Confusion and controversy over recall petitions for three Niles school board members

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Three Niles school board members are the subjects of recall petitions, each with roughly 2,500 signatures. 

The petitions state the board members, Board President Mark Wortham, Vice President (formerly treasurer) Kyle Zelmer, and Trustee David Fish, went against Michigan law when imposing mask mandates at the height of the pandemic. This is because the mandates did not require parental approval. 

The group “We The Parents” spearheaded the efforts to recall school board members, claiming they are giving parents more options when they hit the ballot box this November. If the school board members are recalled, new school board candidates would then have the chance to run against them in the election. 

The body of the petition states: “’It is the natural, fundamental right of parents and legal guardians to determine and direct the care, teaching, and education of their children. The public schools of this state serve the needs of the pupils, by cooperating with the pupil’s parents’... [these school board members] voted ‘aye’ to support a submitted modification to the Return to Learn Plan... the modification included an indoor masks requirement under specific circumstances and did not indicate parental approval was required for implementing the indoor mask requirement.”  

“We The Parents” member, Victory Woodall, said the efforts are ongoing, and they do not stop with the Niles school board.  

“The recalls aren’t really about targeting people on the school board,” Woodall said. “It’s really about opening up more of a choice for the voters, because so many of them were disappointed in decisions being made by the board.” 

Woodall said most of the signatures came from going door-to-door throughout the school district, and they exceeded the minimum number of signatures required. 

She said the three men on the petitions were chosen for past school board votes related to curriculum. 

The group, Woodall said, opposes members who support Critical Race Theory (CRT) in Niles schools, although, there is no mention of CRT in the actual petitions.  

One member listed on the recalls, Vice President Kyle Zelmer, declined an on-camera interview with ABC57, but said his petition garnered a total of 2,514 signatures. 

He said he commends the petitioners for doing what they believe is the best for the students of the school district. 

However, he said he is bothered by how some petition circulators obtained their signatures, saying some used false or misleading information.  

Community members took to Facebook to share their disappointment with the petitions. Some accused the petition circulators of being deceitful. 

One Facebook comment read, “The petition was not about mask mandates. When they came to my house, I asked them to leave. They know that CRT is NOT being taught in Niles schools. They do not care, they will continue to tell people it is because it is a scare word.” 

That is to say, some community members believe petition circulators were using CRT as a way to get signatures, even though it is not actually a part of the recall petitions.  

The Niles Community School District mentions on its website that CRT is not part of the curriculum taught to students. 

The petitions are now on the desk of the Berrien County Deputy Clerk. For the recalls to go through, 2,389 signatures must be valid.  

The clerk now has seven days to make sure the forms were filled in correctly and the information is valid. Then, it can go to the local municipality for signature checks, which make sure the petitioners are residents and voters of Berrien County. 

If the recalls meet the minimum valid signature count, then the three board members will be back on the ballot this November.  

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