Pressure Mounts on Michigan Chief to Step Down

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Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan surprised many in the state’s education establishment last month when she publicly declared that she wanted state Superintendent of Public Instruction Thomas D. Watkins Jr. out of office.

Late last week, it looked as though she was close to getting her wish.

In an interview Jan. 27, John C. Austin, a member of the state board of education, said a special board meeting had been called for Jan. 29 to address the situation. Being careful with his wording, Mr. Austin said: “If we haven’t worked out a solution before that, we would likely be seeing Tom’s departure.”

Just days earlier, Mr. Austin had put it more bluntly, saying that if Mr. Watkins, who was hired in 2001 by the elected state board, did not resign, “we would have to meet and fire him.”

As of press time late last week, the schools chief, who some say has angered the governor by raising concerns over how Michigan finances its schools, was still on the job.

“My focus has been to keep attention where it belongs, on the kids,” Mr. Watkins, who has refused to resign, said in an interview. “But some days, the attention swirls over who has the power, and that’s where we are.”

Heated Exchanges

Many education observers in Michigan were caught off guard by the volley of exchanges that began when Gov. Granholm, a Democrat, was quoted in a Jan. 18 article in the Detroit Free Press as saying that Mr. Watkins “needs to resign for the good of the state board, for the good of public education.”

The governor, however, does not have the authority to fire the chief. That responsibility lies with the board, whose five Democrats and three Republicans are elected on statewide ballots.

The issue became increasingly murky on Jan. 3 after the board’s president, Democrat Kathleen Strauss, and its Republican secretary, Carolyn Curtin, signed an extension of Mr. Watkins’ contract through January 2006.

Other board members challenged the validity of the extension, arguing it needed to be voted on by the full board. A vote on the extension that was scheduled for Jan. 10 was tabled and rescheduled for the board’s next regular meeting, on Feb. 8.

Meanwhile, stung by the governor’s public rebuke, Mr. Watkins fired back with a four-page letter dated Jan. 20 that defended his performance and took the governor and her representatives to task for not sharing their criticisms with him directly.

“When [there are] charges such as those you and your staff have made, I am discredited, and the hard work being done by the fine employees of the Michigan Department of Education and educators throughout the state is minimized and denigrated,” he wrote. “I won’t let that happen.”

It didn’t end there. Gov. Granholm’s press office told the news media that the superintendent, who makes $168,000 a year, was seeking a cash settlement to step down.

In an interview last week, George Ward, a lawyer for Mr. Watkins, had a different take on what transpired. Mr. Ward said that he had simply pointed out that his client has a contract through January of next year, and that “if the state breaches the contract, they should pay the standard contract remedy,” which would be the one-year salary.

‘Out of Control’

Michigan education groups were clearly frustrated last week by the rapid deterioration in relations between the superintendent, the state board, and the governor.

Some pundits even saw the situation as a sign that it was time to revive an on-again, off-again push to amend the Michigan Constitution and allow the governor to appoint the state superintendent.

Justin P. King, the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, just wants the disagreement resolved.

“I think it’s certainly gotten out of hand,” he said. “There’s certainly enough blame to go around. I’ve been in politics all my life, and I feel this kind of thing is best dealt with behind the scenes, and usually is.”

The Michigan Education Association’s spokeswoman went a step further and said that the teachers’ union was through talking about the issue.

“This is a mess spinning out of control. We are so done with it,” said Margaret Trimer-Hartley, the director of communications for the National Education Association affiliate. “There are other big issues we need to pay attention to, like school funding.”

According to Mr. Austin of the state board, who is a Democrat, Mr. Watkins’ undoing has been long in the making and can be tied to a lack of forcefulness in addressing low achievement in public schools, and to using the office to raise his own profile.

“He has not seemed interested in moving forward on policies that we support on reform and accountability,” Mr. Austin said. “The governor made her decision and came to the same conclusion.”

Mr. Watkins noted that he had received an A-minus from the board on his most recent performance review. “People are guessing about why this has happened,” he said of the effort to oust him. “I just say I’m still the same guy I was then.”

In his letter to the governor, Mr. Watkins also defended the education department’s work in struggling schools and pointed to improving scores in some other low-achieving sites: “These all can be documented, as you well know, because we personally have discussed these positive movements in state achievement, and you publicly heralded many of them.”

Vol. 24, Issue 21, Pages 22, 28

Published in Print: February 2, 2005, as Pressure Mounts on Michigan Chief to Step Down
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