GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - Last year's annual Grand Rapids Public Schools board retreat unveiled the first incarnation of the district's Transformation Plan. This year, Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal shared just how important she said that plan is to the district's sustainability moving forward.
The plan closed 10 schools and reorganized others. Friday, Dr Tony Baker, a GRPS Board member, brought up the specter of a financially ruined Muskegon Heights School District, leading 24 Hour News 8 to ask the superintendent how close GRPS got to the same fate.
"Oh, I think we were probably closer than people really want to realize it," said Weatherall Neal. "Because you start with an unhealthy environment, a toxic environment, and slowly but surely. people begin to leave. People don't like to be a part of a mess. I think we were closer than even we -- closer than even I realized -- and I was in the system."
In December 2011, Muskegon Heights had a deficit of about $12 million, the sixth straight year in a row the district was running at a deficit. The school board asked the state to assign an emergency financial manager. In April 2012, one was assigned, and the public school district was turned into a charter school district. In Muskegon Heights' case, 158 employees were laid off due to the financial stress the district was going through.
Weatherall Neal credited the Transformation Plan with helping GRPS avoid a similar fate.
Weatherall Neal also said she took some time to look at past of West Michigan's largest school district -- both downfalls and accomplishments -- before stepping into the superintendent role.
"We behaved in such a manner that our business was serving each other and not about students and not about this community," Weatherall Neal said.
When asked why she focused on the past, Weatherall Neal responded simply, "In order to know where you're going to go, you need to know where you've been."
Neal told board and staff members that the district had cut $100 million in 10 years, and moved 1,000 staff members, but said "no district can cut its way into excellence."
"I think we've been in the cutting mode for so long until no one wants to go to something that's failing," said Weatherall Neal. "So we had to stop the churn to say -- wait a minute."
Weatherall Neal said the Transformation Plan is the key to reinvesting and reinventing the district.
When asked why things will be different now, since Weatherall Neal has been a part of the district in some role for several decades, she said that this plan is different.
"There is a difference, and that's why I say [Former Supterintendent Bernard Taylor and his team, including Weatherall Neal] did do great work [in the past]. When you look at the test scores, things that we did, we did do it. Was there a different style? Yes. You know my style is different, being a part of this community, I believe the community has a voice. It's a style of leadership so that's the difference. It really is the leader at the top and it's a philosophical belief in this community. So, I come at it differently than Bernard did, but not to say that he was right or wrong or I'm right or wrong, it's just a different style of leadership."
Weatherall Neal said she plans to have another listening tour like the one that happened before the Transformation Plan was initially announced.
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