Three newcomers join the Bloomfield Hills school board

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Bloomfield Hills residents elected Jonathan VanGemert, Siva Kumar and Michelle Southward to its 2021 school board, replacing three incumbents who decided not to run for reelection.

“I think the community wants the board to be open to reciprocal communication from its constituents in a meaningful way,” VanGemert said. “I also think they want transparency and logically explained decision making.”

VanGemert ran for several reasons, one of them being he has three kids in the district.

“I also see room for improvement,” VanGemert said, “which I see as continued growth and progress, not an indictment on where we are now.”

VanGemert said the election between seven candidates was competitive in a good way. “Our district is lucky to have so many qualified people interested in volunteering for the school board, and so many parents and community members interested in the outcome of the election,” he said.

Siva Kumar took the top spot in the election, with 8,048 votes, according to the Detroit Free Press.

“It felt like I was at a point in my life where I could give something back to the district,” Kumar said. “I have a strong finance and project execution background so I felt I could add value to the board.”

Kumar agreed that it was a competitive race for the three seats, but candidates shared a common goal. 

“We all wanted to do what’s best for the students so I think we had a lot more points in common than we did differences,” Kumar said. “If anything, we brought our different experiences to the table and that was reflected in our perspectives for what we wanted the board to do.”

Superintendent welcomes new board members

Bloomfield Hills Superintendent Patrick Watson said, “I think it’s unfortunate that everyone couldn’t win because everyone brings a little something different to the table to help the district, but I’m looking forward to working with the three winners.”

COVID-19 challenges

The district phased students back to in-person learning the week of Oct. 5, but high schoolers have gone back to virtual learning since then.

“The community wants our kids back in school, but they understand that it needs to follow safety protocols and be equitable,” Watson said.

Watson shares he is looking forward to working with the new board.

“I think [the new board] will need to work with us to look at the changes COVID-19 has made for education and what it is going to look like going forward,” Watson said. “COVID-19 is forever going to change education, so they’re going to have to work with those changes and what the future of education can and should look like.”

Kumar agrees that how the district handles COVID-19 remains a priority for the future board.

“COVID-19 is still an area of concern particularly as it relates to in-person instruction,” Kumar said. “It’s a topic of debate and concern for parents, teachers, administrators and the board.”

Other challenges

In August, the current school board passed a $2 million bond to improve infrastructure, a bond that the future board will handle. 

“I think the community wants the bond funds utilized expeditiously, and in a fiscally responsible manner,” VanGemert said. “They also want our district to be a leader in inclusion and diversity through action, goals and benchmarks.”

Challenges and COVID-19 aside, Watson expects the board’s focus to remain on the students. 

“I think the community can expect excitement, forward-thinkers, creativity and just a board that’s going to be really focused on serving students the best way possible,” Watson said.

In this interview, Watson reiterates that the board must focus on the impact of COVID-19 on the learning modalities offered in Bloomfield Hills:

Bloomfield Hills Superintendent Patrick Watson offers his input on the future of the school board.

School board president remarks

“There’s a lot of things going on in terms of all the issues we’re dealing with,” said Bloomfield Hills School Board President Paul Kolin. “So I think what the community wants is for people to come in with an open mind, look at all viewpoints, analyze the viewpoints and make their decisions in the best interest of the students.”

The three incumbents who did not seek reelection had a combined experience of 44 years serving on the school board.

“They’ve all given so much to our community,” Kolin said. “We thank them for all their service. I’ve worked with all three of them for the last six years, so I’ve learned a lot from them and it’s been a great experience working with them.”