To say that Lansing School District Superintendent T.C. Wallace is interviewing for the top schools job in Pontiac would be an understatement. That’s because getting a job as superintendent isn’t as simple as writing a cover letter, attaching it to your resume, sending it off and crossing your fingers. You have to convince an entire community — parents, students and, most important, the board of education — that you’re the right man, or woman, to steer the futures of thousands of children.
And Wallace isn’t interviewing for the superintendent job in some cakewalk school district that every year blows No Child Left Behind standards out of the water, doesn’t run a deficit, or that sends scores of kids to Yale and Harvard.
Pontiac is not Grosse Pointe or even Okemos.
Wallace is interviewing for a job in a beleaguered school district that has seen double-digit enrollment declines, has apparently left lots of children behind and is facing — says Wallace — a deficit that could expand to upward of $30 million if something is not done.
The job of superintendent in Pontiac, it would seem, should go to a person that is equal parts Superman, Mother Theresa and Aristotle.
But still, Wallace is trying his best to get the job.
But why? A source told City Pulse last week that someone in Pontiac approached Wallace to apply. But Mike Wilmot, a consultant working on Pontiac’s search, said that if anyone official called Wallace, he’s not aware of it. He did confirm that Wallace submitted a resume and letter of interest toward the end of January. Pontiac School Board President Damon Dorkins did not return calls seeking comment.
Regardless of how his candidacy came about, why would Wallace be actively trying to get out of Lansing, a district that has its problems but not on the scale that Pontiac does, when he’s been here less than two years?
“It’s a personal issue,” Wallace said in an interview Monday in Pontiac. “A personal family health issue.”
When pressed, he would not elaborate. The job in Pontiac, he says, would give him a chance to continue his career while being close to a family member — at least, that’s what we’re left to assume — who lives somewhere in Oakland County. Or maybe they or it lives in Macomb County, or Wayne County. Wallace would not say.
“It has nothing to do with the Lansing School District,” he said, meaning his decision to seek the Pontiac job, not the potential impact of his leaving this city.
On Monday morning, Wallace appeared in the Pontiac Board of Education meeting room inside the Odell Nails Administration Building, an architecturally bold little building situated atop a small hill off Woodward Avenue adjacent to the city’s downtown area. Nearby is a school, City Hall, police headquarters, and about one block away, a decrepit brick building with boarded-up windows. The Lansing School District’s headquarters looks out onto the Capitol Complex.
In the board’s wood-paneled room conference room, Wallace was huddled with about six Pontiac residents around the dais, speaking softly about some of his bigname references: heads of national and education groups, societies and the rest.
“On a national level, if you were to ask me for a reference, I could give you the president of the largest administrative association … .” he told them, almost inaudibly.
Wallace’s back was to the audience side of the room, but just a feet from away, a cameraman from Lansing’s WILX TV station had aimed his camera squarely at the back of Wallace’s head.
A short time later, a Pontiac school official interrupted Wallace, asking if he could turn around and face the audience and speak into a microphone so that everyone could have the pleasure of hearing his answers to the residents’ questions.
The first woman to ask a question, after Wallace turned around and the residents took seats in the audience, was Irma Collins, head of the Pontiac teachers’ union.
“I’m trying to glean from what you said,” Collins said to Wallace, in a slightly confrontational tone. “You’re coming here to a failing district, and we only pay $156,000. Why would you come here to this district?”
Wallace, who makes $175,000 a year in Lansing, looked as thought he expected the question. He began by saying, “Let me help you get to know who I am,” and went on to explain that in 1988 he had interviewed for this very same job (A 5-4 no vote, he said). And in 2005, he was in front of the board applying to be in charge of the district’s quality control, which also ended in a no vote. Both times, the timing wasn’t right, he told Collins, plus:
“For me, it’s not about the stages or salary, it’s about serving young people,” he explained as his reason for wanting the job.
But Wallace’s answers weren’t enough for Collins.
“What you’re telling me, I don’t buy it,” Collins said.
And then resident Caroll Turpin asked a similar question.
“The timing is right for Pontiac?” Turpin said. “Is the timing wrong for Lansing?”
The questioning continued, with Turpin expressing concern that Wallace has Pontiac baggage — he says that he was a mentor to the district’s former superintendent, Mildred Mason, who retired in 2007. Turpin was also upset about the 9 a.m. interview time, which made it hard for working parents to attend. Indeed, the meeting topped out at about 10, including Lansing reporters and district officials.
“My decision to look at Pontiac is in no way a negative reflection on Lansing,” Wallace replied. “My decision is a personal, family decision. My position in Lansing is one that there is no acrimony. There are no conflicting contract issues. Nothing in Lansing has caused me to look at Pontiac.”
The rest of the meeting, which lasted over two hours, had Wallace fielding questions from the panel of residents about his vision for the district, how his 21 years of experience as an educator can be brought into the future, how to reenergize students and parents and whether he would take up residence in Pontiac (probably not, he said).
At some points, some in the audience snickered at Wallace’s circumventing answers to questions — part of Wallace’s personality, it seems, is the tendency to talk slowly, dragging out words for several beats and launching into vague anecdotes from past experiences. He uses platitudes like “We must take failure off the table,” which seems standard for administrators. (Just take a look at that picture on the opening page of this story in which Wallace is seated in front of giant placards with words like “vision” and “goals” that seem empty when there are probably high schoolers struggling to read.)
