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'Model' Michigan District Losing Public Support

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Grand Rapids, Mich.--Not many years ago, this school district was a model for the state. Test scores were high, classrooms were quietly being integrated, and public support was considered to be outstanding.

Today, the Grand Rapids schools are among the most troubled in Michigan. The school board last week sent layoff notices to 341 administrative employees in the elementary and secondary division and to all 214 faculty members at Grand Rapids Junior College, which it also administers. The action came after residents voted to reject the district's tax rate for the first time in 13 years.

That angry vote reflects a split in Michigan's second-largest school district--a racial split that deepened with last month's ouster of Superintendent John Dow, the city's most prominent black official. Mr. Dow, 42 years old, came under attack when local news media questioned his use of a discretionary expense fund. He was later cleared by the local public prosecutor, but board members voted to fire him on a contract technicality.

Local blacks protested that Mr. Dow's removal was racially motivated. And many whites were infuriated when the school board agreed to pay him a $150,000 contract settlement in return for his resignation.

'Somewhat Outlandish'

Mr. Dow himself termed the settlement "somewhat outlandish" and predicted that it would spur residents to vote against the March 28 tax issue.

"It's a terrible, tragic mess," says Phillip E. Runkel, the state superintendent of public instruction, who served as superintendent in Grand Rapids from 1971 to 1978. "In a short period of time, things went to hell in a handbasket. There's a lot of anger in that community, and that's very troubling."

While in Grand Rapids, Mr. Runkel pro-moted Mr. Dow--a former high-school science teacher--to deputy superintendent. When Mr. Runkel left the district, Mr. Dow became its first black superintendent and a source of pride for blacks in this self-dubbed "all-American city."

During Mr. Dow's tenure as superintendent, student achievement on state tests rose steadily. He was also praised for helping develop strong special-education and alternative-education programs, building an affirmative-action plan, resolving labor conflicts, and continuing the 36,000-student system's tradition of winning tax elections.

Personal Reasons

Mr. Dow's problems began last May, when The Grand Rapids Press published stories that alleged that he and some of his top assistants made inappropriate use of school money. The newspaper detailed episodes in which money was used for personal reasons, such as $235 for a birthday luncheon for the superintendent and $4,000 for a two-day visit by teachers from East Chicago, Ind., one of whom was Mr. Dow's mother.

Two audits authorized by the school board also revealed falsification of receipts and at least one duplicate payment.

Mr. Dow was investigated twice last year--by the local prosecutor and by a specially hired school-board attorney. Both times he was cleared of "intentional mismanagement."

But scars remained in the community. And in January, when Mr. Dow requested a retroactive 9-percent raise in his $57,000 salary, some school-board members began searching for ways to oust him.

They found a way when the board's attorney discovered that the superintendent's contract had never been approved by the full school board and was therefore invalid. Saying that Mr. Dow had "lost the trust of the community," the board voted 5 to 3 to end the contract, offering the settlement if he would leave quietly.

Mr. Dow, now reportedly a candidate for the superintendency in Baltimore, insists that he is not bitter about his dismissal. He has been silent since the settlement, except to say that he does not believe his ouster was racially motivated.

Jackson Called

Others in Grand Rapids disagree. Local blacks called in the Rev. Jesse Jackson to look into the situation.

The civil-rights activist concluded that Mr. Dow's firing was caused by "the spirit of anti-black meanness in this country."

He added, "There is a movement nationwide to erode black gains by public officials, and Grand Rapids appears to be part of that."

Local school officials say they resent that charge. While refusing to discuss the matter with reporters, several have written letters to local newspapers saying that Mr. Dow "failed to create a positive image as chief financial officer for the district." That perception, they said, jeopardized public support on the tax issue.

Tax Package Failed

Whatever the motives for the firing, it is clear the district is in trouble with local voters; the March 28 tax package failed by 20 percentage points. Blacks apparently voted against it in protest of the ouster, whites in protest of the large settlement. The vote was for a complete renewal of Grand Rapids's school tax, along with a 10-percent increase.

The school board has several more chances to seek approval for the tax package. But the first millage defeat since 1970 has shaken officials, and the layoff notices could go into effect if the tax is not approved in an election scheduled for June 12. Several board members face re-election at that time.

"With both sides so angry, they've got a lot of work to do to put things back together," said Mr. Runkel. "There is a major challenge there."

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