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GRPS Superintendent Neal is ready to step down, but not before pushing questionable policies

June 19, 2019

Yesterday, MLive posted a story on the 2019-2020 budget for the Grand Rapids Public Schools that was approved on Monday at the School Board meeting. 

The MLive article mostly focuses on the decline in GRPS enrollment, thus a reduced budget. However, there are several other questions that should be raised about the budget, such as, why the GRPS Foundation has a line for allowances to 23 Charter Schools, funding disparities between different schools and several line items that are vague and unspecified.

I spoke with someone after the public hearing for the school budget, and was told about a few other issues that were disconcerting. First, was the issue of what happened at a recent school board meeting where the Interim GRPS Supervisor, Ron Gorman, was operating on the assumption that he would be able to bring in his own administrative staff. Theresa Weatherall Neal, who was the Superintendent until last Monday’s meeting, stepped in and said that she was picking the administrative staff for Gorman, which was almost the same as the personnel that Neal has had.

A second issue that should raise red flags for people who care about public education is the issue of the Grand Rapids Promise. Grand Rapids is now in line to become a Promise Zone and will have to follow the guidelines of the Michigan Promise Zones. The Michigan Legislature appoints people to the Michigan Promise Zones Authority and Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, has appointed J.C. Huizenga to the Authority. Huizenga is founder and chairman of the board of National Heritage Academies Inc., a for-profit charter school management company. Huizenga, besides being the head of a for-profit Charter School company, is also an influential member of the Grand Rapids Power Structure and a close associate of Betsy DeVos.

At a meeting on June 10, Teresa Weatherall Neal proposed an 9 – member panel that would be in charge of the Grand Rapids Promise, which are listed here:

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, who has led the city since 2016 and been a city commissioner since 2006. She is also is an adjunct professor at Grand Valley State University’s School of Social Work.

• Ron Gorman, assistant superintendent of Pre-K-12 Institutional Support for Grand Rapids, who will become the interim superintendent when Neal retires effective July 1.

• City Manager Mark Washington, who joined the city Oct. 1, 2018. He has worked in local government about 23 years, most recently as assistant city manager in Austin, TX.

• Kristian Grant, president of the Grand Rapids Board of Education, who was elected to a four-year term in 2016. She is a district parent and founder of Mini Mogul Academy, a curriculum for students focused on business and entrepreneurship.

• Kate Pew Wolters is president of the Kate and Richard Wolters Foundation, a member of the Board of Directors of Steelcase Inc., and chair of the Steelcase Foundation. Steelcase, the leading furniture manufacturer, was founded by her grandfather, Walter Idema. She has been a Grand Valley State University Board of Trustee member since 2004.

• Omar Cuevas a longtime district parent and vice president of Sales and Marketing for the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce.

• David Faber is superintendent of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Grand Rapids – 26 elementary schools and five high schools.

• Diana Sieger is president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. She has been responsible for the foundation’s leadership, management, strategic planning and development for more than 30 years. The foundation awards more than $1 million annually in higher education scholarship to hundreds of students.

• Tom DeJonge is superintendent of Grand Rapids Christian Schools, a private, faith-based school system that enrolls more than 2,300 students in preschool through 12th Grade on five campuses throughout the city.

At Monday’s school budget hearing, one parent of the school district asked a question about the Grand Rapids Promise, “why would it include those who attend private schools, where is the money coming from and who would benefit from this funding. This program should be specifically for GRPS students and not for the private school students.”

This question is an important one, and looking at who Neal wants to make the decisions about the Grand Rapids Promise, it seems clear what her goals are. There are the heads of two private/religious schools on the list, at least three who come from the private sector, with other business friendly entities.

When the Kalamazoo Promise was first adopted, it was specifically for Public School students, yet the Grand Rapids Promise will include private and charter school students as potential beneficiaries of the funding. 

If I didn’t know any better, it would seem that the Grand Rapids Promise will be used as another tool in the Neo-liberal Education Reform movement to further weaken public schools and provide greater leverage to those who are in Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s camp, like Huizenga and Teresa Weatherall Neal

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