Straus in Standoff Over Watkins
Gongwer News Service, January 19, 2005
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Jennifer Granholm and State Board of Education President
Kathleen Straus ended Wednesday at odds as Ms. Straus reiterated
her support for Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Watkins
in response to Ms. Granholm announcing she had asked Mr. Watkins
Ms. Granholm's spokesperson said the governor's call for Mr.
Watkins' resignation in Wednesday's edition of the Detroit Free
Press was not a change in position even as it came just one week
after Ms. Granholm labeled Mr. Watkins as a "valued member" of
Press Secretary Liz Boyd said the governor had asked Mr. Watkins
to resign in May because, while she saw him as a valuable
advocate for public education, she did not see him as a strong
leader for the Department of Education.
Ms. Straus (D-Bloomfield Hills), in a statement released
Wednesday, said she saw Mr. Watkins as both a cheerleader for
education and a leader for the department. And she said she
still had backing on that from other members of the board.
"The State Board of Education wants a strong leader and advocate
for public education. Tom Watkins is both of these," she said.
"His work has been recognized with very positive evaluations by
the board over the past three years. He is highly-regarded by
educators, business leaders, parents, and the general public."
Ms. Boyd acknowledged that Ms. Granholm had given Mr. Watkins a
glowing review in July 2004 as part of his annual performance
review by the board, but she said that letter purposely dealt
only with the things he was doing well.
"If you look at the July letter, it does not talk about
management. It talks about his commitment to public education
and to children," Ms. Boyd said. "The governor has always valued
Tom as an individual. He has been a visible spokesperson for
education, but she needs a hands-on manager for education."
At least one member, and potentially four members, of the board
agree. "I personally for several years thought we could do
better, somebody who was more effective," said new board Vice
President John Austin (D-Ann Arbor). "We now have four of us who
see a long pattern of things we would have wanted Tom to have
Ms. Boyd said Ms. Granholm's statements are not a change in her
position on Mr. Watkins' performance, but are in response to him
reneging on a deal to resign at the board meeting last week. She
said both Mr. Watkins and Ms. Straus had agreed to him resigning
at the end of the year and the governor had not made the
agreement public to give him a chance to find a new post.
"Nobody was trying to hide anything other than to try to protect
the privacy of the superintendent of public instruction," Ms.
Boyd said. "She asked Tom Watkins to resign his position in May
2004 because she does not consider him an effective leader of
one of the most critical departments."
And Ms. Granholm bristled at the assertion by Mr. Watkins that
her call for his resignation was in retaliation for a paper he
wrote on school funding. "The governor isn't taking a back seat
to anyone when it comes to developing bold ideas for education,"
Ms. Boyd said. "But the governor also knows we need the
follow-through to make those ideas a reality."
While Mr. Watkins has made strident efforts to spread good words
about public education, he has not done many of the things Ms.
Granholm feels need to happen to improve the performance of
those schools, she said. "There's not one smoking gun; it's a
series of failures," Ms. Boyd said. Among those is not having a
plan for improving the lowest performing schools and not using
available technology to help struggling middle schools.
Ms. Boyd said the governor had passed those ideas and others on
to Mr. Watkins for action by the department, but none has been
implemented. "The governor as the new governor really worked
with Tom and attempted to work with Tom for more than a year and
half," Ms. Boyd said.
Board member Liz Bauer (D-Birmingham), one of Mr. Watkins'
supporters on the board, said it was unfair to pin school
performance issues on him. "It's unrealistic to expect schools
to turn around in a day when the population is increasingly
diverse," she said, noting schools in the state deal with
children speaking 145 languages as well as special education
She said he had provided the leadership the department needs. "I
feel excited, feel energized by this superintendent," she said.
"He surrounds himself with people who are expert in their areas,
first-rate, nationally-regarded leaders."
While Mr. Watkins, spurred by Ms. Straus' support, said last
week that he would stay on as long as he had the support of the
board, Ms. Boyd said that support is essentially gone. "We have
a divided board of education; he's lost the confidence of the
governor. It's time for him to leave," she said.
Said Mr. Austin: "We have a 4-4 impasse, and I do think we need
an affirmative vote on this new contract. So my hope is now that
Tom will resign. Obviously it's not a good situation that we
have a superintendent who doesn't have overwhelming endorsement
of a majority of the board and the governor."
Mr. Austin and Reginald Turner (D-Detroit) led the effort to
table Mr. Watkins' contract extension, arguing at the time that
the board did not have the authority last summer to designate
Ms. Straus and Ms. Curtin as signatories on the contract. Both
said the School Code requires that any contract change be
approved by the new board as it was seated last week.
The code prohibits the board from signing a contract with the
superintendent during the six months before or two months after
an election where seats on the board are at stake. The July
decision to authorize Ms. Straus and Ms. Curtin to negotiate and
sign a contract fell within that window.
