Big Business vs. Small Business…. who’s right?

Today, in response to an interview that I’d posted recently with the founders of the Ypsi/Arbor small business support group Small & Mighty, a reader by the name of KJC posted a link to an article titled “Small is not Beautiful,” implying, I think it’s pretty clear, that many of us are misguided in our love of small, local businesses. And, as no one has taken me to task in a while over my unabashed boosterism of local business, I thought that I’d move it up here, to the front page, so that we could discuss it properly. Here’s a clip from the article.

…What I find more surprising, and disturbing, is the tendency of some folks on the left to embrace small business with some passion. This is particularly true in the unfortunately named anti-globalization movement—as if internationalization itself were the problem rather than the way it’s carried out. Their anti-globalism is connected to a desire to “relocalize” economies, and with them to reorient production on a much smaller scale. These aims seem more motivated by nostalgia—and, in many cases, by a nostalgia for something that never existed—than any serious analysis.

Larger firms are also far more productive than smaller ones. Small-is-beautiful advocates rarely tell us how tiny enterprises would produce locomotives, computers or telephones; maybe they’d prefer to do away with these things and revive a hunter–gatherer society. But if that’s what they intend to do they should tell us.

And people who presumably care about workers should also rethink their passion for tininess: the experience of actually existing small businesses show that they’re not great employers, with poor pay, cheesier benefits and more dangerous workplaces. Bigger firms are easier to regulate, more open to public scrutiny, friendlier to affirmative action programs and more vulnerable to union organizing.

A progressive case for bigness is rare and unpopular these days, but somebody has to make it.

First, let me start by saying that I agree that, just because a company is locally-owned, does not mean that it’s necessarily good. I haven’t said that in the past, as I thought that it was pretty obvious, but perhaps it’s something that I need to be more explicit about. I’m painfully aware that there are assholes who run local businesses, abuse employees and add little value to the communities in which they operate. (Like many of you, I’ve had the pleasure of working for some of these folks.) Second, if you scroll back through the archives, you’ll also find instances where, on several occasions, I’ve said positive things about large companies, like Costco – a company, which, by all accounts, treats its employees well, and strives to ensure that its suppliers do the same. (If I’m not mistaken, I’ve also expressed in the past that I’m torn on the subject of Starbucks, as I hate the homogeneity they bring to communities, but respect the fact that they provide insurance to part-time workers, champion gay rights, etc.)

So, let’s start by dropping the false notion, as KJC would suggest, that I believe that all big companies are evil, and all small ones are terrific. I may be idealistic, but I’m not naive. I can appreciate that we live in a complex world and that the issues that we’re facing are far from black and white. At the same time, though, I have no reason to think that Michael Shuman is lying when he says that he’s never seen an academic study that’s shown that a chain business, with out-of-state ownership, has contributed more wealth to a local community than a comparable business whose owners are rooted in the community. So, yes, I believe that, all things being equal, I’d rather do business with entrepreneurs who live in our community, and have to face us each and every day, than with their corporate counterparts, who just see Ypsilanti as a line on a spreadsheet, and don’t know the names of those people they employ in our community.

I know that some of the jobs that these small businesses create aren’t ideal. I know that, with regard to the food service industry in particular, it can be poorly-paying, grueling work, often without insurance. I can very well remember, for instance, busting my foot, and having to hop around the kitchen that I worked in for several weeks, in pain, as I was unable to see a doctor. Still, though, I think I was better off at the time working for Seva, than I would have been working for McDonalds… I could go on, but I think that Jean Henry, one of the founders of Small & Mighty, does a better job than I could. Here’s how she responded to KJC.

First I would say (as an employee of Zingerman’s) that, in comparison to WalMart and McDonald’s, at any level (other than maybe top) of the organization, staff at Zingerman’s are doing far better in terms of wage, benefits, engagement and employee satisfaction than the aternatives. There are national businesses (Costco for example) that do better than we do in terms of wage scale, but I can’t think of any totally situated in the food business like we are. And we are working on it very very actively. Industrial production in the food business has created a system in which consumers pay very little (relative to in the past and as a percentage of income) for food – and we waste an average of 30%+ of that – and no one in the supply chain is making a reasonable living (except the giants) and, yes, it’s all at risk. In food, the better the integrity of your product and service, the lower your profit margin — even at Zingerman’s prices.

Less established small businesses than Zingerman’s are in much the same economic position as their staff – they struggle to survive in an economic structure that is marshaled against their interests. (They can’t afford the rent, the bills or health insurance either in many cases.) There is plenty of evidence of this. There is also plenty of evidence, contrary to the posted article, that small businesses create more sustainable jobs than the big ‘C’ corporations. But, yes, they often do so at a lower wage base, and almost always with fewer benefits, because they are not as profitable.

The capital in this country does not flow towards its most efficient and productive engines – small businesses. Small businesses give back more generously to their local communities. Of $1 spent at a local independent business, 68 cents stays in the community vs. 43 cents at a national chain store. In independent retail and restaurants the differential is higher. (More info can be found at the BALLE website.) Small independent businesses should also offer better product, service and experience than a chain store. In the end, no one is asking anyone to support local business as a charity. They should provide value. But I would ask you to consider the fabric of your community without them.

The best small business owners risk everything and walk a financial tightrope daily in order to make their vision a reality, because they love what they do and where they do it. They struggle along with their staff in a shared boat in the rough seas of the current economic structure. It is no mistake that the Occupy movement identified with small business owners as part of the 99%… And as part of the solution. If you would like small businesses to be able to pay higher wages then you must be prepared to pay more for their services, or work to invert the current systemic bias toward big and bad.

I try to pay with cash at local businesses doing good work in order to give them more capital to invest in their business, staff and the local economy. Doing so saves them about 4% in credit/debit card fees on each transaction (likely doubling their profit margin) and doesn’t feed into the predatory national banking system. It also keeps me on budget. Do what you can. Think about the big picture. And ask staff at local businesses how they like working there and why they, in many cases, resist working elsewhere for more money. Their answers will often be very close to their bosses answer to “why were you so crazy as to go out on your own?” For many many happy, thriving but often broke people out there, it’s worth it.

So, where do you stand on all of this?

[note: The image at the top of the page is from You’ve Got Mail, the not-so-good 1998 remake of 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner, in which Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan fall in love, despite the fact that Hanks runs an enormous bookstore chain which threatens to put Ryan’s lovely little book shop out of business… Sorry, but I couldn’t think of better image to illustrate this post.]

Posted in Economics, Local Business, Locally Owned Business, Mark's Life, Observations, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 39 Comments

Having won the title of World’s Best Comic Book Store, Ann Arbor’s Vault of Midnight plots global domination

After years of shopping at Ann Arbor’s much-beloved comic book shop Vault of Midnight, I finally had the occasion a few weeks ago, at an event hosted by Concentrate Media, to meet the store’s founder Curtis Sullivan. What started as a friendly conversation on the current state of Ann Arbor retail quickly escalated into an interview on everything from the spark that motivated him, as a young man of 19, to open his first store, to his current thoughts on expanding online, and into Grand Rapids. Here it is. I hope you enjoy it.

