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Article of Interest - Tom Watkins

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Clock 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
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Northville's Tom 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 treatment.

"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 nonetheless.

"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 itself."

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 contract.

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 outhouse door.

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 in 1989.

"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, Florida.

"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.


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