Whitmer seeks replacement for embattled Michigan school board member

Michigan Board of Education members are joined by several other school officials seated around an oblong table in a windowless conference room in Lansing.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is working to fill a Michigan State Board of Education vacancy created by the abrupt resignation of embattled businessman Jason Strayhorn.

Strayhorn quit on July 29, citing a need to relocate so his children could pursue academic and athletic opportunities in Florida and California.

The resignation came several weeks after a lawsuit against Strayhorn, accusations of financial impropriety at his property management company, and a falling out with his business partner.

A pair of real estate investors filed suit in May against Maven Property Management, Strayhorn, and his business partner Alysa Kowalsky, seeking to recover a $50,000 deposit on renovations they say were never completed and $30,000 in COVID Emergency Rental Assistance funds Maven allegedly collected on behalf of delinquent renters but did not remit to the investors. The resignation was reported in the Detroit News on July 29 and the lawsuit was reported in the Lansing State Journal on Aug. 2.

Strayhorn denies any wrongdoing, and his resignation and move out of Michigan are unrelated to the allegations, said his attorney, Alec Torigian.

Strayhorn, a Democrat, was elected to the state Board of Education in 2020. His eight-year term was to have expired on Dec. 31, 2028.

State board President Casandra Ulbrich said his resignation was sudden but not surprising.

“He and his wife were commuting between multiple different places because of their kids’ athletic opportunities, and I think it got to be a bit too much,” she said. “I know he was trying to juggle a lot of different things.”

Strayhorn’s resignation means there will be at least two new members on the eight-person board by January. Strayhorn’s replacement would begin as soon as Whitmer announces her appointment. Meanwhile, two Democrats on the board — Ulbrich and Pamela Pugh — have terms expiring this December. Pugh is running for re-election, but Ulbrich, now in her 15th year on the board, is not.

Michigan law empowers the governor to appoint members to fill unexpired terms, so it will be up to Whitmer to fill Strayhorn’s seat. 

Her decision is unlikely to change the partisan balance on the board, which now has five Democrats and two Republicans. Both Strayhorn and Whitmer are Democrats.

Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy said the governor intends to appoint “someone who will put students and parents first in every decision, while also supporting teachers with the resources they need to deliver a phenomenal education.”

The state has posted the opening online and is inviting applications.

In Michigan, most education policy decisions are the responsibility of the state Legislature and local school districts. The state Board of Education’s most significant power is the hiring and firing of the state superintendent.

“You have to be someone who has a background to be able to understand the value of that power,” Ulbrich said.

She said Whitmer could add geographic diversity to the board by appointing someone from the Upper Peninsula.

“I would also hope that whoever is appointed values public education and also understands the nuances of public policy,” including decisions around school funding and school choice, she added. “They should have a value system to really support and improve public education.”

Strayhorn, a former captain of the Michigan State University football team, also is a sportscaster with Playfly Sports, which hires announcers for MSU games. He is expected to continue working as a color commentator for his former team, said MSU spokesman Dan Olsen.

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at tmauriello@chalkbeat.org.

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