MARK: Perhaps, to start, you could tell us a little about how you came to launch the original Vault of Midnight? What made you decide to open a comic book shop in Ann Arbor? Was it just that you loved comics, and didn’t want to do anything else, or was there also a sense that there was a niche that wasn’t being filled? How much, in other words, was blind love, and how much was shrewd business acumen?

CURTIS: I was in the restaurant business about five years and had a fair amount of success. I was opening new locations and training staff for Morrison Restaurants, the company behind Ruby Tuesdays. I was also a lifelong comic book/action figure/video game/movie super nerd. So I knew a little bit about business and a lot about comics. I started thinking seriously about a store in 1993, after the repeated nudgings of several friends. I started putting together a notebook filled with logo ideas and drawings about what the store might look like, what comic books and toys we might sell. It’s important to mention that right from the beginning my lifelong friend Steve Fodale and my wife Elizabeth Sullivan were there helping/slaving away. After a year or so of talking with suppliers, and bumming a couple grand from friends and family, we were ready. (Sullivan laughs.) We found/lucked into a strange spot at 322 South Ashley, a couple of buildings down from the Fleetwood Diner. At the time, there were a few comic book shops in town. Dave’s was on the corner of State Street, by William, and Underworld was on South University. Fun-4-All, Hobby Town and Labyrinth comics have all come and gone in downtown Ann Arbor since then. That said, we thought we could offer comics and toys that other stores did not… more independent, lesser known items… and make our place that way. So, mostly blind love, and maybe the tiniest crumb of business acumen.

MARK: Did you know people who owned stores downtown? Had you worked in retail at all? If not, how in the hell did you learn how to run a store? Was it all trial and error, or did you get advice along the way, from other store owners in Ann Arbor, or from the owners of comic book stores in other parts of the country?

CURTIS: I’d spoken to other comic shop owners and managers about my desire to open my own store. Most blew me off, probably because I was 18. Joe, the manager at Dave’s Comics, told me to order what I really liked, and I took that to mean that I should let my tastes and personality set the tone. I’d never worked retail prior to having my own store. I totally learned how to run a store on the fly, but working 10-12 hours a day, 7 days a week definitely helped.

MARK: Prior to opening Vault of Midnight, where did you go to buy comics?

CURTIS: The first comic shop I remember going into was the legendary Eye of Agamotto on State Street. Named after Doctor Strange’s amulet, and run by one of the coolest/smartest/nicest dudes I’ve ever met, Norm Harris. It’s highly likely that it’s his fault that Vault of Midnight is here at all. After the Eye closed in 1986… I think… I’d shop mostly at Dave’s Comics. Joe was the manager and knew his stuff, always making good recommendations. He put me up onto Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 – a real game changer.

MARK: Your mention of Eye of Agamotto, and the pivotal role it played in your life, makes me wonder if you give much thought to the fact that you could be playing a similar role for the young people who come into Vault of Midnight each day. Is that the best part of the job… turning young people onto stuff that they really connect with? And, I imagine, it’s also a lot of responsibility…

CURTIS: I think everyone can remember their first pivotal piece of fiction/pop-culture whether it was G.I Joe or Lord of the Rings, My Little Pony, Pac-Man or The X-Men. That stuff is a big deal and informs us as we grow up. Being part of that on any level is as gratifying as anything I’ve ever done. Recommending someone their first “Conan” is huge… It changed the course of my life I’m sure. As an example of this, I got a card recently from a patron of our first location, all the way back in 1996… a fellow by the name of Ming Chen… thanking me for the store. He now works at Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, and is a co-host on Kevin Smith’s show Comic Book Men on AMC. So, yes, it’s quite cool to maybe have more of an impact than you might with another specialty niche retail business.

MARK: What was your first comic?

CURTIS: I got a big stack of “Savage Sword of Conan” comics from an uncle when I was maybe 7 years old, and have feverishly read comic books ever since. Batman is my all time favorite superhero.

MARK: Why Batman?

CURTIS: Despite his tragic origin, or perhaps because of it, he becomes a great force for good. Training himself to the peak of human ability, a great inventor possessed of keen intellect, a master detective, martial artist, spelunker, five star chef, marksmen, munitions expert, race car driver, pilot and so much more. Also he’s a billionaire with a secret Batcave and a kick ass Batmobile. And his costume is the best. Some people may ask, “Why have a cape?” I would ask, “Have you seen Batman?”

MARK: You mentioned raising the working capital to open the store from friends and family. Did you also make use of other sources? Did you secure a bank loan to purchase inventory? Did you somehow convince publishers to take a chance on you, and send you stuff without payment upfront?

CURTIS: I was able to scrape together maybe two grand in cash, maxed out a few credit cards, and took advantage of the fact that, quite often, checks take upwards of two weeks to clear. I also used my personal collection of comic books and toys, which were a large part of our starting inventory. No suppliers would give us terms, and no bank would loan us money.

MARK: You mentioned (at the Concentrate event), if I’m not mistaken, that you didn’t really have a formal business plan for the first ten years that you were in business. Is that something that you’d recommend to other would-be entrepreneurs?

CURTIS: Being really good at, and totally in love with, your thing; comic books, food, yoga, whatever your thing is, is the most important aspect of small business in my experience. But, yes, you should probably put together a business plan sooner rather than later.

MARK: What precipitated the big move to Main Street? I can see the appeal of quadrupling your square footage, and it’s beautiful space, but it also seems risky. It’s clearly expensive space, and I imagine you must have had some doubts as to whether the Main Street crowd, which, to a great extent, is an upscale dining crowd, would come in and spend money… I think, If I’d been in your shoes, given that you already had a large, loyal audience, I’d have considered going for less expensive space farther from the Chop House. What made you confident that this was the right move… which it clearly was, given your success?

CURTIS: The new owners of the building on Liberty, where we’d moved after South Ashley, wanted us to sign a new five year lease, and I wasn’t happy with the location. And we were quickly outgrowing the square footage. We also wanted to take it to the next level sales and statement wise. We learned that the 219 Main Street location had opened up, and we put our names in the hat as it were. Steve and Shelly Kelly, the owners of the building, took a chance and gave us a shot. I’ve lived and worked in Ann Arbor my whole life and thought we’d fit right in on Main Street. We wanted to have walk-by traffic as well as being a destination for fans and loyal customers. I felt we could bring our base along with us, and grow with the added visibility. We were also crapping our collective pants from all the added rent and space.

MARK: What can you tell us about the big award that you recently won.

