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Article of Interest - Tom Watkins

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Bridges4Kids LogoTom Watkins Responds to the Governor
Tom Watkins, January 20, 2005

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January 20, 2005

 

The Honorable Jennifer M. Granholm

Governor, State of Michigan

Romney Building

111 South Capitol Building

Lansing, MI 48933

 

Dear Governor Granholm:

 

I have read and listened with interest to the comments you and your media spokesperson have made regarding your dissatisfaction with my job performance as Michigan’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction.  I am surprised and perplexed that you would say these things as neither you nor any of your staff have shared these concerns with me personally, and given the fact that we have met on nearly a weekly basis to discuss education issues.

 

I want to take this opportunity to clear up any misinformation that you and your spokesperson may have regarding my efforts as State Superintendent and the specific issues for which your office has inappropriately criticized me.

 

Not Having a Plan for Improving the Lowest Performing Schools

The Department of Education's priority is increasing academic achievement, especially in high priority schools that are not meeting adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law.  Our Office of School Improvement (OSI), manages over $900 million of federal and (minimal) state revenues that support school and school district programs including Title I.

 

This office is responsible for the development of educational standards and benchmarks, nationally recognized grade level content expectations (that you praised in the last State of the State address), model curriculum and implementation strategies that promote instructional excellence and increase student achievement.   The Office of School Improvement provides critical assistance, guidance, and direct support to high priority schools including:

  • Establishing Regional Support Teams with ISDs to assist High Priority Schools;

  • Sponsoring Instructional Excellence Seminars for High Priority Schools;

  • Co-developing Coaches’ Institute that has trained over 90 coaches to assist High Priority Schools;

  • Supporting district staff in building the skills and capacity to implement school improvement plans;

  • Developing the MI-Map Tool Kit containing over 300 practical strategies and materials to shape, support and sustain school improvement;

  • Creating a statewide "School Improvement Framework" that aligns NCLB, research, state and federal programs, PA 25, and performance indicators, and,

  • Developing a NCLB Technical Assistance Packet. OSI also administers and supports programs such as Reading First, Migrant, English Language Learners, Alternative Education, Homeless, Advanced and Accelerated, Blue Ribbon Schools, Boarding Schools, Comprehensive School Reform initiatives, and Public School Academies.

 

As you are aware, this dedicated staff under the leadership of Dr. Jeremy Hughes has been nationally recognized for its work in assisting high priority schools.

 

Our Office of School Improvement only receives $63,000 in state General Fund support for the High Priority schools that your office says are being neglected.  $63,000 equates to three (3) cents per public school student in Michigan.  Considering the minimal state funding support we receive, our Department is providing remarkable assistance and leadership to Michigan’s High Priority Schools.  This work is done in partnership with the Intermediate and Local School Districts throughout the State.  Your comments devalue the work of many who work tirelessly to help children learn.

 

Technology for “struggling” middle schools

You and state Legislators diverted the Department of Education’s $17 million in federal educational technology dollars and put it into the Freedom to Learn “School Laptop” program for middle school students.  I shared with you at that time my concerns that this may not be the best use of these federal dollars because it limited the federally-intended flexibility at the local district level to meet their individual needs and established technology plans.  After the political decision was made as part of the budget negotiations, my staff and I worked diligently to support and implement it.  As I told you and your staff, this was not a sound academic decision.  It was a politically expedient one.  Now, your office is charging me with “not using available technology to help struggling middle schools” when we had no funds available to do anything other than the Freedom to Learn program.

 

On the positive side, our Department worked in partnership with key educational organizations to secure some $7 million in private funding for school technology (Gates Foundation, Leading the Future; Microsoft’s Partners in Learning)

 

No growth in school and student improvement

MEAP scores are up at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels.

 

Michigan is closing the achievement gap between African-American students and their white counterparts in the elementary and middle school levels.  Yet, we all agree that much work remains to be done.

 

The number of schools that made AYP this year that did not make it last year, was an impressive 146 elementary and middle schools (including 79 High Priority schools).  The number of elementary and middle schools earning either an A or B on the EducationYES! Report Card this jumped from 1,109 in 2003 to 1,878 in 2004.  This is the result of hard work by many at the State and local levels – a remarkable feat in light of flat or declining budgets that have marked your tenure as Governor.

