State Superintendent Watkins resigns

Rift spotlights governor, board, union

On Jan. 29, Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Watkins resigned, ending an unusually public and acrimonious conflict between Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the state Board of Education over Watkins’ leadership.

Debate over Watkins’ ability to head the Department of Education marked the final weeks of his tenure. The governor’s office stated in the Detroit Free Press on Jan. 19 that Watkins was "not providing effective leadership in one of the most critical departments in state government." In the same article, Gov. Granholm claimed, "(Watkins) needs to resign for the good of the state board, for the good of public education." She said her disapproval of Watkins’ work had been known to him for months.

However, Booth Newspapers reported on Jan. 12 that Granholm had given Watkins a letter of praise for a July (2004) performance evaluation. The state board, which had hired Watkins, had recently awarded him a job evaluation of "A-."

Among the events which transpired from July 2004 to January 2005 was a difference of opinion between Watkins and the Michigan Education Association. According to a letter sent to Watkins from the MEA on Oct. 4, 2004, Watkins chose not to withhold funds from a Bay Mills Community College charter school after having done so in April 2003 due to questions of legality. The MEA was opposed to this charter school receiving state funds because the union contended that Bay Mills charters could not be considered public schools.

The October MEA letter to Watkins states: "As the Superintendent of Public Instruction you have a legal duty to ensure that academies are legally authorized and are adequately supervised by a public body … If you feel you need more statutory authority, and more funding, we will support your efforts to achieve such within the Legislature."

The Department of Education had previously been given the green light to disburse funds to Bay Mills charters after Gov. Granholm’s legal division determined it was indeed legal to do so.

In December, another point of contention between Watkins and the MEA developed when Watkins released a controversial school-funding report offering ideas about reforms to Michigan’s education system. His untraditional approach to solving the "Structural Issues Surrounding Michigan School Funding In the 21st Century" may have raised some eyebrows.

In his report, Watkins challenged some widely-held views within the education community: "A simple solution would be to join the chorus that simply asks for more tax revenue to fund our schools. … However, solely funding the current system will not yield the results our children need and deserve." The report goes on to say: "Boldness and candor are required to identify the challenges as well as to make recommendations that address them. The primary postulate, that additional revenue without unprecedented change in the fundamental structure of our public education system is not enough, is not widely agreed to by the education populace" (Watkins’ emphasis).

Watkins’ troubles were not limited to disagreements with the MEA or fallout from the December report. He attracted attention with comments published in a Jan. 2 Grand Rapids Press story on charter schools. In the article, MEA Communications Director Margaret Trimer-Hartley stated that she believed the progress of charter schools was inconclusive, and that she was concerned about stories of charter schools discouraging special education students from enrolling. Watkins responded bluntly: "Does some of it happen? Sure. But let’s take a look at traditional schools. Some of them will complain about losing 300 (students) to a charter, but you won’t hear a peep out of them when 3,000 (dropouts) go to the streets."

On Jan. 11, four weeks after the Watkins report was released and nine days after his Grand Rapids Press comments, "Dozens of educators and parents packed a state board meeting to praise Watkins for his ‘call to action,’" reported Booth Newspapers Lansing Bureau. The governor offered a tepid endorsement of Watkins on the same day, refusing to say anything other than him being a "valued member" of her cabinet.

The board itself was split in their support for Watkins. Board Vice President John Austin, D-Ann Arbor, told Gongwer News Service: "I personally for several years thought we could do better, somebody who was more effective. We now have four of us who see a long pattern of things we would have wanted Tom to have done differently." But, Board President Kathleen Strauss, one of Austin’s fellow Democrats, never wavered in her support of Watkins, according to Gongwer: "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 board, however, voted to table an extension to Watkins’ contract.

Speculation over the reasons for Watkins’ fall from grace was widespread. Writing for the Oakland Press on Jan. 14, Lansing political commentator Tim Skubick offered one explanation for Granholm’s insistence that Watkins leave his post, "Rightly or wrongly, here’s the knock on Watkins: He is great with the sound bite about moving children up the education ladder, but his depth of expertise is the proverbial mile long and a silly millimeter deep."

On Jan. 19, the Free Press reported that Granholm education adviser Chuck Wilbur said, "Watkins has wrongly suggested that Granholm was perturbed by (the) Dec. 6 report on the plight of schools." Wilbur continued, "It has to do with the way he managed the department."

Watkins responded to criticisms against him on Jan. 20 in a letter to the governor. Claiming he was "inappropriately criticized," Watkins wrote that he was "surprised and perplexed" at Granholm’s turn against him: "Neither you nor any of your staff have shared these concerns with me personally." Watkins asserted that all of Granholm’s comments toward him had been positive, the only exception being in regard to a diagram in Watkins’ December report. He stated, "You said ‘you were furious’ regarding the … funding illustration … that shows that almost 2/3s of new dollars invested in our schools will be used to cover pension and health care expenses."

Watkins also urged Granholm to "direct members of your staff to cease bullying members of the statewide-elected state Board of Education to sell out their conviction and their support of me."

Highlighting further alleged injustices, Watkins hinted at a possible MEA connection though he did not give names. "I have been told that you have asked special interest groups to discredit me and convince my supporters on the State Board to fire me, as a ‘personal favor,’" he wrote.

Watkins maintained that having been successful in private business and in managing the multi-million dollar Department of Mental Health, his administrative and leadership skills could not be called into question.

As for the MEA’s continuing opposition to the Bay Mills charter schools, the union has filed a lawsuit against the superintendent of public instruction, the state Board of Education, and the state treasurer to stop the funding of Bay Mills charter schools. The suit, dated February 3, 2005, was filed days after Watkins’ resignation. Stated explicitly in the complaint is an account of another confrontation between the MEA and Watkins over Bay Mills, occurring only one month after Watkins’ office received the original letter in October. In this subsequent contact, Watkins continued to hold his ground, again deciding not to withhold funds.

The state Board of Education has chosen Jeremy Hughes, Michigan’s chief academic officer, to be acting superintendent until a new permanent superintendent can be appointed. A set of selection criteria has been developed by the board, and they have decided to accept applications until April 8th.