CURTIS: In 2010, we received the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award. That was huge. We had to write the history of the Vault and make a 5 minute video highlighting the shop, service and staff. (See video below.) It’s a global contest of the best comic book shops in the world, in which we all go toe-to-toe in a no-holds-barred death match… Not really, but it’s close… We were nominated by Jim Ottaviani, writer of a bunch of fine graphic novels, including: Feynman, Dignifying Science, and T-Minus… And, now that we’ve got the award, we’ve got to earn it. It’s a big deal.

MARK: And, now, you’re growing, right? I hear that you’re going to be opening a store in Grand Rapids, and making a push to grow your online presence…

CURTIS: Since opening in 1996 we’ve never had a down year, with 2012 being our best ever. Our web store just went live. New store scouting begins next week, and our first stop is Grand Rapids. We’ve done some homework and think we could fit in there. It’s time to road trip and see.

MARK: What is it that you like about Grand Rapids?

CURTIS: I’ve done some recon in the last few years as to where a second Vault could work. We’ve thought about opening another store for a while and even considered Chicago at one point. We had a change of heart about branching outside of Michigan, though, and starting looking at cities here, in hopes of finding one that we could be compatible with. Grands rapid is the right size, has a college campus, a diverse population, Art Prize is kicking butt, and the city is working hard to redevelop and stay progressive. Our good friend and lead comptroller of graphic design, Jeremy Wheeler, is a Grand Rapids native, and we’ve scheduled a tour of potential spots. It’s still conjecture at this point as to where it will be… maybe Grand Rapids, maybe somewhere else. But the hunt for Vault #2 is on. It’s still early in the process, but another store is a definite.

MARK: This is a bit of an aside, but I’m wondering if you’ve heard about this free online course being offered by Ball State University on gender roles in comics.

CURTIS: First I’ve heard of it, but it looks fantastic. Those are some of the top writers in comics that are involved.

MARK: While we’re on the subject, I’m curious as to your thoughts on girls and comics. Are things becoming a little less male-centric?

CURTIS: The idea that comics are a ‘boys only’ club is more myth than fact nowadays, in my opinion. Many decades ago, the case could be made that comic books featured primarily one genre – superheroes – and their appeal was limited to teenage boys. Modern comics are as diverse as any media, and attract readers of all kinds. Our customers/clients are at least 50/50 male/female, and span all age groups.

MARK: I’ve heard it said in the past that you consciously decided not to advertise, but, instead, to focus your spending on the sponsorship of those local initiatives that you believe in, like the Ann Arbor Skate Park. Can you talk a little about that?

CURTIS: Almost all of our advertising is done through donations to schools, charities and sponsorship of organizations and events because we can achieve the same level of exposure by supporting local groups and things that we think are awesome for Ann Arbor. Mott’s Children’s Hospital, 826 Michigan, Food Gatherers, Michigan Radio, Community High School, A2 Skate Park, an assortment of public libraries. Being a part of our community is important to us and this is a way we can do that.

MARK: What, in your opinion, does downtown Ann Arbor need? If you had the time, the money, and another space downtown, what would you be doing?

CURTIS: Stay cool and accessible, not too upscale. Good mix of retail, art, coffee and food. Rethink the Art Fair in a big way… If I had another space? Ner- themed restaurant with five-star bar food, stiff drinks and video games. Designer toy and low-brow art galleries.

MARK: Any chance you might ever branch into publishing?

CURTIS: Thought about it on and off over the years and the answer is, “Maybe.” If the right project came up? Oh, hell yes. We would love to do a DIY art platform at some point as well.

MARK: What are you envisioning when you say, “DIY art platform”?

CURTIS: “DIY art platforms” are kind of a burgeoning thing in the collector toy-art scene; they’re usually molded vinyl figures in various shapes that have been left totally white, and ready for a do-it-yourself art project. The figure I’ve been thinking about is a cartoonish human skull with a tiny body made of cast white vinyl, six to eight inches tall.

MARK: Can you talk at all about product mix? In addition to selling comics and graphic novels, you also sell games, toys, models and apparel. I’m curious as to how, over time, that mix might be changing… Clearly, when you came to Main Street, you knew that you needed to diversify, and pull in a broader audience… Was there anything that you didn’t expect? Did anything catch you off guard?

CURTIS: We’ve always had three main product lines, comic books (and graphic novels), board games (games), and Toys (action and vinyl styles). When we moved to Main Street, the added space allowed us to expand beyond the core and broaden our selection substantially. The thought was we’re good at what we do, so let’s expand that and get more sweet. Off Guard? Making sure we have enough inventory, we can’t sell what we don’t have.

MARK: I was just curious if there was anything that really surprised you, when you opened on Main Street. Were customers buying things that you hadn’t expected?

CURTIS: We’ve had to grow everything by leaps and bounds to keep up with what our customers are looking for. It turns out the citizens of Ann Arbor have a pretty crazy appetite for comics and board games, and maybe we were caught off guard by just how much. The amount of space dedicated to board games, for instance, has easily tripled since we opened, and we’re figuring out ways to accommodate still more. I think what’s really surprising is how popular the good stuff is, how ready our customers are for a good recommendation, and how they’ll take that recommendation and still be hungry for more. Historically, in our industry, the books that sold a gajillion copies weren’t always what you might call “good.” Nowadays, amazing titles from unknown writers and artists stand a chance on the merit of the books alone. So it’s a surprise when somebody comes in off the street and asks for Obscure Title X and we’re like, “What?? We love that book! We thought we were the only ones!”

MARK: Any advice for young entrepreneurs looking to go into retail in Ann Arbor?

CURTIS: Be really good at what you do, believe in it and it will work. Jump off the deep end, and use your powers of confidence to win.

MARK: Like a superhero?

CURTIS: Like a very confident superhero. Small-Business Man.

[note: I don’t generally like it when I read interviews that end on a cliche note like that. I think it sounds too contrived. But, since that’s really what we said, I’m leaving it… even though it sounds incredibly, and uncharacteristically, professional.]

Now here’s the Vault of Midnight video that I promised earlier:

Posted in Ann Arbor, Art and Culture, Local Business, Locally Owned Business, Pop Culture, Retail, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

As we contemplate a brighter future for Ypsi public schools, an anonymous letter alleges financial impropriety at YPSD under Martin tenure

As you probably know, Ypsilanti’s new Board of Education will be meeting on Monday evening to decide whether or not our recently-consolidated district can possibly move forward and be successful under the leadership of either Dedrick Martin, the superintendent of the Ypsilanti Public School District, or Laura Lisiscki, the superintendent of the Willow Run School District. As we discussed a few days ago, there are, in my opinion, several reasons to look beyond our former leaders, and open the search up to a wider pool of candidates, in hopes of finding someone who might have experience successfully merging districts, or, better yet, a compelling vision as to how we take full advantage of this opportunity, marshaling all of the resources available to us, and build a truly inspirational and innovative new district that provides the children of Ypsilanti with the progressive, engaging, community-based educations they so desperately need. Before we do that, though, apparently the new board has to decide whether an internal candidate has the ability and deserves a chance.

