Still Ticking For Tom Watkins
Though plain talk cost Tom Watkins his state superintendent's
job, he's still helping kids.
Pete Waldmeir, Inkster Ledger Star, July 2005
For more articles like this
Watkins reminds me of one of those old Timex TV commercials,
where the factory had an ocean liner tow a wristwatch underwater
across the Atlantic for several days, then hauled it up and had
a pitchman brag about his it was still running despite the rough
"Timex!" John Cameron Swayze would announce proudly. "It takes a
licking and keeps on ticking!"
Actually, Watkins, 51, until recently Michigan's top school
boss, is old enough to remember those old TV ads. Not only that,
but he's been politically keel-hauled enough times also to
identify with the abuse.
Watkins presently is biding his time, ticking away at Wayne
State University as a temporary special assistant to President
Irv Reid. Granted, it's a far cry from the $168,300-a-year
position as Michigan's State Superintendent of Public
Instruction from which Watkins resigned under pressure earlier
this year. But he says that he find the fill-in job rewarding
"It's my feeling that no matter how tough it may be to take at
the time, things generally work out for the best," said Watkins
, who is directing a special elementary e-learning project at
Wayne State. "I'm working with kids and that's a reward in
The project's funding dries up in mid-September, however, so
he's back in the job market these warm summer days.
Watkins is a rare career Democrat who at one time or another
served the administrations of all three of the state's most
recent governors - Jim Blandhard, John Engler and Jennifer
Granholm. That Blanchard and Engler are Democrats and Engler is
a Republican speaks to Watkins talents not only as an
administrator, but as an astute political juggler.
Well, at least he was until he ran into the Granholm
high-powered wind machine last winter.
Blanchard first brought him into the upper levels of Lansing's
political establishment in 1987 when he made Watkins the
director of the $1 billion state department of mental health at
the ripe old age of 33. Watkins left that appointment after
Engler upset Blanchard, but ironically it was Republican Gov.
Engler who engineered Watkins return to Michigan in 2000 as
state school superintendent.
And equally ironic, it was Engler's Democrat successor and
Watkins' Northville neighbor, Granholm, who forced Watkins to
resign this past February in a curious bait-and-switch
shenanigan within days after he'd been given a rousing round of
applause by his official bosses at the State Board of Education
that was accompanied by a proposed one-year extension on his
Characteristically, Miz Jenny insisted that she long had
considered asking the state board, over which she wields no
direct power but considerable political clout, to give Watkins
the ziggy. The explanation, of course, was nonsense.
Watkins had been accused, tried, and found guilty of the crime
of talking sense in a kangaroo court composed of critics from
the state's teacher unions and education administration, all
major contributors to the Granholm power machine.
The state's education system, Watkins wrote in a controversial
report late in 2004, is at a fiscal crossroads. His heretical
conclusions: Since the state's annual $12 billion school aid
budget but be pared down, Michigan's 750 public and private
school districts need to be combined and trimmed to a more
workable, reasonable number. Also, teacher and administrator
health care and pension costs, which account for some two-thirds
of all new dollars invested in our schools, must be reined in.
The education lobby, of course, blew a gasket over Watkins'
dangerous effrontery to the status quo. And when the
superintendent stood his ground and refused to change his
position, beg forgiveness and fall on his proverbial sword,
Granholm gave him the choice: volunteer to get carried out on
your shield or get hauled to the political gallows on an old
Actually, Watkins insists, Miz Jenny never talked to him
face-to-face about resigning.
"She never spoke to me personally about my leadership nor did
she ever ask me to resign," Watkins said.
However, in a letter to Granholm, Watkins wrote, "A member of
your staff approached me about resigning or moving on because
they said you wanted a new direction and your own person."
Granholm's "own person" turned out to be Michael P. Flanagan, of
Lansing, who until his July appointment was the executive
director of the Michigan Association of School (and Middle
School) Administrators. Another edubabbler. Whoopee!
But, back to Tom Watkins. Born in Washington, D.C., Watkins
holds a bachelor's degree in criminal justice (of all things)
from Michigan State, and MA in social work from Wayne State, and
has only his dissertation left to complete a PhD in education
administration from Wayne State.
Divorced, he has two children with ex-wife Karen - Daniel, 20, a
student at Michigan State and Katherine, 17, a senior at
Northville High School.
Curiously, his spare-time interest these days is Chinese
studies. He's made five visits to the Far East and was in
Tiananmen Square during the infamous student riot massacre there
"What impressed me most," Watkins said, "were the Chinese
students who demonstrated there asking me to explain what it was
like to live in a democracy. They wanted to know everything. And
I learned there, too, that bullets may trump ideology but they
cannot kill freedom of expression."
Watkins has worked in both the public and private sectors, has
held two of the biggest appointive positions at the state
government level in Michigan, has worked both for nonprofit
agencies, and, in a rare and puzzling contrast, even served for
five years (1996-2001) in a kind of silk-stocking job as
president and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County,
"In a lot of ways," Watkins says smiling, "I guess I scare off
some potential employers because I've got such a widely varied
background and they think I've already done it all."
All? Not quite. For Tom Watkins, the clock's still ticking and
the bell never seems to toll.
back to the top ~
back to Breaking News
~ back to