 

These all can be documented, as you well know, because we personally have discussed these positive movements in student achievement and you publicly have heralded many of them.

 

Failing to Develop a Strong Strategic Plan for the Department

We were in the midst of finalizing an updated version of the Department’s strategic plan when our limited resources were pulled off that project to focus on the your new departmental Office of Organizational Development initiative; Visions and Values implementation; Governor’s Cabinet Action Plan; and Budgeting for Outcomes demands.  It is puzzling that if I supposedly lack effective leadership and managerial skills, why you asked me to chair the internal, multi-departmental Budgeting for Outcomes education work group and then commended the work our team produced.

 

Despite those new and time-consuming initiatives along with appointments to the Cherry and Mental Health Commissions, our team was able to re-organize the Department to more responsibly reflect the needs of Michigan’s schools and our role in assisting them in bringing about school improvement; higher achievement by their students; greater quality and accountability; and greater preparation for post-secondary success by students.  In the re-organization, I also emphasized and achieved administrative efficiencies in the Department starting in the Superintendent’s office by eliminating two Assistant Superintendent positions and others throughout the organization.

 

Doing More With Less

As your office has claimed that the Michigan Department of Education is “one of the most critical departments” of state government, funding support certainly has not been reflected in your budget priorities.

 

The Department’s state General Fund support has been reduced by 65 percent since 2001, to where we receive only $5 million in GF now.  In 2001, state General Fund dollars supported 34 percent of the Department’s resources; in 2005, it supports only 8.9 percent.

 

Other Concerns

  • You never have personally spoken to me about any concerns with my leadership; nor have you ever personally asked me to leave my position as State Superintendent of Public Instruction.  All of your comments have been positive with the exception of a recent discussion where you said “you were furious” regarding the pothole funding illustration (included in the “Structural Challenges Facing Michigan School Funding in the 21st Century” paper) that shows that almost 2/3s of new dollars invested in our schools will be used to cover pension and health care expenses.

 

  • A member of your staff approached me about “resigning or moving on” because the “the Governor wants her own person”…and… “She wants a new direction.”  Neither you nor your staff has provided oral or written dissatisfaction with any direction I have taken with the Department, nor have you provided any feedback to me, or the State Board President; of the allegations you have made to reporters or through your media spokesperson.

 

  • I have supported and edified you and your support for education in my many public visits to schools and speaking engagements across the state.

 

  • I have built successful coalitions with schools, business, labor, and private organizations to improve education in Michigan.

 

  • I urge you to direct members of your staff to cease bullying members of the statewide-elected State Board of Education to sell out their convictions and their support of me.

 

  • I have been told that you have asked special interest groups to discredit me and convince my supporters on the State Board to fire me, as a “personal favor.”  These State Board members are highly respectable people who are following their conscience, integrity, autonomy, and Constitutional oath of office.

 

  • I have successfully run a private business organization; a multi-million dollar state Department of Mental Health; and developed and grew a non-profit organization for emotionally-disturbed teens, and now you are charging that I am not a good administrator and leader when evidence proves otherwise.

 

  • The positions now being presented by various members of the State Board of Education conflict with statements made at the July 2004 Board meeting in discussing the evaluation of my performance as Superintendent, where I earned an exemplary evaluation for a third straight year.

 

Your appointee Reginald Turner stated “Tom has done an excellent job in his tenure.  I am particularly pleased with the sharpened focus he has brought to the needs of High Priority Schools.  He has us moving in the right direction.”  This is in direct conflict with your recent public statements.

 

John Austin noted that “through Watkins’ leadership, Michigan schools have continued to make headway during times that have been financially difficult.”

 

In a free society, people are allowed by change their minds.  However, they should do so with facts, honesty, and integrity.  The charges you and your staff have made both publicly and privately about me impugn my integrity and reputation.  I am compelled to respond to you in order to preserve the values that I hold most dearly.  When charges such as those you and your office have made, I am discredited and the hard work being done by the fine employees of the Michigan Department of Education and educators throughout the State is minimized and denigrated.  I won’t let that go unchallenged.

 

My focus as well as that of the Department of Education has been and will remain on teaching, learning, and children.

 

Sincerely,

Tom Watkins

 

Cc: State Board of Education

       Michigan Legislative Leadership

    

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