Tonight’s post was going to be a simple one. I was just going to pass along the following note from my friend Maria, and encourage you all to let your opinions be known… but then I opened my front door to find a package from an anonymous source. (More on that in a moment.)

Support our children! Please come to Monday’s Consolidated school board meeting. The board is planning on choosing the new superintendent of the consolidated district. This decision not only affects our children, it affects the economics of our entire community. Let’s meet in the parking lot at 6:45pm to show our solidarity. Pass It on!

When: Monday, February 25
Rally: 6:45, Willow Run High School Parking Lot
Meeting: 7:30 Willow Run High School auditorium

Now, about that package… I suspect that, like Dan Rather, I might be walking into a trap right now, but something was left on my doorstep this morning that I feel compelled to share. I don’t know if there’s anything to it or not, but, given that we’ve got this big meeting tomorrow night, where the Board of Education will apparently be deciding whether or not Martin and Lisiscki will be hired to serve as co-superintendents of our newly-merged district, I felt as though I didn’t have a choice.

Before I get into the specifics as to what was left for me, though, here’s the relevant background as I know it.

A few weeks ago, ran a story about former Ypsilanti High School principal Rob Belous. Belous, as you might recall, had been put on administrative leave in October. Representatives of the Ypsilanti School District had said at the time that Belous, who has since been fired by the District, was put on leave so that an investigation could be carried out. (Apparently there were concerns regarding his performance.) In this February article, however, Belous offered a different reason. It was not his performance that put him on the wrong side of the administration, he said, but the fact that he’d been conducting an investigation of his own, looking into district spending, especially as it related to federal grant money being spent at Ypsilanti’s two high schools – Ypsilanti New Tech and Ypsilanti High School. The following clip is from

…Belous said the first red flag came in March 2012, when he was approached by Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Martin to sign off on a number of grant expenditures for his building.

“I thought it strange that we never got an actual audit report… and that grants were done this way,” he said.

Belous was hired prior to the start of the 2011-12 academic year to lead YHS through a redesign and various other reforms. The high school was required to undergo a redesign after appearing on the state’s persistently lowest achieving schools list.

Belous began noticing “gross inequities” in how much money was dedicated to YHS per student compared with Ypsilanti New Tech per student, he said. Both schools serve students in grades 9-12, yet New Tech receives more resources from the district, Belous said.

Ypsilanti New Tech High School opened its doors in fall 2010 and follows a national model of project-based learning with an emphasis on technology.

Belous brought up the subject of spending inequities numerous times to Irvine, Jennifer Martin and Dedrick Martin, he said.

In September 2012, Belous noticed several expenditures in a grant summary that did not occur, he says. Belous claims he was told by more than one district administrator in September to stop talking about the district’s spending “if he cared about his career.”

Belous filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education regarding the district’s spending of Title 1, Title 2 and Title 31A grant dollars. Title 1 and Title 31A funding is provided primarily to help school districts supplement instruction and support services for at-risk and low-income or economically disadvantaged students. Title 2 provides funds for staff professional development to improve instructional quality….

When asked about this by, YPSD Executive Director of Human Resources Sharon Irvine said that officials hadn’t known, when they put Belous on administrative leave, that he had been looking into the district’s spending. (In the district’s defense, a representative with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General, when contacted by, said that, while they’d received the Belous complaint, they’d “closed the matter,” after looking into it. Furthermore, as I understand it, there were legitimate reasons to question Belous’s ability to lead. That doesn’t mean, however, that he might not have been correct about funding inequalities between Ypsilanti’s two high schools, misuse of funds, etc.)

And here’s where I need to choose my words carefully, so as not to unjustly accuse anyone of wrongdoing. As I mentioned above, I don’t like dealing in innuendo, especially when it’s third-hand, via an anonymous source, but, as this critically important decision is scheduled to be made tomorrow, which may well determine whether Ypsilanti has a viable public school system going forward, I don’t think I have any choice but to share it.

From what I am told, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the YPSD, asking, among other things, for the expense reports of administrators. According to the anonymous package that I received, however, they did not fully comply. Some receipts, it would seem, were either purposefully, or inadvertently, left out. I, of course, have no way of knowing whether or not this is true. (I have a call in to, but I’ve yet to hear back.) What I do know, however, is that I’ve got a stack of photocopies of what appear to be a high-ranking administrator’s expense reports, some of which appear to be signed-off on by said administrator herself, which, as I understand it, is not accepted protocol.

As I stated above, this is a tricky business. While it looks as though there were some expensive meals, for instance, I feel hesitant to comment, not knowing the context. There are, after all, occasionally situations that call for larger dinner meetings at places nicer than Applebee’s. Without knowing what the situations were, or who was involved, I’m not inclined to assign blame. Of the material that has been provided to me, however, there’s one particular event that seems, even upon my cursory inspection, to warrant a closer look. It’s a July 2012 trip to Las Vegas. According to the note that I received, this administrator took her secretary and stayed for about a week, although the conference only ran for three days. (It was a user group meeting for PowerSchool, the web-based student information system used by YPSD.) The note that I received said that this administrator attended along with “her secretary and her two other friends,” although the district’s person designated to run PowerSchool, who ostensibly could have benefited from having been there, was not allowed to join them, given the fact that there were insufficient financial resources to send him.

It’s probably also worth noting that the person who passed these receipts along to me clearly has a grudge against this administrator. “Dedrick Martin gave her the reins of the district, which she has destroyed,” the person writes. “And, if the board selects Dedrick Martin (to serve as superintendent of the new, unified district), she will stay.”

I personally do not have a vendetta against Dedrick Martin. As I said in my post a few days ago about our search for a new superintendent, I think that he might very well be the right person to lead the new district forward. I just wanted for there to be a broad search, open to external candidates, before a decision was made to give him another chance… And, as I said above, I don’t know for certain that the above allegations are legitimate. Given the fact that the new school board could be voting tomorrow to hand over the reins of the new district to Martin, though, I felt as though I should say something. At the very least, I’d like to suggest that we give ourselves a few additional days, and look into these new allegations of impropriety under his tenure. As I said, I have reached out to and have offered all of the photocopies that were left for me, and I would be happy to share them with members of the new Board of Education as well. This is much too big of a decision for our community to rush, especially when allegations like these are being made. As we all know, we won’t have a second chance at this.

update: Shortly after a reader posted this screen grab from the Twitter account of the YPSD administrator in question, said administrator deleted the post. Within a few hours, the entire account had been terminated.

