Editor’s note: This is the second part of our interview with Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools. Here, Neal looks ahead to the challenges of the coming school year.
This interview was conducted before the Board of Education’s recent approval of the 2015-16 budget. Read Part 1
When Teresa Weatherall Neal talks about the need for a $175 million bond issue, which voters will be asked to approve Nov. 3, she does so unapologetically and passionately.
“We’re going for a bond in November, because we need extra support,” Neal says in her office on the GRPS Franklin Street campus. “We’ve done everything we said we were going to do, during the time I’ve been superintendent. I’ve been totally transparent. So now is the time we need to take this on home, and finish this for these kids.”
For Neal, finishing it for the kids means finishing phase II of the Transformation Plan she and the school board launched in 2013, and which she says has helped increase graduation rates, test scores and attendance. And, crucially, it means asking voters on Nov. 3 for $175 million to fund building, technology and security improvements throughout the district.
‘I’m not going to take my foot off the gas pedal. We need to be about academic achievement across this district.’
The bond would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $99.96 per year. It’s the district’s first bond request since voters approved $165 million in 2004 to address dilapidated facilities and outdated technology. In 2011, voters passed a five-year “warm, safe and dry” millage to fix roofs, boilers and other facility needs.
Neal says she will give her all to persuade voters this fall, and feels cautiously confident the bond will pass. If it does not, though, she says she will not ask them a second time.
“We need to do this for these kids, for this city,” Neal says firmly. “We’re getting a lot of accolades in Grand Rapids for being a great city. Now we need to do our part in the school system, and be a great school system.”
Whatever happens, Neal says she is in this for the long haul – despite “great offers” from other school districts.
“I am the superintendent. I am committed to Grand Rapids. I’m going to be here. I’m going to see this through.”
SNN: So let’s talk about the year coming up, Transformation II. How are you feeling about this?
I feel great. I am sharing the story with the community around the positive things we’ve done. The bond rating is huge [going from negative to stable for the past four years]. The need for the bond (means) just really sharing with people that we have such a need. Every school is going to be touched with something.
We received national awards for our security team but we still need to continue to push. Our buildings need technology. So I’m just sharing with people the good things that we’re doing and the need. Once again I need to go to the public to offer support.
How crucial is the bond to make Transformation II (a reality)?
It won’t happen without a bond. I can’t do it. I will always give 100 percent and be the best superintendent I can with what I have. I respect this community and the public. If they say, “Teresa, you need to go back to the drawing board, you’re not getting it,” I respect the public. I pray they don’t say that to me, because these children do need it. We’ve been great stewards of the money. But in order to take this to the next level, it can’t happen without the bond. There’s no way.
One thing I said when I took this position is, I will not ask the public for money before I can demonstrate that I have done everything I said I was going to do. Now is that time. You couldn’t do more. They could not hire a superintendent who could do more than I’ve done.
How confident are you that they will say yes?
I don’t want to be overly confident, but I feel pretty good about it. From where I sit, (it appears) there’s such a love for the district and the work, and so people will automatically understand. But it’s my job as a leader of this district to go out and convince people and create an understanding so they’ll want to support it, and they will feel this bond is worth their $8.33 extra a month. I need to go and do that. But I’m not the kind of person to do it twice. If the public says no, I’ll respect the public. I will not go back. I’m going to do it one time.
‘We need to do this for these kids, for this city.’
Have you made any modifications to the plan based on what you heard [in recent hearings]?
No, but we will. What I’ve asked every principal to do is to talk to your community. If you’re going to get $2 million or $3 million, or $20 million, find out from the community what they want in their school. I grew up in a neighborhood school, so I believe people in the neighborhood should have a voice.
It doesn’t matter whether you have children in the district or not. You get a voice. Come to the school. Tell them what you want. Together we can make a better system.
Did you get a lot of objections at the hearings, people saying you’re asking too much?
