ALLENDALE TWP. — At least one Allendale school board member wants to see the board rescind its January decision to switch legal counsel representation after accusing other board members of lying and concealing relevant information.
More:Newly obtained texts show Ottawa Impact officials orchestrated law firm change before taking office
“I believe at the last meeting — it was based on false pretense and essentially we were lied to,” board member Pam DeJong said during a work session Monday, Jan. 23. “The board, the district and the community were tremendously misled. “
DeJong’s comments referred to the board’s first meeting of the year on Jan. 9, when — after swearing in the new members — last-minute agenda items sparked a sudden and heated debate over which law firm would represent them on legal matters, in addition to potentially severing his long-standing relationship with the Michigan Association of School Boards.
During that meeting, board members DeJong, Josh Thurkettle and Kim Cannata were seemingly caught by surprise when the legal counsel issue was added to the board’s agenda for a vote — claiming they’d only received notice of the new contract 24 hours beforehand.
More:‘Your integrity is very weak’: Allendale school board spars over law firm switch
“Presenting information to fellow board members to try and shove a law firm through, that’s not transparent,” board secretary Thurkettle said during the Jan. 9 meeting. “If you think it is, your integrity is very weak.”
“These are big decisions for our school district and our community,” board member Cannata said at the first meeting. “I’m not comfortable, as a board member, giving something a quick look over before I make such an important decision.”
Thurkettle, Cannata and DeJong voted against the move, but the decision was ultimately approved 4-3 with newly elected board president Corey Mango, vice president Anna Hendricks and board members Liz Ramey and Kevin Holstege voted in favor of the measure.
Less than a week later, The Sentinel reported the newly elected members of the board affiliated with far-right political group Ottawa Impact, along with incumbent board member Hendricks, had methodically arranged for Lansing-based Kallman Legal Group to take over legal services for the district nearly six weeks before the candidates were sworn into office.
In text messages spanning Nov. 21-Jan. 8, Mango, Hendricks and Ramey appear to discuss Ramey’s intention to solicit Kallman Group’s services for the school board and end its longtime affiliation with Grand Rapids-based Thrun Law Firm.
The communications were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by an Ottawa County resident who shared it with The Sentinel.
The messages also showed Ramey was consulting with Sylvia Rhodea and Joe Moss, co-founders of Ottawa Impact and the now-vice chair and chair of the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners, respectively, both of whom attended the school board meeting Jan. 9.
The county board followed a similar script days earlier Jan. 3, when, after swearing in eight new Ottawa Impact candidates into office, several agenda items were added with no notice and sweeping changes were made, including:
- Firing former administrator John Shay and hiring former Republican congressional candidate John Gibbs in his place
- Eliminating the county’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office
- Changing the county motto from “Where You Belong” to “Where Freedom Rings”
- Firing former corporate counsel Doug Van Essen and replacing him with Kallman Legal Group
The Michigan Attorney General’s Office announced Jan. 4 it would investigate the county board’s first meeting and evaluate if the group violated the state’s Open Meetings Act. The office has not yet commented on the school board’s actions.
In a work session Monday, Jan. 23, the board held its first of 12 additional meetings added to the schedule for the year — an effort they said would help increase transparency. It was the first time the board members were able to publicly address the text message revelations and the first time for residents to weigh in during the public comment period.
Superintendent Garth Cooper, in his report to the board, said he met with David Kallman, lead attorney with Kallman Group. Cooper said Kallman wasn’t prepared to represent the board in some areas, including school-related elections and bond refinancing.
Watch:Watch the meeting on YouTube
Cooper recommended the board consider a retainer with thrun to make sure those areas were covered.
The information led to several questions from board members, including how many districts Kallman represents in the state. To Cooper’s knowledge, it’s currently only representing Allendale, but is “soliciting other districts.”
Cooper said it was common for school districts to have more than one legal firm on retainer, and that several other districts had more than one retainer.
“When you’re sick and you talk to a doctor, sometimes you want a second opinion — and that’s a healthy decision,” he said.
Thurkettle, echoing DeJong’s comments about the appropriateness of the initial vote, said he would like to see that decision rescinded at the board’s next regular meeting (boards don’t take formal action at work sessions).
“I would like to see a rescission of that vote,” he said.
