Why not put Virg in charge of schools?

By Kyle Melinn

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero said he wants nothing to do with it. Asked on “City Pulse Live” (7 p.m. Wednesday on WDBM, 88.9 FM) if he’d support turning over administrative control of the Lansing School District to the mayor’s office, a la Chicago, Boston, New York City, etc., Bernero cringed.

It turns out then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton asked Bernero and 11 other mayors at a Washington conference that same question. Outside of the two mayors who already had the power, nobody’s hand went up when asked, “Who wants to be in charge of your school districts?”

Bernero said Lansing’s city government has a great collaborative process with the Lansing School District. They take turn mowing each other’s lawns when the two have adjacent property. The city put police officers into the high schools. The city finds re-use options for shuttered school buildings.

No, with so many other things on his plate, Bernero said the thought of adding something else was “daunting.”

“I can’t imagine adding that to my current task,” he concluded.

It’s about time he did.

Let’s look at the current structure of the Lansing School District, and start with one simple question: Who’s in charge of the school district?

We have a nine-member elected board led by a powerful chairman, Hugh Clarke Jr., who hasn’t exactly had a cozy year with Superintendent T.C. Wallace. Remember, Wallace nearly bolted only 20 months into a four-year contract that’s now worth $180,000-a-year. He was one of two finalists for the Pontiac schools job until the mysterious family illness cleared up that had driven him to want to return to Southeast Michigan in the first place.

My sources tell me Clarke wanted Wallace gone after this stunt but couldn’t find a way to fire him without a huge payout. Wallace’s contract is air-tight because, Clarke, an attorney, had a hand in writing the thing.

So again, who’s in change of the district? Is it Wallace, who finally pushed through two much-needed school closings after more than a year of school board blockade?

Is it Clarke? He’s publicly elected, but he’s only the president because a majority of the board put him there.

Is it the board? Possibly, but one could easily argue that Clarke gives them marching orders.

Is it Lansing Schools Education Association President Jerry Schwarz? I’m told a review of the teacher union’s cushy contract would make one wonder.

I don’t know.

Meanwhile, we had a bold, wellthought-out school improvement proposal prepared by former Mayor David Hollister. The “Rightsizing Plan” lays out a clear, positive direction for a district losing students by the hundreds and money by the thousands. And let’s not forget all three city high schools are chronically failing.

It’s high time everybody was on the same page. The quality of the Lansing School District is intricately tied to Lansing’s success as whole. How much economic development has already been scared off by the district’s lack of academic performance in the upper grades?

Urban school districts in which the city’s mayor appoints qualified school board members or CEOs are performing better than those with elected school boards, Brown University education Professor Kenneth Wong told USA Today. Test scores are rising “significantly.”

In Harrisburg, Pa., USA Today reports the 10,000-student school district, under mayoral control since 2000, has seen enrollment up 35 percent.

President Barack Obama certainly isn’t opposed to this idea. His education secretary was the CEO of the mayor-run Chicago school district.

This isn’t about giving Bernero the keys to Sexton High and telling him to get everybody to ace math. It’s about letting him put in charge a united team of qualified people whose long-term goal is improving student achievement. These would be folks who realize the city’s economic growth and its schools are not separate issues.

Say what you like about the bombastic Virg, his judgment on appointments is strong. He hand-picked a Board of Water and Light board that hired J. Peter Lark, a quality choice. Then there’s Jerry Ambrose. Bob Trezise, Bob Johnson . . . the list goes on.

Lansing needs a bold board of likeminded folks committed to acting on an entire right-sizing plan, not a board that uses months of work as an excuse to close a couple of schools, the end.

Our well-intentioned elected school board, while allegedly representative of the people, too often turns out to be a training ground for minor-league politicians. As a group, they’ve shown little initiative and little vision.

Enough is enough. Changing a culture of shrinkage and failure starts at the top, and it’s time we got an answer to my beginning question: Who’s in charge of the school district?

There’s absolutely no reason it shouldn’t be the same person charged with turning around our city: The mayor.

(Kyle Melinn is the editor at the MIRS newsletter. His column runs weekly. Write him at melinn@lansingcitypulse.com.
Send letters to letters@lansingcitypulse. com.)