Thursday was a great day.
After three years of political and legal wrangling – and a battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court – some kids in Livingston County finally got to attend the school of their choice.
Thursday was the first day of school for Livingston Christian Schools at its new location at the Brighton Nazarene Church in Genoa Township. The school had been looking to move into the building since 2015, and on Thursday, that goal finally became a reality.
After three long years, Livingston Christian was finally home.
What a great day.
I stopped by in the morning to say hi, simply because I was so elated for these students, families and Christian educators that they were finally able to move into their new home at the Naz. There were smiles everywhere, and it was so great to see.
The day began with a simple ceremony in front of the school, with Principal Ted Nast leading a small group of parents and Student Council members in prayer.
They thanked God for staying with them during the long battle, and asked for guidance and wisdom in the coming school year. Then the kids all went off to class.
In their new building. At the Naz. The place they wanted to be all along. The place their parents wanted them to be all along.
They went off to learn about math and English and Jesus, and it was all so wonderful. You never would have known what they had to go through to get here.
If you haven’t been following the Livingston Christian saga for the past three years, here’s what happened. Sorry, but this might take a while.
The story begins in 2015, when the school was looking to move from its location in downtown Pinckney to a new site at the Brighton Nazarene Church on Brighton Road, across the street from Brighton High School. The majority of families at Livingston Christian came from the Brighton area, and the school felt it wouldn’t be able to survive in Pinckney, so they wanted to move to the Naz.
You can pretty much see downtown Brighton from the Naz, but the church technically isn’t in Brighton; it’s in Genoa Township. That would prove to be a problem.
Livingston Christian applied for a special use permit through Genoa Township, and after all the appropriate traffic studies and whatnot were done, the Planning Commission approved it on a near-unanimous vote. From there, it seemed certain that the Genoa Township Board would give it final approval, since township boards rarely overrule their planning commissions on things like this.
Well, that didn’t happen. Four members of the township board decided to play politics instead of doing what was right, and they voted against the school. Those four were Supervisor Gary McCririe and trustees Todd Smith, Linda Rowell and Jean Ledford.
This was in July of 2015, just a few weeks before school was set to start. And the Genoa board’s decision didn’t just affect Livingston Christian. It also screwed up Light of the World Academy, a new charter school that was looking to move into the Livingston Christian site in Pinckney. My wife is the Montessori director at the school, and my daughter was a student there. That gave me a dog in the fight.
If LCS couldn’t move out of the Pinckney building, LOTWA couldn’t move in. Because of some selfish politics on the part of four Genoa Township Board members, TWO schools were in danger of not being able to open in the fall of 2015.
So in August of 2015, just four weeks before school was scheduled to begin, the Genoa board met again. The meeting was packed with parents, students and teachers from the two schools. Dozens of them took to the microphone to plead with the board to change its mind.
The board didn’t budge. Todd Smith, in fact, spent the entire meeting playing on his iPad, refusing to even make eye contact with any of the speakers. It was disgraceful.
At the heart of the matter was this: A small Christian school in Livingston County wanted to move from Pinckney to Brighton, because that would allow the school to thrive. That’s it. Some Christian parents and Christian kids wanted to attend a Christian school in the community of their choosing.
What’s so wrong about that?
All the traffic studies and everything else said this wouldn’t be a problem, but because four members of the Genoa Township Board held a political grudge, they wouldn’t let these Christian kids go to the school of their choice.
So what happened next? What happened next is what happens when citizens don’t like what their government is doing. It’s what’s happening in Washington and Lansing right now when people don’t like what the government is doing.
They protested, they voted and they litigated.
Now, there are those (mostly on the left) who say they shouldn’t have done any of that. They say they shouldn’t have protested the Genoa Township Board, they shouldn’t have campaigned against the Genoa Township Board and they CERTAINLY shouldn’t have sued the Genoa Township Board.
They say they should have just shut up and accepted what their government was doing.
These same people are the ones who are the most vocal about what’s happening in Washington now, so I’m not sure I understand their argument.
In any case, Livingston Christian wasn’t going to take any of this lying down, so indeed:
1. They protested. Along with their brothers and sisters in arms from Light of the World Academy (myself included), they protested in front of some property that had Gary McCririe’s and Todd Smith’s names on it. (They’re both real estate agents.) Gary McCririe and Todd Smith did not like this.
2. They voted. When the 2016 election came along, the No. 1 issue in Genoa Township was the way in which the board had botched the Livingston Christian situation. The voters responded by booting Linda Rowell and Todd Smith off the board.
Rowell ran for supervisor, and she was trounced. Smith, who had been a trustee since 2000, finished fifth in a five-person Republican primary. McCririe decided that rather than face the voters again, he’d retire.
The voters had spoken. Following the 2016 election, the only person who had voted against the school who was still on the board was Jean Ledford. The newly elected board members all promised to give Livingston Christian a fair shake.
3. They litigated. Immediately following the board’s decision in the summer of 2015 to deny Livingston Christian’s permit, the school filed a federal lawsuit. They were suing under a law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which says you can’t discriminate against churches and schools when it comes to zoning matters.
Livingston Christian lost at every turn. The U.S. District Judge in Detroit ruled against them, as did the Court of Appeals. Earlier this year, the matter went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.
What you need to know, though, is that Livingston Christian didn’t lose because all those courts ruled that Genoa Township made a wise decision. The only reason Livingston Christian lost is because the courts ruled that the school had a location in Pinckney that should have been suitable for their needs. That’s it.
At least once in the process, though, the courts also said that Genoa shouldn’t have let it get this far. If the board members had an issue with traffic patterns or school start times, they should have worked that out with the school.
In the end, the lawsuit was moot, because the newly elected board did the right thing and said, “Let’s work this out.” They had the school reapply for the permit, the school made a few minor changes, and everything was approved.
And to back up just a little, both Livingston Christian and Light of the World Academy were able to find a home back in 2015. The Whitmore Lake School District came to the rescue at the 11th hour, offering to let LCS rent space in one of their unused buildings. That’s where they’ve been for the past three years.
That allowed LOTWA to move into the Pinckney building. The school is now in its fourth year as a tuition-free public charter school, and it’s thriving. Hundreds of students are getting a free Montessori education that wouldn’t be available to them anywhere else.
But the whole mess still ended up costing a lot.
It cost Genoa Township taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. If the board was intent on spending that taxpayer money, think of all the things they could have spent it on instead. What an incredible waste of taxpayer money this was. (And for those who want to blame Livingston Christian for that, I say again, what were they supposed to do when they feel their government had wronged them? Sit back and take it?)
It cost Todd Smith, Linda Rowell and probably Gary McCririe their political careers and reputations. I wonder now if they think it was worth it.
And it cost Livingston Christian three years that it could have used to grow and prosper in its new location.
It cost a lot, but none of that seemed to matter on Thursday morning to the students at Livingston Christian Schools. They were in their beautiful new building, learning and laughing and loving Jesus Christ.
They were happy and smiling, and so were their parents and teachers. And it made me personally very, very happy to see that.
So I think we can say that the “Livingston Christian saga” is officially over now, and thankfully, this story had a happy ending. The school has about 160 students, and I’m sure that number will continue to grow. For people in Livingston County who want a Christian education for their children, they now have a great option right in their own community.
We should all be happy about that.