Bleke Confronts Tough Times

April 24, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Of West Michigan’s leaders, few can claim to have been handed a more turbulent situation than the one that greeted Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Bert Bleke when he signed his five-year contract in May 2002.

Last month, he announced he would step into a consulting role next year and retire at the completion of his contract, ending a tenure that led the district’s most ambitious restructuring efforts in modern times.

“I knew it would be an intense five years and there would be a lot of things we have to do,” Bleke said. “Generally when you have to do a lot of stuff and a lot of it isn’t fun, you wear out your welcome after four or five years.”

Bleke came to West Michigan in 1975 to serve as assistant principal at EastGrand RapidsHigh School, and had been Lowell’s superintendent since 1995. But despite two decades of living next door to GRPS, he admits that he underestimated the issues facing the region’s largest district.

“I felt there were a lot of youngsters in Grand Rapids who deserved a better education and I thought I could help them get that,” he said. “When I came I had a vague idea of what the issues were. I had a general idea that I wanted to make it a better school system and learning environment for kids and that hasn’t changed. What has changed is my understanding of the complexities of the issues around how to do that.”

Bleke quickly learned that to make the changes required of GRPS, every member of the school system and the community would need to play a role.

But that level of cooperation would not come easily. His predecessor, Patricia Newby, was largely unpopular with the community, board and staff. She had spearheaded a controversial plan to close schools that hadn’t involved community input. Leaders in the Hispanic community had lost confidence in her leadership.

Then-mayor John Logie publicly questioned if Bleke’s experience leading the rural Lowell schools prepared him for the job. Minority leaders balked against the selection of a white superintendent.

Only 30 minutes into the job, following a 5-4 vote approving his hiring, board member Robert Dean accused him of referring to African Americans as “colored.”

“All districts are different even though a lot of them look the same,” Bleke said. “Obviously there is a huge difference between Grand Rapids and Lowell just based on size and demographics, but the basic similarity is they are all human beings.”

Two days later, 20 GRPS schools were pegged as failing according to the No Child Left Behind guidelines.

“I think that is all nonsense,” Bleke said. “America loves scorecards and the easier the scorecard the better. No Child Left Behind and the notion of failing schools gives us accountability and I have no problem with that, but how we judge schools to be failing is so completely unfair and nonsensical it’s hard to believe.

“Could we do better? Absolutely. But are we failing? No. As a matter of fact, I think we add more value to the children that attend our schools than any other school system in this county.”

Bleke compared a GRPS student to a peer at East Grand Rapids or Forest Hills. At the neighboring districts, a student comes into kindergarten with a vocabulary of 6,000 words, a supportive family, and sometimes a library at home that is larger than that of the school.

“They do well in school,” Bleke said. “But the question becomes, ‘What value did the school add to them?’”

At GRPS, 78 percent of students live in poverty, 14 percent are in special education, and thousands don’t speak English at home.

“They came into the system at a whole different level. We take those kids and add a tremendous amount to them. Yet if they don’t pass a test according to the government standards, they failed.”

The legislature hasn’t been kind to any local municipalities recently. Bleke faced an $11 million deficit his first year. GRPS has cut $50 million from its budget in the past five years, and will cut another $15 million this year.

“We’re just about done,” Bleke said. “I defy anyone to go through this organization and tell me where I can cut. We can’t cut our way out of this problem. We’ve got about 15 months for them to help us.”

The state legislature, led by Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, has insisted that the schools fix their fiscal situation and operate more efficiently.

Bleke notes that GRPS is following those suggestions. It is privatizing transportation and janitorial services. It is consolidating with a second phase of school closures next year. It will even address the costs associated with the MESSA health-care plan.

“School employees have a health-care package that is second to none and we simply can’t afford it anymore,” Bleke said. “You have no argument from me that we need to fix it. But there are two sides to every coin. We as schools need to fix our laundry, but there are issues in Lansing that need to be fixed.”

Proposition A is structurally broken, he said, and retirement will cost GRPS $25 million this year.

“That’s the part that’s bugging me,” he said. “I want them to admit they’ve got some work to do, too. Health care is killing us, but retirement is equally killing us and I can’t do anything about that.”

In his first three years, Bleke led the creation of a standardized teaching approach throughout the system that is already starting to show benefits. The high school systems were torn apart and replaced with career- and relationship-based schools.

The community rallied behind the schools with the $150 million bond construction, its first in decades.

Bleke’s administration has fielded controversy on a daily basis: school closings, GPA standards for graduation and athletics, racial tension and layoffs.

The work is far from done, however, as the selection process for facility reduction begins on May 6.

With any luck, this will create the opportunity to apply the White Commission’s brownfield plan, which will allow the district to generate revenue from development of its closed properties.

The school district is piloting the program with its former technical high school building on Ball Avenue NE.

“It’s an interesting concept. I’ll be delighted if it works,” Bleke said. “But what Grand Rapids doesn’t need is a short-term solution that would permanently cost us our parks and playgrounds. That’s a quality-of-life issue.

“We are the largest landowner in the city and we own most of the green space. You have to do what is right for the neighborhoods as well as what is right for the schools.”

Bleke has been working with the board for two years to develop a succession plan that will ensure his work continues.

“The average tenure of an urban superintendent is four or five years,” he said. “That is where most urban school systems get in trouble. If you get a new person and everything changes, it’s no wonder that systems never improve.”           

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