And Ms. Straus maintained that the contract she and board
Secretary Carolyn Curtin (R-Evart) signed with Mr. Watkins at
the beginning of the year, essentially extending his former
contract through the end of 2005, was valid and bound the board
to keep him on for the rest of the year.
Ms. Straus also said it was not Ms. Granholm's place to seek Mr.
Watkins' ouster. "For him to be terminated under the present
circumstances would compromise the state board's
constitutionally-protected autonomy and system of checks and
balances," she said. "Other members of the board and I strongly
support Tom and hope he fulfills the terms of his contract."
Ms. Bauer said the spat over Mr. Watkins is detracting from the
more important work of the board. "I'm very sad about it. It's
diverting us from the very important charge of how to make sure
we make the best use of resources," she said. "There's a body
politic that supports him."
Mr. Watkins refused requests for comment other than to say he
appreciated Ms. Straus' letter of support. And other members of
the board could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Pundits Tackle Topics From Tom W. To Valde G.
MIRS, January 19, 2005
Today MIRS asked a mix of political pundits a fresh batch of
questions concerning recent issues and stories of statewide
Q. Which of these would best describe the story about Gov.
Jennifer GRANHOLM wanting Superintendent of Public Instruction
Tom WATKINS to resign?
A. A minor inside-the-beltway story.
B. A story that adds to a general impression that Granholm is a
C. The sort of story that could potentially become a major
embarrassment for the Governor.
“I think it would be something between (A) and (C),” said
Stephanie McLEAN, of GMT Strategies. “Yes, it's sort of a
tempest in a teapot that's really giving people something to
talk about while nothing else is going on. On the other hand,
obviously, it's something that has the potential to blow up.”
Steve MITCHELL, of Mitchell Communications, said it's the latest
indication that Granholm is weak on leadership.
“No question. It shows that she's a weak leader," Mitchell said.
“To think that she wanted him out of the office for 12 months
and was apparently unwilling to take the steps necessary to
accomplish what she wanted to accomplish. It's really
“I can't think of a single example of anything like this during
the entire 12 years of the John ENGLER administration,” Mitchell
said. “I can't imagine an appointee still being in place a year
after Engler wanted them out.”
Craig RUFF, of Public Sector Consultants, said the story is
something other than choices A, B, or C.
“I'd say it is something that's definitely unsettling to the
public,” Ruff said. “I'd also say that it's something that
definitely should not be allowed to drift. While it's still, at
this point kind of an 'A', an inside thing, but it's still
something to be concerned about, especially when you consider
that K-12 education is the number one priority.
“Another point about this episode is that it really calls into
the question the wisdom of having an elected Board of
Education,” Ruff continued. “How can a governor and a
Legislature be held accountable when there is the potential for
a position like this to be insulated? It really is no way to run
Bill BALLENGER, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, chose “all
of the above.”
“First of all, I think this is still a story in progress,”
Ballenger said. “Look at it this way; about a week ago she
called Watkins a valued member of her administration, with sort
of a smirk on her face, then she turns around and tells
reporters that he's been ineffective and she asked him to leave
a year ago. I'd call that a disconnect. Either she was lying
through her teeth a week ago, or . . .”
“Now it looks like she may have decided to stick her neck out on
this the way she did on the Butch HOLLOWELL thing,” Ballenger
continued. “It really makes me wonder how long people will put
up with this sort of thing. But they've put up with it longer
than I would have guessed.”
Watkins & Straus Dig In Against Governor
MIRS, January 19, 2005
The unfolding drama over Gov. Jennifer Granholm's attempt to
remove state Superintendent Tom Watkins took an interesting turn
today after the governor made her first public comments about
her desire to see Watkins replaced.
But until she can break a 4-4 split on the Board of Education or
convince the superintendent to bow out gracefully — which he
isn't doing — Watkins is staying in his top-floor Hannah
"We believe this will ultimately be resolved and the
superintendent will realize that he needs to step down in the
best interest of public education for Michigan," said Granholm
Press Secretary Liz BOYD. "He has a divided board and lost the
confidence of the governor. It's time for him to leave."
The Watkins story got new legs this morning after a Detroit Free
Press article quoted Granholm as saying, for the first time
publicly, that she had lost confidence in Watkins ability to
lead the Department of Education. The problem, obviously, is
that Granholm doesn't have the power to fire Watkins. The
eight-member Board of Education hires and fires the
superintendent and the Board's five Democrats are not entirely
on board with this decision.
By noon, Watkins' most loyal supporter, Board of Education
President Kathleen STRAUS, issued a statement in which she
reiterated her belief that the contract she, Board Secretary
Carolyn CURTIS and Watkins agreed to on Jan. 3 is legally
binding and that the superintendent has a job, as far as she's
concerned, for another year.
Straus further dug in her heels by saying that Watkins is an
excellent leader and administrator who has been recognized with
positive evaluations by the Board over the past three years. He
is highly regarded by educators, business leaders, parents and
the general public, she said.
