EPS District 5
Marcus Jones, left, and Michael Grande, right, will compete in a runoff election for Edmond School Board District 5 on Tuesday, April 5, 2022. (NonDoc)

After an achingly close primary, Marcus Jones and Michael Grande will be competing for the District 5 seat of the Edmond Public Schools Board in the April 5 general election, thanks to a handful of voters who cast their primary ballots for a candidate who had announced that she no longer wanted to be elected.

The result could have been decided outright in the Feb. 8 primary, if either candidate had finished with more than 50 percent of the vote. Grande garnered 1,749 votes (49.89 percent) and Jones received 1,678 votes (47.86 percent) — a difference of just 71 votes that left Grande five votes short of an outright victory. Meanwhile, 79 votes went to non-campaigning candidate Deonna Maxfield, who failed to withdraw her name from the ballot before the official deadline.

On the bright side, the result gave Jones and Grande a few more weeks to make their cases to voters.

Jones, the incumbent, was appointed to the seat in November, following the resignation of board member Meredith Exline. In an interview with NonDoc, Jones said he is running to help kids succeed.

“All of my kids are in Edmond Public Schools, and so I have a vested interest as a parent to make sure that they are provided the necessary skills and other kids are provided the necessary skills to succeed in whatever life they may face post-graduation,” Jones said. “And so that’s why I’m running. I’m running just for the kids.”

Grande — a management and investment consultant — said in an interview that he was motivated to run by frustration with the existing board.

“We would either email the board and ask them — ask my board member — for information regarding their decisions, and I just literally never got any answers back,” Grande said. “So I was like, well, we need a lot better communication process here between our representative for our school district than what we’re getting.”

A forum designed for voters to learn more about each EPS District 5 candidate is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, March 21, at John Ross Elementary School. The forum will be hosted by the Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee and moderated by Ted Streuli, Oklahoma Watch’s executive director.

Grande: ‘I would not mandate anything’

COVID-19 policies have been a contentious issue in school districts nationwide.

Regarding masks, Jones said an optional mask policy is “good enough” for him.

EPS issued a mask mandate in September, before Jones was appointed to the school board, and dropped it at the end of the year — a move Jones said he supported.

“Once I got on the board and started going around to all the classrooms, and seeing that there was probably only seven to 10 kids in a classroom of 25 to 30 kids wearing a mask,” he said, “I was on board with recommending that we just drop the mask policy, and that’s what happened.”

On the topic of COVID-19 vaccinations, Jones said it’s a “moot point,” as any added immunization requirement would have to come from the Oklahoma Legislature.

Grande has argued vehemently against mask mandates.

“I would not mandate anything,” he said. “If a parent wants to send their child to school who is maybe immunocompromised, that’s the parent’s decision. It’s not the school’s place to be dictating health decisions, because there’s so many kids that just are so different.”

In October 2020, Grande sent an email to members of the Edmond City Council in which he called them “enemies of the people” because they had voted to extend the city’s mask mandate.

“You have been completely wrong on the mandates from the beginning and are now displaying without any reasonable doubt that you are either completely incompetent, have a mental illness, or you are on drugs,” Grande wrote.

Grande said that he still stands by “everything” he said in the message, but he called it a “blowing off steam email” and said it was written after one of his children had been injured by a mask.

“One of my children suffered a physical injury, and I was just upset the city was making that decision, and that’s what came out of it,” Grande said.

Asked to explain what happened to his child, Grande said he did not want specifics about his child’s injury to be published in this story.

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Jones: ‘Everything needs to be taught at an age-appropriate level’

Speaking about their views on the academic programs in Edmond schools, the candidates referenced ongoing controversies regarding how topics dealing with race and gender are taught.

Jones said he believes such topics can be uncomfortable for students, but he said they should still be taught in an appropriate way.

“As far American history and things like that, we know that we have strengths, weaknesses and failures as a country, but we still have a rich history,” Jones said. “And everything should be at an age-appropriate level when taught. (…) Whether it’s ethnicity or female empowerment, that sort of stuff, every kid deserves to see who they relate to and learn about them.”

Jones also said EPS should continue boosting specialized academic programs like agricultural education, finance and broadcast journalism, along with extracurricular offerings such as the e-sports club at Central Middle School.

“When kids have something that they’re interested in, they excel in other areas of school, and they also find a value with school and a belonging,” Jones said. “And that belonging is very important for mental health.”

When asked what role EPS should take in teaching lessons surrounding race and gender, Grande said he believes schools should focus on “teaching academics and producing academic performance.”

“For me, I don’t think math cares what bathroom you go in. Math doesn’t care what color you are,” Grande said. “You can perform at a high level regardless of those things when it comes to academics.”

Grande said he wants to “raise the bar” for academic performance and called for more financial and technological education.

“The future job market has changed,” Grande said. “We need to take advantage of technology now, and by the time our kids are in high school, we need to help monetize our kids. We need to give them a pretty massive financial education.”

Candidates agree on teacher retention

Both EPS District 5 candidates said teacher retention is the most pressing issue facing Edmond Public Schools.

Grande said the work load outside the classroom is a burden on many teachers.

“The teachers are just losing a lot of their time in making preparations for class, and just their planning in general,” Grande said.

Grande said EPS needs an “outside the box approach, like in business” to pinpoint problems related to teacher retention.

Jones said he believes the community needs to make teachers feel more valued.

“I want the respect to be brought back to them, and I think some of that will help with them wanting to stay in the classroom,” he said.

Jones also said EPS should lean further into recruiting student-teachers.

“One great thing about Edmond is that we have UCO, which does a really good job of training future educators,” Jones said. “We do a good job of recruiting some of those teachers. ‘Hey, we have a job open for you whenever you graduate.’ We do a pretty good job of doing that now, but we want to continue to do that.”

‘I have not gone and sent nasty emails to our elected officials’

Asked why someone should cast their vote for him instead of Jones, Grande initially praised his opponent.

“Marcus, he’s a nice guy, great guy, but I will stand up for our rights as parents,” Grande said. “I’ve proven that through my actions throughout the entire pandemic and the processes that have kind of gone on with the district in general.”

Grande also touted his experience in finance and business management.

“We’re constantly looking at deals five years from now, 10 years from now, 15 years from now,” Grande said. “So I can see where the future job market is (and) where the future of technology is going.”

When asked why voters should vote for him over Grande, Jones made reference to his opponent’s controversial email to the Edmond City Council.

“I work well with others, and I’m a listener, and I’m respectful. I have not gone and sent nasty emails to our elected officials. I appreciate our elected officials. Even if I disagree with something that is done, I don’t become nasty or derogatory toward them or threaten them,” Jones said. “Not only that, I am a person who is in it for my kids. I am 100 percent invested in Edmond Public Schools. We live in Edmond, we shop in Edmond, we have the Edmond values, and both of my kids attend Edmond Public Schools, which cannot be said on the other side.”

Asked what he would say to those who might vote against him simply to see a change on the board, Jones said he has already made changes.

“I’ve done my due diligence. I’ve been a listener. So anytime that anyone’s contacted me, I’ve listened,” Jones said. “I’ve been able to connect parents, connect community members with the proper channels or get back to them with information. The only way they haven’t found a difference is because they haven’t reached out to me.”