Mission Possible

May 23, 2006
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During a recent meeting with the Business Journal’s editorial board, incoming Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Bernard Taylor confessed how excited he was to be in Grand Rapids, and not just because of his region-leading salary.

“Some of my peers really think I’ve hit the jackpot here,” he said. “In some respects this is not an urban school district. The demographics are similar, but many of the largest problems of urban schools aren’t present here.”

This became obvious to him, he said, on one of his earliest tours of school facilities. He commented that the schools did not have metal detectors, thinking it was a budgetary issue.

“They said they didn’t need them,’” he marveled.

In many ways, Taylor’s sentiments mirrored those of departing Superintendent Bert Bleke. Taylor talked of “right-sizing” the district, and emphasized that “Bleke was correct in that we cannot cut our way out of a systemic problem.”

The worst problem facing GRPS is an abstract one, Taylor said: public perception. The lower test averages are roughly equivalent to the greater challenges students face, from poverty to language barriers. With all things being equal, he believes the system is comparable to any in the region.

“We need to do a better job of articulating what is good about the district,” he said. “There is definitely more right than wrong, but we need to address that in an articulate manner.”

On that, Taylor — even with help from marketing firm the Williams Group — has his work cut out for him. With the media coverage GRPS gets, what parents would choose to send their kids to the city schools? The board publicly hates each other. The unions have so vilified Bleke that he is more controversial than Caledonia’s Wes Vandenburg, an (alleged) crook.

Just last week, retired advertising executive Bob Crawford and Kent County Commissioner Paul Mayhue used a media platform to level unsupported bigotry claims against GRPS for not contracting Crawford to manage substitute teachers.

If Taylor can change the GRPS image, he’s worth every penny.

  • The West Michigan Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America is hosting Joan Stewart for an afternoon tele-seminar this Thursday. “The Publicity Hound” will share “the secrets of how to position yourself and your clients as experts so the media start flocking to you, too.”

She is not to be confused with Jon Stewart, the host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” We bring this up as a public service after news last month that a Utah charter school sold 700 tickets at $50 a piece for an event, only to discover that it had booked Jon A. Stewart, the only professional wrestler to run for the U.S. Congress.

  • Ten years ago this week in the Business Journal, plans for a new Kent County Courthouse were on the front page. Inside, Editor Carole Valadewas honored by then-Gov. John Engler at a reception naming her the SBA Michigan and Midwest Regional Media Advocate of the Year.
  • During the conceptual phase of the Resource Reclamation Project, the furniture recycling initiative using prison labor profiled this week on page 1, the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association fielded strong concern from local lawmakers.

For several years, U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Holland,andU.S. Senator Carl Levin have been battling to reform Federal Prison Industries Inc., the Department of Justice program that uses prison labor to make furniture and other products in competition with private companies.

“They wanted to know what we were up to,” said Brad Miller, BIFMA manager of communications and government relations. “Somebody actually said we shouldn’t be working with the prison people because the federal prisons will claim they’re working with us, and so there isn’t a need for reform.”

BIFMA assured its supporters that this was something vastly different from FPI. The recycling could not be accomplished without the inexpensive labor, so it wasn’t taking work from anyone, and unlike FPI, the state program did not have a profit model.

“I told them to keep fighting for us in Washington,” Miller said. “If we’re successful, you guys can raise this as an example of what can be done.”

Steelcase’s Dave Rinard gained a new appreciation for prison manufacturing during his work with the program.

“When I first came in, I had visions of inmates smashing furniture with sledgehammers,” he said. “But this was a very sophisticated operation. It was like being on my shop floor.”

  • There was some political confusion at the state level as well, with the House unanimously approving a two-bill package last week to allow “high technology” businesses to qualify for SBT credits under the Michigan Economic Growth Authority Act.

Being that virtually every lawmaker in the mitten agrees it’s time to put the SBT out of its misery, that’s kind of like giving Rogers Department Store gift certificates as a graduation present.

  • Last year, supporters of Gov. Jennifer Granholm lambasted West Michigan Republican challenger Dick DeVos for his investment in China as president of Alticor (by all regards a sound decision).

Dick fired back last week with an op-ed piece in The Detroit News criticizing the governor for leaving China off her tour of Asia this month.

China is the largest consumer market in the world, and it is growing,” he writes, “To remain competitive in this global economy, Michigan needs more companies that are willing to invest and sell Michigan-made products all over the world.”

Jumping into the Business Journal’s patented hypothetical chamber, let’s take a look at what might happen on an investment solicitation in the People’s Republic.

Granholm: “You should build a plant in Michigan.”

Chinese Company: “It would be nice to locate closer to some of our customers. What’s the minimum wage in your state? Here, it’s $85 a month.”

(Uncomfortable silence.)

Chinese Company: “Oh well, I guess we can call headquarters and see what they think.”

Granholm: “Great, where are they located?”

Chinese Company: “Ada.”    

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