full disclosure, I will add that I live in the Okemos school district, and that I voted for Ms. MacGuidwin. I would note, however, that I have met her only once — briefly, at a public forum just before the election. Moreover, one does not need to have voted for Ms. MacGuidwin, or even to have lived in Okemos, to question what has happened since the election.

Ms. MacGuidwin, who is a realtor and attorney by profession, does in fact own several properties outside the school district. But according to the Ingham county clerk, Ms. MacGuidwin is a resident of Okemos, living at a local address, where she has been registered to vote continuously since 1981. All five of her children have attended public schools in the Okemos system. Three of them are still enrolled.

The defeated incumbent’s challenge of Ms. MacGuidwin’s residency was rejected by the Meridian Township clerk, the Ingham county clerk, and the Ingham County Board of Canvassers, who have all certified the election results. He is continuing a private challenge with the Michigan Secretary of State’s office.

Michigan law provides no role for the school board itself in adjudicating election results. The Ingham county clerk, following the challenge, obtained a legal opinion spelling out the clear process that is to be followed under Michigan law, emphasizing that the proper and exclusive remedy is to have a challenge of the person’s qualifications brought in the Ingham County Circuit Court. State law provides that such challenges may be brought only by the Michigan Attorney General, although other parties are permitted to petition the state Attorney General to bring such a challenge.

Nonetheless, the Okemos Board of Education — to which the incumbent belongs until the end of June — decided to divert its attention from education issues and assert that it has a role to play in reviewing local election results. The board voted to hire a prominent litigation attorney to investigate the results of the election at a rate of $400 per hour. The attorney stated at the board meeting where he appeared that he had been retained to investigate the residency status of Ms. MacGuidwin. While he did research the relevant law for evaluating such a challenge, the attorney spent most of his presentation reporting on Ms. MacGuidwin’s life from a review of her tax records, voting status, mailing address for Michigan Bar Association publications, and other details. Board members also presented results of their own research into Ms. MacGuidwin’s water usage at her different properties and listened intently as one audience member reported trailing Ms. MacGuidwin and keeping a journal of her comings and goings.

All these highly personal details of Ms. MacGuidwin’s life were aired at a public meeting televised on a local public access television channel. Board members expressed their outrage at Ms. MacGuidwin for not publicly rebutting the allegations being made against her. Ironically, one of the meetings where board members railed against Ms. MacGuidwin for not appearing before them was held at the same time as the Okemos High School Honors Convocation — an event Ms. MacGuidwin attended, since the Okemos Public Schools was bestowing several honors on her daughter.

Paying an attorney to investigate the residency of a candidate in a school board election is hardly typical educational expenses for a school district. It is difficult to see how the parents, school children and voters in the Okemos school district benefit from the school board — elected to administer the schools — investigating whether it has a basis for overturning the judgment of the county officials empowered by law to rule on elections. A losing candidate certainly has a legal right to challenge the results of a school board election. Still, the spectacle of the school board kibitzing in the well-established legal process governing Michigan elections suggests that the board has fallen off-mission.

At a meeting on June 6, 2005, the school board heard from their attorney that Ms. MacGuidwin is entitled by law to a strong presumption of residency in Okemos and that the results of this nosing around in Ms. MacGuidwin’s personal life did not establish particularly compelling evidence to overcome that presumption. At that point, the school board decided to drop their challenge to Ms. MacGuidwin’s residency. Before doing so, various board members publicly patted themselves on the back for having taken the matter seriously and for examining all the facts carefully.

But this extraordinary board activity could easily be viewed differently, regardless of the board’s stated intentions. Parents and citizens who are seeking changes in Okemos’ education policies may have come away from the meeting suspecting that future candidates can expect similar treatment if they dare to challenge incumbents in school elections.

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Theodore Bolema, a professor and attorney at the Central Michigan University’s College of Business Administration, is a father of children in the Okemos Public Schools and is an adjunct scholar of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.