No. I heard that we’re right on target. I’ve heard people say “Yes, you’re right, you do need this. You are moving in the right direction.” I’ve heard nothing but positive.
You’ve got this list of schools and the amounts [allocated to each]. Are you going to be revising that?
Not only am I going to revise that. We will fix the repairs [for each school], if you need a new roof or air, whatever that is. But then there’s money left for people to have a voice. That’s the plan that will be modified. If we find out we didn’t put enough money in for a particular school because of whatever, that’s going to be modified.
The Transformation Plan started with a 1.0 and ended with Transformation 3.0. I’m not wedded to a plan that is so written in stone that I can’t change it. That’s part of having nine brothers and sisters. You very seldom got your own way. [laughs] You learned to negotiate.
What other problem areas are still high on your list?
I still struggle with attendance. We saw a 26 percent reduction in chronic absenteeism [under the Transformation Plan]. Children need to come to school. That shouldn’t be my battle. You should want to come to school. That still bothers me that I have to convince people to send their children to school. My mother couldn’t WAIT to send the 10 of us to school. [laughs] We have to educate parents and children that every day counts.
When I took this job I said every classroom should offer every child the best possible education, and I’m not there yet. With a system so large, how do I get consistency across the district? I’ve not figured that out yet. We have our academic plan, our (teacher) evaluation system. We continue to systemize our work. But if I think of next year, I’m going to go deeper again on that. I’m not going to take my foot off the gas pedal. We need to be about academic achievement across this district. And it needs to be in every single classroom. Not some, not most. Every classroom.
‘People want these children to succeed. This city has shown nothing but love for these children.’
How do we continue to align our professional development to help people? How do we work with our building leaders, our community partners, and other districts across the Kent ISD? Collectively, we have so much knowledge in this area. [She mentions working closely with Rockford Superintendent Michael Shibler and Ron Caniff, incoming superintendent of the Kent ISD.] I’ve been really fortunate to be around some rock-star superintendents. And they want Grand Rapids Public Schools children to win, and I love that. …
We have a wonderful relationship with the public library. So my children have access to computers and books all summer. … I appreciate what our partners have done. We have the Challenge Scholars — our kids are going to college free. That’s huge. Steelcase is paying for my leadership team and the principals to go to Harvard [for leadership training]. We have Doug and Maria DeVos funding our sustainability program, so we can teach kids about the environment. (We have) the Community Foundation, and our Student Advancement Foundation, Believe 2 Become, Parent University …
You have a lot of people on your side.
And these kids are worth it.
You were born here and grew up here. Tell me your feeling about Grand Rapids as a community, and where do the schools fit into that?
As a community, I think we are on the move. I’ve always loved the city of Grand Rapids, so I’ve always stayed. I don’t believe the city of Grand Rapids will be successful without these 18,000 children. You can’t leave an entire population behind and build a great city around them. This community understands that as well. And they’ve been great to these children. I have not asked for one thing in four years and someone in this community has not said, “Teresa, how can I help you do that for these children?”
We are Grand Rapids. I know other people believe their city is great. But there’s something about Grand Rapids. People want these children to succeed. This city has shown nothing but love for these children. They understand the value that these kids bring to this city. It is absolutely amazing. When I go to other cities and talk to other superintendents they’re like, “Really?” I’m like, “You need to come to Grand Rapids!” You can’t make this stuff up.
So you’re saying the time has come for GRPS?
Again. Because we were there. This is part two for us. This is Grand Rapids Public Schools part two.
There’s not many people who at my age still have a key chain of their middle school [South Middle]. It says something about what I felt, that my children would order me two T-shirts from a middle school that’s been closed for 40 yrs. They know nothing about this particular school, other than I loved it. I had a very good experience. My friends and I, we all did. That’s what I want people to feel. I want people to be proud to work for Grand Rapids Public Schools. I mean, say that loud! “Where do you work?” “Grand Rapids Public Schools!” That’s a blessing. That’s a good thing.