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Bridges4Kids LogoGranholm, Straus in Standoff Over Watkins
Gongwer News Service, January 19, 2005
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Governor 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 to resign.

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 her Cabinet.

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 done differently.

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 students.

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 impact.

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 weak leader.

C. The sort of story that could potentially become a major embarrassment for the Governor.

D. Other.

“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 incredible.

“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 a railroad.”

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 Building office.

"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 favor.

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 come around.

"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 line."

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 to leave.

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 Education.

(Senior Capital Correspondent Tim SKUBICK contributed to this report.)


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