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Phil Runkel's One-Man Crusade To Salvage Michigan's Schools

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Detroit--The threats against Phillip E. Runkel began a few days before he visited the financially distressed Alpena school district last fall.

Residents of the Northern Michigan fishing community had twice rejected tax proposals needed to keep their schools open. Some resented a state bureaucrat's coming to town to campaign for higher taxes. A few warned the 54-year-old Mr. Runkel, the state's superintendent of public instruction, that he might get hurt in Alpena.

When Mr. Runkel rose to speak at a packed meeting of the local school board, he was greeted with boos. "I hear someone wants to fight me,'' he said, rolling up his sleeves. "Who plans to be first?"

The crowd was silenced. When Mr. Runkel finished speaking 15 minutes later, most had been won over to his side. Voters approved a tax hike that week.

Runkel has been winning people to his side since being appointed in 1980 to head the nation's most economically troubled state system of public education. The hyperkinetic educator has galvanized a department previously regarded as ineffectual, and in the process he has become one of Michigan's most-talked-about public figures.

Spurred by the ongoing fiscal crisis in the state's schools, Mr. Runkel has changed the Michigan Department of Education from a conduit for federal funds to an activist force. Unlike his predecessors, he has been aggressively vocal in pushing what he regards as the interests of the state's 1.8 million students.

"I can't sit in my Lansing office shuffling papers while schools in this state are going bankrupt," Mr. Runkel says.

"It's against my nature not to get down in the gutter where the fighting is taking place."

Has Lobbying Role

Education spending in Michigan is controlled by the state legislature and local school boards, so Mr. Runkel's role is largely that of lobbyist. And lobby he has:

Last year, Mr. Runkel made what many considered a politically unwise move by opposing a tax-cut plan sponsored by Gov. William G. Milliken. When the Governor's aides made their displeasure known, Mr. Runkel took the lead in organizing opposi-tion to the plan. It was rejected by voters.

The superintendent has learned to persuade, cajole, and occasionally bully state legislators on school-funding issues. He was a central figure in behind-the-scenes lobbying last Wednesday when state lawmakers rejected the Governor's plan to cut $150-million in aid to elementary, secondary, and higher education. (The Governor plans to try again.)

"He's a tremendously effective spokesman for his field," says Jack Faxon, a Democrat from suburban Detroit who chairs the state senate's education committee. "He knows the facts and figures, but more than that he knows how to persuade people."

Mr. Runkel has thrown himself into the thick of do-or-die tax battles in a half-dozen local districts that were short of funds to keep schools open. Realizing that many voters have lost faith in local officials, he has ordered unprecedented audits of the districts' operations, made cost-cutting suggestions, and opened state-staffed "information centers" to deal with angry citizens and to push tax referendums. The results so far: four victories in four campaigns.

Mr. Runkel's newest idea is "Project Outreach," a program designed to get citizens involved before schools reach financial crisis. Over lunches of hamburgers and French fries, Runkel meets with high-school students to ask their opinions of their education. He travels extensively throughout the state to speak to parents' groups, bingo-night crowds, and senior citizens' organizations.

"My goal is to convince people that a good public education system is a major factor in our quality of life," he says. "As the population grows older and school enrollment declines, it becomes increasingly important to convince people that everyone has a stake in the public school system."

Michigan's school system is indeed losing enrollment--about 20 percent over the past decade.

State and federal aid cuts have cost the state's school districts an estimated $500 million in the past two years. More cuts are expected as long as Michigan's auto-based economy remains stagnant.

"I can't lie and predict anything but a gloom-and-doom year for schools," Mr. Runkel says. "But we've got to try to come out of this depression with as much as we can save. We've got to keep people caring.''

Mr. Runkel has been caring about schools for more than 30 years. He has been a teacher, basketball coach, junior-high-school principal, and superintendent in two Michigan districts. He was head of the American School in Athens, Greece, when the state board of education appointed him to the superintendency in January 1980.

Mr. Runkel likes to boast that he never lost a school-tax election while running the districts of Utica and Grand Rapids. In Utica, he persuaded voters to approve what was then the largest school bond issue in the history of the state.

Knows How to Deal With Media

His public-relations aide, Tom Farrell, says much of his boss's success stems from a keen knowledge of how to deal with the media.

"He gets his point across even in the bad-news stories," Mr. Farrell says. "And he makes the reporter feel that he or she can be part of the solution."

Mr. Runkel's method of dealing with people is usually on the run, always between drags on an omnipresent cigarette. When not working his usual 12-hour day, Mr. Runkel is often found relaxing in front of his television watching a basketball game or at the theater.

Mr. Runkel now faces a new fight, perhaps his toughest--a campaign to consolidate Michigan's 529 school districts to fewer than 200.

"With enrollment declines, it's becoming impossible for most of the districts to offer viable programs in areas like vocational education and gifted and talented education," he says. "We could save money and improve education if we could get some of these districts to merge.''

Last year, a group of school leaders from Western Michigan talked of a campaign to run Mr. Runkel for governor. The campaign never got off the ground, but it was taken seriously. That alone demonstrated how highly regarded Phil Runkel is in Michigan.

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