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Article of Interest - Michigan

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MEA Rips Watkins In January 5 Letter

MIRS, January 26, 2005

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Michigan Education Association (MEA) executive director Chuck Anderson ripped into state Superintendent Tom Watkins in a Jan. 5 e-mail about the much talked-about Dec. 14 Board of Education presentation in which rising pension costs and health care were cited as a major contributor to the alleged K-12 school funding crisis.

Anderson scolded Watkins for commenting that labor, pension and health care costs for educators are "competing" with costs to educate children, saying it "is a misguided and flawed premise."

Rather, Anderson said in the e-mail obtained by MIRS that the state Superintendent should be joining others within the education community in arguing that K-12 and higher education funding has been cut $2 billion and that the answer is more money, not more cuts.

"If the (State Board of Education) wants to undertake such a review, do so, but not at the expense of doing what is right to increase funding to appropriate levels," Anderson wrote. "The need for doing this is immediate and urgent."

The e-mail was written five days before MIRS broke the news that the Gov. Jennifer GRANHOLM administration was pressuring Watkins from office and six days before the governor pinned Watkins with the dreaded "valued member of my cabinet" designation. Through a spokeswoman this evening, Anderson noted that he wrote the e-mail at Watkins' request. Watkins apparently wanted the MEA's perspective on the presentation by the Citizens Research Council.

The administration has repeatedly denied any connection between Watkins' stance "on the education funding crisis" and his falling from grace. On Jan. 19, Granholm Press Secretary Liz BOYD outlined the reasons the governor had lost confidence in the superintendent.

A "hands-on manager" was needed to improve education. He wasn't able to turn ideas into realities. He wasn't proactive in addressing the performance failures of underperforming schools, didn't develop a strategic plan to address the situation and dropped the ball on using technology to assist middle schools, she said.

However, the timing of the e-mail adds fuel to the belief that Watkins may not have been a team player when it comes to marching to the "more money for schools" drumbeat and this view drove Granholm to turn up the heat.

Granholm said she'd asked Watkins to leave back in May, which he's all but denied. Watkins noted he received an A- from the Board of Education in his review last month and hadn't heard one word of these concerns, even though he and Granholm have talked nearly weekly about education issues.

Rather, a common theory being extended throughout the Capitol is that Watkins is being pressured to leave because he wasn't playing ball with a governor who reportedly wants to raise the per-pupil foundation grant and her ground-floor supporters at the MEA who are threatening to push a constitutional amendment that would automatically give education annual inflationary increases.

"Your duty as the state Superintendent is to be a steward and advocate for addressing the critical school funding need in this state with immediate action steps requested and expected," Anderson wrote. "During the last three years, K-12 and higher education have had approximately $2 billion cut from school budgets. This situation must be addressed immediately or huge and irreversible damage will be done to the teaching and learning process and our ability to compete in the world markets with a qualified workforce."

Anderson said compensation and benefit costs for educators are vital and integral, not competing, components of the teaching and learning process.

"Certainly we need to find ways to make these valuable benefits more affordable, but Michigan educators have worked for decades to establish high-quality and competitive salaries, benefits and working conditions and they must not be reduced or we will lose the ability to attract and retain educators in the future."

During the Dec. 14 presentation, a suggestion was made that costs could be cut in the state's school systems by cutting down the number of school districts and intermediate school districts. Anderson said traveling down that road misses the point. Clearly, the state has a revenue problem, not a spending problem.

"Even if we were able to consolidate districts, organize administrative functions under ISDs, etc., the impact on costs would be marginal and clearly long-term," he wrote.


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