This opinion piece was originally read at the Muskegon Public Schools’ Board of Education meeting on May 21. The authors asked that it be published as an op-ed in the Muskegon Times.
My name is Steve Olsen, and I am the co- owner of Northern Machine Tool Co., a company located in this school district. I stand before you representing the interests and concerns of several companies and businesses located in both the City and in the County of Muskegon and as a member of a family who has a scholarship fund at the Community Foundation for Muskegon High School students. Muskegon Public Schools is a critical part of the story of Muskegon; your history, your resilience, and your accomplishments over more than 100 years has made Muskegon what it is today. The success of this storied school district matters to us just as it does to the citizens, the families, the teachers and the children of this community.
A school district is the heart of the community it serves. It prepares its children for jobs and future educational opportunities and instills ideals aimed at helping students become contributing members of, if not this city, any city or town they may relocate to during their adult life. Your students are in essence the ambassadors of Muskegon.
Unfortunately, in the past few years this district has not lived up to its remarkable potential in a number of areas. In our opinion as leaders in our own fields and in this community, it is clear that this, sadly, can be traced in large part to the challenges you are facing as the Board of Education to work together. The board has become a divided house, split in a way that creates an “us against them” atmosphere that has become poisonous to not only the district but to our entire community. Everyone in this room, in this district, and in this community is paying the price for the problems that are preventing you from working together for the good of this district. You were elected only for one reason: to lead Muskegon Public Schools. Leaders find solutions. Leaders set the tone and the standards. Leaders help define the problems that need to be solved and then find the solutions that reflect the greater group’s input and needs. Leaders value everyone’s perspective and work towards consensus. These last few years do not reflect the leadership responsibilities for which you have been charged when you were elected, nor do they reflect the remarkable history of accomplishments of this board over the last many decades.
Businesses are once again considering Muskegon as a location for new enterprises, as well as for the expansion of current businesses. The number of ongoing business and recreational projects is greater than Muskegon has seen in over 50 years. Currently there is $50 million worth of development projects underway in downtown Muskegon; over the last 15 years, total investment has topped $250 million. This expansion, which will have an enormous benefit on your families, is at risk when the school district that was formerly the jewel of the community continues to decline. Many excuses have been put forward as to the reason for this decline and some may be partially valid. In our opinion, the fact remains that, in our opinion, the largest factor contributing to this decline is your inability to create consensus among yourselves, identify the problems facing this district, and come together to determine the best path forward as for the board and the children and families you are charged to serve.
Over the last two and a half years, the district has been the subject of extensive media coverage (mostly negative) and even more negative social media. Since 2010 the district student population has declined from 5,800 to just over 3,700 today. Interestingly, especially from the perspective of trying to “rightsize” the district, there are 2,700 school age students who live in this district who do not attend Muskegon Public Schools. What would it look like if you could create, as a board, the environment and structure, as a district, that would bring those students back to us?
The student achievement data continues to show that a vast number of Muskegon students lag behind the state average in overall performance and college preparedness. Although college preparedness is not always the standard that we seek as businesses and employers, we very much want and need the district to provide educated students suitable to entering Muskegon’s workforce.
Now is the time for the board to take this opportunity to provide the district with the best leadership possible both at the board and superintendent level. The district will be appointing a new superintendent to replace the present superintendent who has accepted a new challenge. Obtaining a new leader for the district will require seven of you as our board to work together to choose the appropriate chief administrator for the district. No quality candidate for this district is going to want to come into this position with anything less than that. Based on what has been happening here these past two and a half years, we are concerned. It is critical for you all to come together and create through consensus the best path forward.
We would like to offer the following suggestions as a guide forward in the effort to bring Muskegon Public Schools back to the preeminent place in the community it once held.
1. Appoint an interim superintendent who is not a candidate for the job with a breadth of experience as a chief executive. The district has done this in the past with success. Since none of the district administrative staff have any superintendent experience, such an appointment cannot be from within. We understand that you have now contracted with a search firm and your goal is to have a new superintendent here by the beginning of July. That is an admirable and very ambitious goal. We congratulate you on your decision to move quickly with this. However, it is almost the end of May, and it may be optimistic to think that you will be able to find the quality of leader that you want quite so quickly. Bringing in an interim leader would assure the continuity that you will need in the event that the search takes longer than you are hoping. There are resources at the Michigan Association of School Administrators (MASA), Michigan School Business Organization (MSBO), Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB) and the MAISD which could be consulted in order to obtain an experienced former superintendent to take this role.
2. Once the interim superintendent is appointed to oversee the day-to-day operations of the district, a superintendent search should begin that is in no way limited to any geographic area. This search needs to be done right, not fast. Too many extremely critical issues are facing this district. We need the very best we can find.
3. This search should target a hire date of the approved candidate prior to the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year if at all possible.
4. We suggest that the board invite two members from the business community to participate as a part of the selection committee and/or process. We stand ready to serve.
5. We recommend that the board table major decisions such as hiring any new key central office staff, school closings, and bond proposals until the new executive is on board and has an opportunity to engage with the board, teachers and community with regard to these decisions.
6. We also suggest that the board search include interested individuals who have not come up through the public education system in traditional ways, and have proven leadership in community development and building strong community partnerships.
As stakeholders in the future of Muskegon Public Schools, we feel strongly that the successful superintendent of this great district needs to have a plan to bring the district back to a position of excellence, academically, fiscally and athletically, and possess the following qualities:
- An abundance of energy to confront the tasks at hand;
- Proven leadership qualities in prior positions, whether public or private;
- Successful experience as a superintendent or assistant superintendent;
- Proven accomplishments in raising academic standards and student achievement in settings with students who are confronting socio-economic challenges;
- A demonstrable track record of being a change agent;
- Documented experience in identifying and implementing “out of the box” ideas;
- A visible passion for the success of this district and its children; and
- Proven integrity and transparency when working with the board, Muskegon Public School employees and the public.
We are not attempting to tell you how to do your job, but rather we stand here ready to help you along the incredibly important and difficult path upon which you are about to embark. Any failure in this attempt could quite possibly result in a stalemate in the great progress our city is making and, just as possible, a further collapse of the school district we all care about so deeply. This would be tragic. Your goal as a united board is the same as our goal as stakeholders in this city and its children: Let’s bring Muskegon Public Schools to a level of excellence that it had once enjoyed.
Please work in concert to bring this district back to prominence and tell us how we can help.
Steve Olsen, President, Northern Machine Tool Co.
Larry Hines, President, Hines Corp.
Mike Olthoff, President, Nichols Paper
Greg Olson, President, Supreme Machine
Dan Kuznar, President, Quality Tool
John Workman, Co-Owner, Eagle Alloy
Chris Witham, President, Motion Dynamics
Trip Johnson, Pure Muskegon, MCC Partners
Wes Eklund, President, Fleet Engineers
John Essex, President, Port City DieCast
Jim Fisher, President, Second Act LLC
Max McKee, President, Mart Dock
Don Kettler, President, DMK Development
The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the authors and do not imply endorsement by the Muskegon Times. Readers who would like to submit an op-ed or letter to the editor may do so by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com.