In order to walk back the decision, one of the board members who was in the majority to approve it — Mango, Ramey, Hendricks or Holstege — would have to make a motion at the board’s next meeting Feb. 13 and a majority of the board would have to vote for the recession.
More:Amid in-fighting, censures: What is the future for Ottawa County conservatism?
More:Public comment dominates Ottawa County board meeting
Cooper said he’ll plan to bring information on several law firms to present to the board in February.
Rhodea and Moss co-founded Ottawa Impact in 2021, after clashing with the Ottawa County Department of Public Health’s pre-K-6 mask mandates in all school districts, including the private Christian school Libertas, where Moss’ child attended. He and other parents sued the county and health department, claiming religious exemption from mask and quarantine orders, which was ultimately dismissed.
Moss has repeatedly denied a conflict of interest in backing the hiring of Kallman Legal Group after The Sentinel reported his connections to the Kallman family — specifically being business partners and longtime friends with Joel Kallman, David’s nephew — and that David Kallman’s grandnieces and grandnephews attended Libertas at the time Moss was suing the county over closing the school for COVID-19 mitigation violations.
DeJong called out that affiliation during Allendale’s meeting Jan 9, but was quickly cut off by Mango.
“I’m a little concerned that this is more of a quid pro quo than it is a change in law firm,” DeJong said. “I believe that we are making this change because Joe Moss has an affiliation …”
“Pam, I have to cut you off there. That is not a place for this board, we are not voting on that,” Mango said.
Several public commenters also had their say Monday, Jan. 23.
Troy Lamps, who ran for the school board last fall, said the board’s majority was a disgrace.
More:Residents angered about Ottawa Impact policies form coalition to vote them out in 2024
“You have made a mockery of our district. I love your faith, Mr. Mango, but it should not be used as a weapon against our children.”
“The last meeting, we saw a hostile takeover and a lack of transparency,” one resident said.
“At what point does someone justify all the lying and hypocrisy?” asked another. “Or maybe you can find out from Joe and Sylvia what to say and how to say it.”
“You’re obviously back-peddling,” said another resident. “Just stop all the lying.”
Walking back joining NSBLC
Ottawa Impact board members also appeared to walk back their earlier attempt to cease the district’s affiliation with the Michigan Association of School Boards — to which most Michigan school districts belong — and replace it with an individual membership to the National School Boards Leadership Council, sponsored by Moms for America, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded in 2004 dedicated to “raising patriots and promoting liberty for the healing of America.”
The MASB is a voluntary, nonprofit association of local and intermediate boards of education throughout Michigan. With a membership, school boards have numerous training opportunities; its website says the group has more than 600 boards of education as members, representing nearly all public school districts in the state.
Ramey, who put forward both the votes to hire Kallman and exit MASB in favor of the NSBLC on Jan. 9, said at Monday’s meeting she wanted to amend her motion at the board’s next meeting after she conducted further research and received negative feedback about NSBLC’s stance that special education students are a drain on public education resources and should be separated from the general student population.
Ramey clarified she no longer wished to pursue joining the NSBLC, but still wanted to discuss potentially withdrawing from the MASB.
“I just think we should remove ourselves from both sides of the political system,” she told the board, referring to diversity, equity and inclusion programs as “divisive.”
“I’d like to know who you’ve actually talked to,” DeJong challenged. “Are you just talking with people who already agree with your position on this?”
“No, Pam,” Ramey replied. “This is my own opinion.”
DeJong said she wanted Ramey to bring any and all research that supported a move to potentially sever the district’s ties to MASB.
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“I want a list of that information — it’s relatively clear we all don’t know and we all should review the same information at the same time,” DeJong said.
Cooper said one of the requirements to evaluate superintendents in the state of Michigan is a tool through the MASB, so that would need to be a consideration for the board, as Cooper’s annual review will arise later in the year.
After public comment, the board went into closed session for an hour to discuss personnel matters and adjourned afterwards.
The board’s next regular public meeting is scheduled for 6 pm Feb. 13 at 10505 Learning Lane in Allendale (Oakwood Board Room; enter through Door A). Those unable to attend the meeting in person can view it online at bit.ly/3j7e25o.
— Sarah Leach is editor of the Holland Sentinel. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @SentinelLeach.