Suburban Flight Federal Fight

June 21, 2002
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The trend watchers say that trends are reversing: The flight to the suburbs is changing course, and urban living is “in.” It’s a trend that’s been “news” for the past decade but has more recently affected Grand Rapids’ downtown corridor. And just as developers put up more choices, the trend in GR has slowed. Until now.

It may not have been what trend-watchers predicted, but the flight of suburban public school officials to Grand Rapids Public Schools is … puzzling.

When immediate past Superintendent Patricia Newby announced her retirement, the moving crew was ready, having made overtures and preparations for more than two years. There is no shortage of help, in this community, when it comes to saving GRPS. Businesses, community leaders and nonprofit agencies all have continued commitments to do something — anything — to help. Even GRMAYOR said he would take over the schools; the immediate past chief of police offered to step up to the task.

Is the school board hamstrung by the school administration or is the administration tied up by the school board? In the days of fast-track political candidate recruitment because of term limits, a board seat has become even more political. Staff members express apathy, caught between the two with no firm leadership coming from either and what’s become business as usual. Chasing tails is hard work for circus horses.

Parents, to date, had been even more apathetic, the result of being ignored by administrators and barred at most doors by zero tolerance policies resulting from violence in other cities. The height of mismanagement, however, came in promises to close neighborhood schools, which provided a venue for parents to unleash their pent-up frustrations. When the school board went shopping for a new superintendent to invite to this lovely situation, members talked of finding someone who would be more commanding — “strict”— in the post, but they weren’t talking about facing off with students (yet). They were talking about a leader in administration who could offer and set clear goals and follow through with teachers, board members and parents. And parents are indicating they want radical change. The former Lowell superintendent who took the reins this month might as well have come charging into downtown on a white horse, given all the drama of the transition. Keep in mind, the back rooms — from central city churches to high-income suburban boardrooms — were smoke-filled by the time Newby resigned, and The Plan only waited for opportunity. With mostly blessings from some inner-city ecumenical group members, Bert Bleke is ready to break ground and at long last plant The Plan.

Readers may recall bidding a fond farewell to immediate past Forest Hills Public Schools board President Ben Emdin, who longed to retire with family in Florida.

Then he bought a house … in the city (gasp). Emdin was dissuaded from retirement to sit as Bleke’s right hand and shepherd operations. Considering all intent and purpose, this becomes a very real example of personal lives set aside, giving real meaning to the word “help.” Another from the Forest Hills administrative offices, Jim Pitcher will oversee finances. (They all worked together when Bleke served as principal at Forest Hills Central High School, where threats from kids involve lawyers. The new guys at GRPS are adept at this, too.)

About the money: Want radical change? Help with the infrastructure “problems” that figuratively crumble atop students’ heads? Create a building authority that owns the buildings for the sake of bonding and getting them fixed.

GRMAYOR is among those often emphasizing the importance of the public schools to the city’s well being. No one has ever said differently. So while he is eager to help, the new crew is looking at the Downtown Improvement District tax as one possible contribution to GRPS. The city, we hear, is even considering a 50 percent credit on city income taxes.

Real leaders in administration have vision and are not easily taken from the goal at hand. That makes school board members look good. Knowing there are ways to make improvements makes parents happy.

Then, everyone can get back to what they say is most important: the kids.

  • Barney Fife has a gun, and in these trying times in the homeland, he’s been told to shoot first. Can he be stopped?

Federal District Judge Richard Enslen has at least put a holster around it, and indicated he would rule on a motion to dismiss a suit brought by the Department of Justice Office of the U.S. Attorney, alleging United Memorial Health System in Greenville “conspired to bill for unnecessary medical procedures.” He said he would decide by June 28.

This is a case going way back to the unhealthy practices of a physician who resigned in 1996 and was sentenced to prison, eventually, for mail fraud. That would be Jeffrey Askanazi

The problem is, they can’t squeeze money from a career-less federal inmate. And so one has to ask, “Where’s the money?”

From the very first FBI “inquiry,” United Memorial (aka The Money) has documented its every action before and after such time Askanazi left. United Memorial CEO Lorne Archer certainly sees that a door may be kicked open, in this case, for FBI review of medical staff peer reviews.

“We have cooperated fully with an exhaustive federal examination that has now stretched for nearly (three) years,” Archer has said. “We have also commissioned outside legal experts to review our actions and they conclude we have done nothing wrong. ... The government seems to be taking the unprecedented step of intruding into the long-held tradition of medical staff peer review.”

Keep in mind these also are days of razor-thin margins for hospitals (see the Spectrum story on page X), not to mention that it’s the feds who pay an ever-decreasing amount of the actual cost of health care services — when they pay — through Medicare. Some suggest perhaps Enslen could rule on the justice of that system, too. Others in the West Michigan business community worry that it could end up costing the entire population of Greenville, if legal costs and Fife-dumb push the hospital doors closed.

  • Walker has the power. City leaders are just not sure they want the ball. The still raging weather ball battle is now hung on the city council, faced with WZZM Channel 13’s request to lift their found, original weather ball onto the towers above its Walker address, which is above the freeway and above the objections of WOOD TV-8 — which has its own weather balls set to go up ’round the county in various locations of viewer interest.

The problem, Walker officials say, is that the WZZM ball may cause all manner of commotion with cell phones and other like communication devices. The idea may be mothballed. Still, it must be obvious to Walker talkers, that n-o-t-h-i-n-g in lake-affected West Michigan is more important than the weather. The weather ball is a quick way to communicate this news need, perhaps eliminating the necessity of many cell phone calls.

Just don’t call us … our weather ball has been in operation for three years at www.grbj.com.            

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