Posted in Education, Uncategorized, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 106 Comments

Digging though the Hollywood archives: Ted Healy’s drawing of Wallace Beery, and Wallace Beery’s murder of Ted Healy

Every once in a while, I’ve been known to go off on a tangent. Something obscure will pique my interest, and, for whatever reason, I find that I’m not able to let it go. (Does anyone remember my interest in the large school bell that was rung by the 19 year old Orson Welles in his student film The Hearts of Age?) Well, I was home with a cold today, and Clementine and I celebrated by making chicken noodle soup from scratch and watching old movies. We started with Grand Hotel, and then moved on to the even more depressing Dinner at Eight, both of which feature two of my favorite actors, Lionel and John Barrymore. Both films also star comedic tough-guy Wallace Beery. And it was a mention of Beery in a short documentary piece included on the Grand Hotel DVD that caught my interest. In describing the April 29, 1932 premier of Grand Hotel at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the narrator of the documentary segment made an offhand comment about Beery appearing in drag, and it being poorly-received by the star-studded audience. So, after putting the kids to bed, I took to Google… and the next several hours were spent going down the Wallace Beery rabbit hole, trying to figure out why he’d take the stage in drag, and why it had so upset the audience.

It would seem that Beery, who had won a 1931 Best Actor Oscar for his work alongside Jackie Cooper in the film The Champ, had a history of cross-dressing. In fact, it’s how the imposing actor originally came to make a name for himself in Hollywood, during the silent era. Berry, beginning in 1914, had starred in a series of over 30 short silent films, in which he portrayed a woman by the name of Sweedie, The Swedish Maid . (A frame of Beery, appearing as Sweedie in 1914’s Topsy-Turvy Sweedie, can be seen to the right.) While I haven’t yet been able to find the back-story, explaining how the Sweedie character came to be, I have found several allusions to the fact that Beery was known, throughout his career, to often appear in drag. As for what happened on this particular night, it would appear that Berry was encouraged by the humorist Will Rogers, who was acting as the master of ceremonies at the gala event, to imitate his Grand Hotel co-star, the notoriously reclusive Gretta Garbo.

Here’s how Will Rogers explained everything a few days after the fact:

Louie B. Mayer asked me (to introduce the cast), and I was tickled to do it. The whole thing is the biggest ‘hooey’ out here… This was an especially big one, for it was the biggest cast picture ever made… They have an intermission and everybody goes out and looks at each other, and you can’t get ‘em back in again. They would rather look at each other than the show…

Well of course you all know Greta Garbo never goes anywhere… Nobody has ever met her. John Barrymore who played with her in the picture, he has never seen her, that was all done with mirrors…

She’s a fantom. The minute you look at her, she’s not there, she is in Sweden, or Norway, or Denmark, or wherever it is these Swedes come from… She don’t go anywhere, (but) I announced that, on account of the importance of the occasion, Miss Garbo would break her rule and be there, and that immediately after the picture was over (she would) come on stage and take a bow…

Well, I had framed up a gag with Wally Berry (in) some ‘dame’ clothes. He was my Greta Garbo. Sounds kinder funny don’t it? Well it wasn’t to them. Wally did it fine. He even looked like her, but not enough to satisfy that crowd.

Now they should have known that Garbo wasn’t going to be there any more than Coolidge, but they go and believe it and then get sore at themselves for believing it. I didn’t mean any harm. Gosh, us comedians must get laughs. But these first nighters don’t want us to get ‘em at their expense…

So, that, in case you were like me, and wanted to know why people didn’t appreciate Beery in drag, on the stage of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in 1932, is the story. It wasn’t that they didn’t appreciate drag. It’s just that they didn’t like being made fools of for sitting through the movie in expectation of seeing Garbo at the end. (Speaking of Garbo, she was so anxious about being seen that her scenes with John Barrymore in Grad Hotel were apparently shot through a hole in a canvas screen, so that no one on the cast or crew could see them, except for the director, who watched through the camera lens.)

In the process of solving one mystery, though, many more came to the surface. Most notably, I learned that Beery was likely the killer of Tree Stooges founder Ted Healy in 1937. The following comes by way of a 2002 story in the Chicago Tribune.

…It could have been the O. J. Simpson story of its day, except that after a flurry of press reports, the police investigation got snuffed. The story was relegated to the status of Hollywood legend, to be whispered back and forth in the movie colony for decades.

But only recently did it surface in print, contained, bizarrely enough, in a new biography of the Stooges, who are most associated with the mock violence of rubber hammers, slipped punches and simulated eye-jabs.

According to “The Three Stooges: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Most Popular Comedy Team of All Time,” written by Jeff and Tom Forrester, Chicago-area natives who are longtime Stooges historians, the affair unfolded on the night of Dec. 20, 1937, and resulted in the brutal death of Ted Healy, who at the time was arguably the most influential comedian in the United States, though today he is largely forgotten.

Healy, for those who may not have heard of him, was a top vaudeville funnyman and movie star of the 1920s and ’30s who is best remembered today for giving the Three Stooges their start in show business as foils for his stage act. Regarded by many show-business historians as a brilliant improv comic, who influenced a generation of stand-up comedians, from Jack Benny and Bob Hope to Milton Berle, Healy first met the three Howard brothers (nee Hortwitz) on a beach in Brooklyn one day in 1909, when all were in their early teens. Thirteen years later, by then a major star, Healy would hire his boyhood friends — first Shemp, and later Moe and Curly — to provide the madcap side of his show.

It was the beginning of a tempestuous relationship that would last, on and off, for years, with more Stooges being added and subtracted from the act until a final break with the bad-tempered Healy in 1934 sent the familiar trio of Curly and Moe Howard and Larry Fine out on their own and into the movies.

Healy was a true Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. Loose and funny when sober, he could become a vile drunk, a touchy, combative sort always ready for a bar fight. It was this volatility and mean-spiritedness that sent the Three Stooges packing. (Indeed, a favorite Healy stunt involved having the Stooges collect Los Angles telephone directories, which he’d soak in a bathtub and then drop on unsuspecting pedestrians from his penthouse apartment. Just for laughs.)

According to Jeff Forrester, there were long-standing hard feelings between Healy and Beery and the Luciano mobster, Pasquale “Pat” DiCicco, before that night in December 1937.

DiCicco, a handsome roue with a violent streak who was Luciano’s “eyes and ears in Hollywood,” according to the Forresters, knew Healy had had an affair with his ex-wife, the film star Thelma Todd. (Todd herself died under mysterious circumstances in 1934.)

Officially ruled a “suicide,” there was no accounting for her broken nose and shattered jaw. Some said she died at the hands of her ex-husband, who had been known to abuse her.) And Beery, the star of “The Champ” and “Tugboat Annie,” held a grudge against Healy for supposedly stealing scenes in their 1937 film “Good Old Soak.”

Healy, newly married, was celebrating the birth of his only child the night he was beaten. He had staggered into the Trocadero blind drunk and tangled with Beery twice at the bar, before inviting the actor and DiCicco both outside to fight. Eyewitnesses, including DiCicco’s cousin, the late Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, stated as much to the Los Angeles Police Department.

