A Cry For Help

May 9, 2005
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On the eve of its election last week, the Grand Rapids Public Schools hosted its most intense Board of Education melee of the year, with dozens of community activists, bus drivers, custodians and concerned citizens lining up to complain about its decision to privatize transportation and janitorial services.

Superintendent Bert Bleke, Dean Transportation’s Kelly Dean (who had tendered an offer to the soon to be jobless bus drivers), and every board member that wasn’t James Rinck received an earful.

Drivers complained of Dean’s benefits and pay scale, and then suggested collusion when it came to light that GRPS had already agreed to sell 44 buses. Some wondered what became of the millage passed for buses last year, others if the board had considered the cost of unemployment benefits.

Custodians and drivers alike promised the privatized help would be unreliable, that the children would get sick from dirty classrooms and injure themselves on icy steps, and that students would flee the district to the suburbs without their beloved janitors and drivers.

“(Board President) David Allen has done some wonderful things for this community; he’s saved lives,” noted WJNZ-AM personality Robert S. “I think he truly believes that privatization is a good thing. But so many people here are telling him it isn’t.

“Bert Bleke has done great things here, all of you board members have done great things in your careers … for $200 a month (a board member’s salary) you’re all going to be remembered as villains.”

“I do not like you, Bert Bleke, and I do not like you, David Allen,” said one irate parent who did not identify herself as a custodian or bus driver. “You say the state isn’t giving you enough money? Well, how come they can give the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel $5 million to fix their sidewalks? I say you’re just weak-ass board members.”

Alticor took plenty of hits. So many comments were heard against public support of the new downtown hotel that the school board’s Downtown Development Authority representative, Catherine Mueller, was forced to explain that DDA funds could not have gone to the schools.

The worst swipe at the direct-sale empire came from Rinck, who read a letter from Dick DeVos and his Great Lakes Education Project written to Michigan’s schools in support of the GRPS privatization.

“Our potential gubertorial candidate writes, ‘We applaud Superintendent Bleke and the board for demonstrating genuine leadership by setting priorities and pursuing fundamental solutions to the economic challenges facing the district,’” Rinck said. “Now, this is from a guy who, if not by the luck of his birth, would be studying hard for an assistant manager job at 7-Eleven.”

Rinck then chided Allen, who made remarks against him in the previous meeting, and wondered aloud how Dean would get more grant money than the schools could.

Rinck and Allen both won re-election the next day, as did newcomer Arneada Smith-Alexander

Through 90 minutes of public comment, no speaker was in support of privatization. After the session had apparently ended, a girl in a Creston Polar Bears sweatshirt stole her way to the microphone.

“I’m glad you’re privatizing,” she said. “We only have three choices for electives. The kids at Forest Hills are learning so much more than we are. Going to school here sucks. We don’t have anything. We don’t even have paper. We use Citizens Bank paper and it rips when you try to write on it.

“If you have to privatize to make things better, then I’m glad you’re doing it.”

While every other speaker had been greeted with thunderous applause, for a brief moment there was silence. And then the crowd booed.

  • Jeanne Englehart, currently the president of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and previously a successful entrepreneur, was given a standing ovation at the conclusion of her remarks as a recipient of the Michigan Women’s Foundation’s annual Women of Achievement and Courage Award. So, too, did the audience of more than 350 stand for 90-year-old Grace Lee Boggs, Ph.D., of Detroit, who was given the Lifetime Achievement Award for community service. But it was District Court Judge Sara Smolenski who put them all on the floor, sometimes without meaning to do so. Smolenski’s growing reputation for humor is understatedly well-earned. After a minor glitch between the tech bench above the Ambassador Ballroom and Smolenski, the mistress of ceremonies commented that everyone makes mistakes, like if she might say to a defendant, “Oh, did I say 30 days? I meant 30 years.”

Anyone who knows Englehart also knows Wednesdays have been “Mitchell nights” almost from the day her grandson was born. The audience was introduced to Mitchell, and Englehart explained her granddaughter was unable to attend (but had put on a tool belt earlier in the week to help start hammering a Habitat for Humanity home with grandma). Smolenski barely paused in commenting, “The boys are always welcome to this event; you can’t have girls without them.”

Another honoree, Crain’s Detroit Business Associate Publisher Mary Kramer, who grew up in Grand Rapids, commented, “I knew this town when it was Pretty Good Rapids.”

Davenport University Executive Vice President for Advancement and Foundation President Barbara Mieras and Henry Ford Health Care System President and CEO Nancy Schlichting also were honored with Achievement Awards.

  • Heat’s On: City Commissioner Lynn Rabaut long ago announced she would not seek re-election, and that surprised some who were already tilting at the neighborhood and community activist (perhaps most notably former Commish Mary Alice Williams, who is said to be prepping another young woman from the ’hood for the journey).

It is expected that Planning Commission member Shaula Johnston will file petitions early this week. (Yes, Judge Don Johnston’s wife). Some are betting that young Jeff Kissinger also will be back in the race, though he sounds more like a school board candidate.    

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