“For him to be terminated under the present circumstances would
compromise the State Board's Constitutionally-protected autonomy
and system of checks and balances. Other members of the Board
and I strongly support Tom and hope he fulfills the terms of his
contract," Straus wrote.
Obviously, not all of the members of the board agree. At the
Board's Jan. 11 meeting, four members of the Board voted to take
Watkins' contract extension off the consent agenda. They were
John AUSTIN, a Democrat; Reginald TURNER, a Democrat; Eileen
WEISER, a Republican; and Nancy DANHOF, a Republican.
Straus, a Democrat; Curtis, a Republican; Marianne McGUIRE, a
Democrat; and Elizabeth BAUER, a Democrat; did not vote in
If this deadlock stands, Watkins would basically be operating in
his current post under the conditions of his old contract,
according to Department of Education spokesman Martin ACKLEY.
However, some board members feel that without a contract,
Watkins can not serve in his capacity.
Contacted in Washington D.C., Austin said he regrets that
Watkins has prolonged this situation, which has forced the
discussion on his future to be public. Austin said that for
several years, he has expressed some disappointment and feelings
that the Board could do better. He didn't give specific reasons
for his discontent, only that he has harbored them for some
time, but has always been in the minority.
Now, four of the board members agree with his sentiments that a
change is needed and he said he's hoping Straus will eventually
"Four of us believe we can make a change that would make us more
effective as a board," Austin said. "I was hoping Tom would
gracefully resign and he would have done so without this story
Boyd said the governor respects the work Watkins has done as a
visible advocate for public education, but the education
community needs a "hands-on manager" to make changes that would
improve public education. The governor has held this position
since May 2004 and gave the superintendent the rest of the year
to move on, she said.
Any insinuation that the governor asked for the change because
of his December report on the school financing "crisis" in
Michigan is "absurd and he knows it," Boyd said.
The facts are that Watkins is an "ineffective leader who is
unable to turn ideas into realities," she said. Watkins 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.
"The governor worked with him for 16 months before determining
that he wasn't the best person for that position in a Granholm
administration," she said.
MFT Head Talks with Watkins
In hopes of getting Watkins to resign, the President of the
Michigan Federation of Teachers (MFT) is trying to broker a deal
under which Watkins would leave his post.
David HECKER described himself as having a "very good
relationship … a strong relationship" with Watkins that dates
back four years when Watkins had ties to Wayne State University.
Through a colleague, Hecker said they came to know each other.
Hecker told MIRS, "Any role I can play to resolve this issue, is
a role I've tried to take on." He confirmed he talked with
Watkins on Tuesday prior to Granholm's late afternoon remarks to
the Detroit Free Press indicating that it was time for Watkins
Hecker would not disclose any of the details of a possible buy
out nor provide a time line. On at least two previous occasions,
the State Board of Education provided a financial incentive
package to remove former Superintendents Robert SCHILLER and Don
BEMIS, who served during the former Gov. James BLANCHARD years.
Long-time Lansing observer Craig RUFF said this latest episode
needs to be resolved quickly.
"The longer it drags on, the longer there is ambiguity, the
longer Tom Watkins sits there as superintendent … look, that is
not good for teachers, for principals. It's not good certainly
for parents who have kids in school."
Ruff said the inability of the governor to fire Watkins is part
of a "real problem that goes back 40 years." He noted what he
labeled "constitutional hand-cuffs."
"We insulate the governor and the Legislature from having a
direct impact on education policy because we have an
eight-member elected Board of Education and those eight make the
appointment," Ruff said.
The 'A' List That Is Not
According to one state board of education member, the departure
of Watkins is imminent and the focus shifts to a replacement. If
that holds true, two names you might expect on the "A" list
apparently want no part of the post.
Former Senate Majority Leader Dan DeGROW is direct, "If it
opened up, I wouldn't apply."
You get the same sentiment from Dr. Mike Flanagan, head of the
Michigan Association of School Administrators. He told MIRS, "I
love what I am doing right now. I don't plan to go anywhere. The
door is not open from my point of view."
Flanagan served as the governor's education advisor just after
she came into office and has had her ear ever since. So it would
seem logical that she might ask him to step in.
"This is where I'm going to stay," he goes on. He reports he has
not discussed the job with the governor.
As for DeGrow, who now has two years under his belt as the
Superintendent of the St. Clair County Intermediate School
District, he said that with five Democrats on the State Board,
it's unlikely they or a Democratic governor would promote his
name. However, MIRS talked to one board Democrat who mentioned
DeGrow first, when asked about possible successors to Watkins.
"I don't foresee circumstances in future years in which I would
have that job," DeGrow suggested.
DeGrow recently penned a note of support that he sent to Watkins
last week just as this firestorm was reaching critical mass.
Another potential superintendent candidate could be Sue CARNELL,
who has served as the governor's liaison to the Board of
(Senior Capital Correspondent Tim SKUBICK contributed to this
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