According to the Forresters’ book, a member of Healy’s Stooges troupe named Sammy Wolfe (there was a dispute between Healy and the Howards over who would retain the name and concept of the Stooges) happened to be at the bar that night and gave the following account:

“Wallace Beery was sitting at the bar with Pat DiCicco. Beery was making a lot of noise. Ted Healy was at the other end of the bar, and Ted told Beery to be quiet. Beery said, “I won’t be quiet.” It went back and forth. Then Beery gets up and punches Ted right in the side of the head, right there at the bar. Ted says, “Let’s go outside, and I’ll take care of both of you!” I guess Beery and DiCicco went out into the parking lot, but there was already another guy out there. And he jumped Ted, and then the other two guys jumped in and beat him up.'”

…By most accounts, the book says, Healy was savagely beaten in the Trocadero parking lot that night, kicked in the head, ribs and stomach. Half-conscious and bleeding, he crawled into a taxi and instructed the driver to take him to the Brown Derby restaurant.

The Forresters say that Shemp’s late widow, Babe, told them that Healy then called Shemp and told him how Beery and DiCicco and a third man whom he didn’t know had attacked him. The book says Healy also telephoned another of the stage Stooges, Dick Hakins, with the same account.

The next day, Healy became violently ill, fell into a coma and died…

The episode is also apparently mentioned in E.J. Fleming’s book The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine. According to Fleming, when Beery, DiCicco and Broccoli, who would eventually go on to make a fortune as the producer of the James Bond films, killed Healy, the MGM “fixers” sprang to action, sending Beery to Europe for several months, and creating a story about Healy having been killed by three unknown college students.

And, for those of you Beery fans out there, who don’t think that the lovable “Champ” would be capable of such a thing, the evidence would seem to indicate otherwise. Not only is there this allegation of murder, but it also seems to be pretty widely accepted that he raped his first wife, the actress Gloria Swanson, and, at some point during their marriage, tricked her into drinking a concoction that induced an abortion, as he neither liked, nor wanted, children. And apparently kids sensed that. Jackie Cooper, who, as a child, worked with Beery in several films, wrote in his autobiography that Beery was, “the most sadistic person I have ever known“.

After hours of research, though, there’s still one thing that I haven’t been able to track down. I’ve seen it mentioned in two places that there’s a pencil sketch of Beery somewhere, drawn by Ted Healy. Apparently he drew it on the set of a film that they were working on together. (I’m assuming it was completed on the set of Good Old Soak, which was shot approximately one year before Healy’s murder, but I’m not certain.) So, that’s my new quest in life. I want to find that drawing and interview its owner. If you can point me in the right direction, I’d appreciate.

And one last little mystery, while we’re at it. Apparently the child-hating Beery illegally adopted an infant girl in 1939, who was never heard of again. The following is from Wikipedia:

In December 1939, the unmarried Beery adopted a seven-month old infant girl Phyllis Ann. Phyllis appeared in MGM publicity photos when adopted, but was never mentioned again. Beery told the press he had taken the girl in from a single mother, recently divorced, but filed no official adoption papers. No further information on the child appears to exist, and she is not mentioned in Beery’s obituary.

My guess is that it was just studio PR, and that there never really was an adoption at all… just a studio that wanted to eke a little more life out of an actor who, only a few years prior, had been one of Hollywood’s Top Ten stars at the box office. At least that’s what I’m hoping, for her sake. (The older girl in the creepy photo above, I suspect, is Carol Ann, the girl that Beery and his second wife, Rita Gilman, adopted during the short time they were together. (She was the daughter of Gilman’s cousin.))

Posted in Art and Culture, Mark's Life, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

The “What in the Hell is Going on with Ypsi’s New Unified School District?” post

Tonight’s the night that I’d set aside to figure out what in the hell is going on with Ypsi public schools. Judging by the increasingly insane comments being left elsewhere on the web, and the epic emails that are being forwarded to me, it sounds as though the great experiment – of combining the Willow Run and Ypsi school districts – is threatening to come off the rails in a big way. Here, before we start discussing what’s happening right now, and whether things can still be salvaged, is a bit of relevant history. (If you know any of the following points to be incorrect, please let me know, and I will edit accordingly.)

1. Under serious pressure from the state, our two school districts agreed last summer to restructure as one entity, in hopes of further slashing expenses and staving off a forced take-over at the hands of a Governor-appointed Emergency Manager. (They had good reason to be concerned. As you’ll recall, at about this same time, the Emergency Manager given the power to oversee Highland Park’s schools disbanded all of them, replacing them with for-profit charter schools operated by The Leona Group.)

2. The administrators of the two schools, their respective boards, and the powers-that-be within the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) lobbied hard on behalf of the merger, and, in November, the citizens of both school districts voted to make it happen, convinced that it was the only way to keep some semblance of local control. (As you may recall, WISD Superintendent Scott Menzel made the case for the merger in an interview on this site. “(T)he key question to ask is whether it is possible for Ypsilanti and Willow Run to remain independent school districts,” said Menzel. “Given the current trajectory – declining enrollment, increasing deficits, poor academic achievement – the answer to that question is no. The cuts required to balance the budget will result in driving more students from the district and compromising any effort to improve achievement. This is a death spiral. The only viable option going forward is to pursue consolidation of the districts and work diligently to create a new district that is both financially viable and designed to raise the level of achievement by implementing a 21st century, world-class education.”)

3. Having gotten the go-ahead from the voters, WISD administrators began to put their plan into action. A new board for the unified district was created (pictured right), composed of members of both previous boards, as well as several un-elected individuals appointed by the WISD. Community meetings were held. Subcommittees were formed. And it was agreed, among other things, that all of Ypsilanti’s teachers would be fired at the end of this school year, with the understanding that many would then be hired back to teach within the newly-formed district. Curiously, the same did not hold true for the superintendents of the two original school districts – Dedrick Martin (Ypsilanti) and Laura Lisiscki (Willow Run) – both of whom were given contracts through 2016.

4. Paying $12,000, the WISD engaged consultants at the Michigan Leadership Institute to aid in the search for a new superintendent. The idea, as I understood it, was that they would do a wide search for external candidates with experience in merging districts, and turning around failing school systems. The community was surprised to learn a few weeks ago, however, that, before this outside search could be conducted, both Martin and Lisiscki would be given an opportunity to be considered for the post. Only if neither was chosen by the new board of education, we were told, would the broader search be conducted.

5. There was, however, a third internal candidate for the position. Sharon Irvine, a lawyer and educator who currently serves as the Ypsilanti Public Schools’ executive director of human resources, indicated that she would like to be considered, alongside Martin and Lisiscki. Irvine, from what I understand, gained the respect of many for having successfully worked with the teachers’ union last year to cut costs without having to resort to the 30% across-the-board pay cuts which had been proposed. Video of Irvine, explaining what she would bring to the job, and how she managed to win concessions from teachers while retaining their support, can be found here. (Irvine’s interview is followed by those of Lisiscki and Martin.) It’s probably also worth noting that Irvine, in addition to seeking the job of Ypsi’s superintendent, was also pursuing the job as the head of Tecumseh’s school system. From what I’m told, however, she’s now out of the running, as Tecumseh’s board of education has made it clear that they want someone for the job who lives in their community, and Irvine lives in Ypsilanti, and, I believe, intends to stay here.