At the end of the meeting, Wallace took a minute to say some closing remarks — mostly focusing on what he called “misinformation” about his applying to be superintendent.
“I was in great standing with my school district up until the interview portion,” Wallace said. “At the end of the day, I want your decision to be based on what’s best for the children.”
Longing for Lansing
When Wallace was interviewing for the Lansing job back in late 2006 he was one of the two finalists — until the other candidate, James Coolican, dropped out, citing incompatibility with the school board because he felt it didn’t share his vision for long-term planning.
School officials, however, didn’t just hand over the job to Wallace. They continued interviewing Wallace and took a tour of his Mount Clemens school district. And it was probably his credentials in Mount Clemens that put the icing on the cake: he had convinced voters there to pass a $71 million bond issue for repairing schools; over seven years turned a $2.5 million deficit into a $5 million surplus and was a cheerleader for the school system. He also had years of experience, including as superintendent for one year in Jackson, Miss., where the school board voted to fire him after he didnt pass a state credentialing process, but it later recanted and accepted a resignation instead. He also served as superintendent in Roosevelt, N.Y., and for the Buena Vista School District in Saginaw.
“There are 15,511 reasons to accept the opportunity," Wallace was quoted in the Lansing State Journal in 2006. “(But) Ill be looking for unity that says this team is ready to move forward and take on the challenges facing the school district as expeditiously as possible.”
The Lansing school board voted 8-1 — member Amy Hodgin was the sole “no” — on Dec. 18, 2006, to hire Wallace. Wallace brought with him from Mt. Clemens Chief Financial Officer Venkat Seripalli and Chief Academic Officer Julie Lemond.
Wallace came to Lansing schools at a time when the school board had just passed a budget with a $10 million deficit, was facing continued enrollment declines and was laying off teachers. Later, there was a Johns Hopkins University report that said Lansing high schools were drop-out factories.
Wallace’s two largest efforts in Lansing, arguably, were the high school reconstitution plan and his five-year district strategic plan. Both efforts eventually passed, though in different forms than what Wallace and his administrative team had proposed.
The reconstitution plan, which grew out of a No Child Left Behind task force, surfaced in February 2008 and sought to lay off 250 teachers from Eastern and Everett high schools and have them reapply for their jobs. The original plan also sought to increase the number of days for Sexton students, according to Lansing State Journal reports. The plan was a response to the failure of the high schools to meet adequate yearly progress for five years.
The plan was eventually approved by the school board, 7-2, but will go into effect only if the high schools don’t met adequate yearly progress goals this year — even still, it would be another year of planning before it would be implemented.
Wallace set to work on the strategic plan in November 2007. The plan eventually reached 71 pages when its first draft was unveiled in February 2008. It has been characterized as giving the district guideposts to meet for each school year in the areas of test scores, enrollment, i n f r a s t r u c t u r e improvements and the budget. The plan was approved in August after it had been revised down to 27 pages after some on the board described it as “unwieldy,” according to the Lansing State Journal.
Currently, the school district is in the midst of a “right sizing” effort led by former Lansing mayor David Hollister, Michigan State University professor Rubin Martinez and state official Don Weatherspoon. The effort of “right sizing” will be to bring in line the student population with the number of schools, some of which are severely aged.
The above-three efforts have been large. But that doesn’t mean Lansing schools have been brought to life under Wallace’s leadership. A state study in August revealed a 64 percent graduation rate. And the student count at the beginning of this school year revealed that the district lost 688 students — 388 more than had originally been predicted, leaving a funding shortfall of $3 million. After 20 months in Lansing, Wallace hasn’t turned around declining enrollment or stopped budget woes.
To Lansing Board of Education President Hugh Clarke, Wallace’s entry into the Pontiac superintendent’s race was a surprise — though he wouldn’t use that exact word.
“It wasn’t expected,” Clarke says. “It wasn’t anything any of us expected.”
Clarke wouldn’t say much about the whole deal, mostly, he says, because he doesn’t know anything. The board hasn’t been briefed directly by Wallace, though Clarke hopes that will happen soon.
“He hasn’t shared any of that information with the board,” Clarke said. “Hopefully that will be available in the next few days. Other than that, I don’t have anything to say.”
There’s also the issue of Wallace’s $175,000-a-year contract, plus $750 per year car allowance, which doesn’t expire until June 30, 2011. Although Wallace has said that there aren’t any contractual issues he’s aware of, Clarke, a prominent attorney, said that if the superintendent were to go to Pontiac it would be a breach.
“He has a contract through 2011,” Clarke said. “Having said that, he is seriously short of that. There would obviously be a breach of that contract.”
Clarke could not speak to what kind of penalty might be involved.
School board members who were reached would comment on the matter. Clarke acts as a spokesman for the entire body.
“He would leave the district in bit of a turmoil. You can certainly expect turmoil and concern by staff. But we are an experienced board and we’ll hit the ground running,” Clarke told the Oakland County Press.
Wallace told reporters that he hasn’t thought about the money aspect of the Pontiac job.
“That’s not at the top of my agenda,” he said.
Mason was paid $156,000 per year when she was superintendent of Pontiac. The interim superintendent, Dr. Linda Paramore, is being paid $140,000.
If he gets the job, Wallace says he’ll have to think about whether to take it.
“I would have to look at it deeply with family,’ he said.
For Collins, the prospect of Wallace coming to Pontiac would be bleak.
“Are we happy to see him here? No,” she said after Monday’s meeting. “His ideas are in the past."