6. Last Thursday, on Valentine’s Day, the new board of education publicly interviewed all three candidates. (The video link can be found above.) The public, during this session, also had an opportunity to voice their opinions and to ask questions. While there was support for Laura Lisiscki from members of the Willow Run community, Dedrick Martin didn’t fare as well. In fact, many of his former constituents voiced their dissatisfaction with his performance, and urged that the board consider hiring Irvine, based, apparently, upon the vision that she put forward during her interview. It’s unclear how much weight, if any, however, will be given to public opinion. At least that’s the sense that I get from comments made by board member Don Garrett, who was heard urging other board members to avoid talking to constituents, as they might unduly “influence” them. (I haven’t found it yet, but I’m told the audio can be found somewhere among the video’s on this Willow Run site. I intend to go through them tonight, in search of the clip I’ve been told about, where Garrett says to a fellow board member, “WISD appointed YOU to the Board not the community.”)

7. Then, over last weekend, things really heated up, as people, from what I understand, started to get the sense that Martin’s appointment might be a foregone conclusion. When the board reconvened on Monday to discuss the candidates, they were met with a packed house, a vocal majority of whom, I’m told, were Irvine supporters. According to some who attended the meeting, the board did not seriously deliberate the merits and deficits of each candidate. Furthermore, I’m told that board member David Bates took the opportunity to chide the audience for making negative comments about Martin, and for asking him unduly probing questions during the Q&A the week before. Ypsilanti Education Association (YEA) President Krista Boyer, I’m told, attempted to read a statement concerning the superintendent search, and was cut off mid-sentence. In the end, Garrett and Bates suggested that the board might consider an administrative structure that could include both Martin and Lisiscki as co-superintendents, rewarding them, I suppose, for having run two of the State’s worst-performing school districts. (I apologize for the snark. I imagine that, to a great extent, their failures were predetermined by the constricting budgets that they were forced to work with, and other factors. But I still find it odd that we’d be seriously talking about one of them, let alone both, which, to my mind, kind of defeats the purpose of the merger.) According to our friend Maria Cotera, who has written extensively about the state of education in Ypsilanti on this site in the past, there were audible gasps from the crowd when this dual-leadership model was suggested, and some people were even shouting, “No!” (As all of this played out, Martin and Lisiscki were apparently seated at the front of the room, with the board of education, while Irvine was seated in the audience.) Maria approached one of the board members after the meeting to explain why people in the Ypsi community felt so strongly about the need for real change in district leadership, and a heated exchange ensued. She copied me on the letter which she sent to the board member with whom she had exchanged words, and you’ll find it below, with her permission, along with a bit of a preface, putting the whole thing into perspective.


A very depressing update on school consolidation and the crisis in leadership…

As you know, I have been participating in the redesign of Ypsilanti Community Schools in the wake of the Ypsi-Willow consolidation. I’ve been going to weekly meetings for a little over a month (my group is focused on “climate and culture”) and I have been very inspired and impressed by the good community people who are committed to seeing this process through. The group has included teachers, school social workers, and community organizations (Neutral Zone, Ozone House, etc). We have been talking a lot about “restorative justice” paradigms for improving school culture, and there are people at the table who are very committed to centering social justice in our “climate” conversations. For some time now, I’ve been meaning to update your readers about this wonderful work because it has made me very hopeful for Ypsilanti Community Schools. Unfortunately, recent events have interrupted this idyll, and it looks like it’s business as usual for Ypsi. About a month ago, we were informed that our search for a new superintendent would begin internally, and that the current superintendents would be interviewed before any external candidates. Luckily one internal candidate, Sharon Irvine, who was head of HR in Ypsi Schools decided to throw her hat into the ring, and last Thursday she, along with Dedrick Martin and Laura Lisiscki, gave public interviews to a standing room only crowd. I was absolutely wowed by Sharon Irvine’s presentation. She came off as professional, thoughtful, and committed to improving the district. She gave one of the best interviews I have ever seen, and I wrote enthusiastically to board members afterward, expressing my strong belief that she would be the best person to lead the district as we transition into greatness. Apparently many, many others did as well. Then, on Monday night, the board met to discuss all three candidates, and you can read all about the depressing turn of events here. In a nutshell, the suggestion was made by Don Garret, and seconded by others on the board, that we pursue hiring multiple candidates (presumably the two former superintendents), throwing Sharon Irvine under the bus. This decision was made despite overwhelming support for her from Ypsi constituents. I got into a rather heated exchange with a board member afterward, and rather than recite what happened here, I’m sharing the letter that I wrote at 5:30 in the morning.

Dear Board Member___________,

First of all, let me apologize for losing my temper last night. I regret very much not being able to convey to you my strong feelings about the situation (as well as my commitment to Ypsi Schools) while holding to basic standards of civility.

Honestly, I think I might have been able to hold it together a little better if I didn’t feel like I was watching the Chapelle debacle happen all over again. And it bears mentioning that what was most painful about that situation was not that our beloved school closed, but the way in which the board and administration dealt with us. When parents fought against the closing of Chapelle we were consistently treated with disrespect by the board and the administration. We were treated as if we had no business trying to tell the board or administration what to do, as if we were just interfering with business as usual. That struggle was not just about one school and whether it would stay open, but about whether, and to what extent, the board and administration was accountable to the very people who were its PRIMARY stakeholders: parents and families. Consistently, as with the discussion last night, the people who spoke out were marginalized as “just a few loud voices” as if what we were fighting for was irrelevant to the rest of the community. Never did anyone back then (other than Kira Berman or Andy Fanta) suggest that maybe we were actually articulating the sentiments of the parents who couldn’t make every meeting. Indeed, our community meetings (organized by us, not the board or the administrations) numbered in the hundreds and included all sectors of the Ypsi community. In short, we know very well that the community can be mobilized when they care about something. Just as it would be incorrect for us to assume that we speak for the entire Ypsi school community, it is simply flawed thinking for you and the rest of the board to assume that the people who were not there last night support Dedrick Martin (as Linda Horne suggested). Indeed, it has been my experience that when people in the community do feel strongly about a situation, they will come out in force, as they did to save Chapelle, and they will not rely on surrogates to speak their minds.

Why am I talking about old history (Chapelle) here? Because to my mind, that situation helps us to diagnose the real problem with Ypsi schools, a problem that goes way beyond its budget woes, and one that will (apparently) not be resolved in this current effort to “re-imagine” the schools. It was on display last night, and many in the audience recognized it immediately. Three years ago, when faced with the community outcry over Chapelle, our relatively new superintendent could have approached the situation very differently. He could have seen the huge outpouring of support as an indicator of public investment, not just in a building, but in what that building represented—in its vision of community. He could have thought: “maybe we can parlay this passion into renewed passion for our schools?” He could have said: “what is Chapelle doing right? How is it getting stakeholders from across Ypsi to care so much? And how can I develop that passion in all our schools?” THAT is leadership. THAT is visionary thinking. Had he done that, perhaps we would be in a different situation right now. Perhaps we would be able to sing the praises of Chapelle and all of the other schools we care about, perhaps our enrollments wouldn’t be in a death spiral (an outcome many of us predicted). Had he done that, he would have earned the undying support of many of us, and we would now be begging you to keep him. This is not just about “giving in” to community pressure, but about having the courage to listen to his constituents and TRULY think outside of the box. But he didn’t do that. What he and the board did instead was to circle the wagons, take a defensive posture, and discount everything we had to say as if it were irrelevant. 

Which is why I reacted so strongly when you gestured toward the pictures on the wall (of the superintendents) and said (rather dismissively) “you people aren’t satisfied with anyone, how many of these men have you run out of the job?” Frankly, the suggestion that we are merely irrational complainers who would hate anyone who took on the job of superintendent is deeply offensive to the intelligence of the community that you currently represent, and displays an attitude of disregard that seems consistent with the attitude of past board members. We, the community, the parents, the teachers are on the ground every day in our schools, we know, better than anyone else what the health of our educational ecosystem is because we live and breathe it. Our impressions and ideas are not just irrational “reactions;” they are informed by experience, and in the case of the teachers, real knowledge about the best educational environment for our children. As a board member, and our representative, your commitment, your compassion, and your respect, should be as available to us as it is to the current superintendent. 

Someone said last night, out of earshot, “Ypsi will never change.” After Chapelle closed, many, many people said the same thing, but we remained committed to the schools and passionate about their success. Over the last three years that passion has waned, as we have watched our schools slowly decline. We no longer encourage new parents to enroll their kids, and when people express doubts about the schools, we no longer passionately defend them, we merely shrug our shoulders and say “it is what it is.” This is tragic. The closing of Chapelle did not break us, it was what followed: the revelation that David Houle (who Martin hired from Willow Run and who called for the closing of Chapelle) had made our finances vastly worse (and hidden that fact), the half-baked curricular changes that were introduced to the public seemingly at random, the dysfunctional consolidated busing system, the reactionary resistance to field trips and other enrichment activities, the unwillingness of the administration to engage ANY new ideas (contrary to Martin’s assertion, New Tech was in the works before his arrival), the disaster at the high school. By any measure the last three years have been a depressing parade of failures. This is not a personal attack—it is an accurate diagnosis of REALITY that is backed up by our lived experience as well as the district’s declining enrollments.

When this consolidation effort got underway, I joined it because I still had an sliver of hope that we could turn out schools around. We were promised a “complete reboot” and though many of us had doubts about consolidating, we mobilized our friends and family to support the effort. Over the last few months I have been involved with the process, and I have been impressed by the WISD’s ability to bring many stakeholders to the table. I work over 60 hours a week, and I still dedicated every Thursday I could to helping the process along. Last Thursday at yet another meeting, I sat through an interview that simply blew me away, and I began to believe that we could really make this happen. As I listened to Sharon Irvine talk, I began to see a new vision of Ypsilanti Community Schools. I saw a leader that could stop the flow of students out of the district, and who might even bring a few back! I saw someone who could get people behind her, even when she was asking them to make deep sacrifices. I thought: “we won’t find anyone better, even if we do an outside search.” And I began to hope again, and dream, just a little bit, that things would be better. I came home, singing her praises to my husband, and I began to see a glimmer of hope in his eyes as well.

Last night it was a different story. I saw the same old dysfunctional decision making at play. I saw the condescension and outright hostility towards anyone in the community who spoke their mind when their opinions didn’t concord with those of certain board members. I saw appeals to consider the “bravery” and “resilience” of superintendent candidates for undergoing a consolidation process that was inevitable, coupled with the outright disdain for the bravery of teachers, who risked their professional futures by speaking out. I saw an upside down world in which a candidate who has no support from his current staff and has earned the outright hostility of many members of the community he supposedly represents, being praised for “taking-risks” and for making decisions that were unpopular. I saw people on the board suggesting that his lack of support was actually a “plus” and enjoining us to support whomever was chosen, for the good of the district, apparently not realizing that support from the people needs to be EARNED not demanded.

So I let my passion for the future of our schools get the best of me, and I lost my cool.

Yelling is never the answer, I know that, but a lot is riding on this decision, and, as I said last night, my commitment to the district is both deeply personal and political. I believe, very strongly, that the public schools, especially in a place like Ypsi where divisions between communities can run deep, are one of the last civic and social places where people come together. There’s lots of talk of the “diversity” of our schools, and usually its empty rhetoric, but just last Friday I was at a dance at Estabrook and I marveled at all of the people there. It was a true cross section of our community, with people of all races and classes mingling freely as their children ran like crazy all over the place. For me, this has always been the wonderful thing about Ypsi schools, and it has kept us here even when the future seemed very bleak. As I have said many times before, the public schools are our last, best, laboratory for democracy. They are places where people from all sides of town come together, with a singular mission, to teach our children that we must all stand together or fall apart. 

Ultimately, this is less about who will guide our future, than about how decisions are made, and whether the input of a community’s primary stakeholders carries any weight at all in the decision-making process. Unfortunately, in Ypsilanti, the community has been seen as an impediment, not a primary partner in this process. I thought this would change with consolidation, but after last night, I realize that I was wrong.

Maria Cotera

Personally, it seems odd to me that the board would even consider bringing back either Martin or Lisiscki without first doing a comprehensive outside search. That, to me, is lunacy. I can accept that one of them might be the right person for the job, but I don’t see how the board could be expected to make a decision of that magnitude without first knowing who else is available and willing to take on the challenge. Not doing a broad search for a position of such critical importance is, in my opinion, irresponsible at best. As Maria points out, we have a huge opportunity here, and we cannot afford to make the wrong decision when it comes to leadership. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this is the last shot that we have to turn around Ypsil public schools, and we cannot squander the opportunity. Now is the time for bold change, and we need a visionary leader to make that happen. And, to be quite honest, I haven’t seen the potential of that from either of our previous superientendents.

The meeting to select a superintendent has been delayed until this Monday, February 25, at 7:30 PM. The meeting will take place at the Willow Run Community Schools Auditorium at 235 Spencer Lane, and it promises to be a doozy. A PDF of the agenda can be found here.

Also of interest: Apparently, the YPSD has taken down its own Facebook page because it was getting overloaded with negative comments, but some rebellious community members have established their own Facebook page to replace it, and ensure that information gets out in a timely fashion.

Posted in Education, Michigan, Uncategorized, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 34 Comments


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