Name: Jim O’Donnell
Director of Financial Planning & Analysis, Gateway Foundation, Inc.
B.A. in Political Science, University of Michigan
Master of Business Administration, Oakland University
Certified Management Accountant
Certified Financial Manager
Previous and/or current elected positions:
Ferndale Public Library Board Trustee, 2010-current
Ferndale Public Library Board President, 2012-current
In addition to the library board, I serve on the library’s Finance & Building Committee, and formerly on the library’s Development & Fundraising Committee.
Ferndale Public Schools involvement includes:
- Operations Committee, member
- Citizens Bond Subcommittee, Tri-chair along with Marie Haener-Patti and Mary Schusterbauer
- Volunteer at Ferndale Middle School and John F. Kennedy Elementary School
- Ferndale Secondary Parent Teacher Student Association, member
- JFK PTA, member
- First-time, reader at Roosevelt Primary Schools guest reader day
- Citizens for Quality Schools 2012 bond campaign, volunteer
I am also a volunteer on the Peace Action of Michigan Finance Committee, member of the Ferndale Adoption Network, member of the Friends of the Ferndale Library, supporter of Ferndale Education Foundation, Citizens for a Fair Ferndale, Fine Arts Boosters, and volunteer on many local campaigns.
Do you currently have students in the district, and if so, what school(s) do they attend?
Yes, I have three children in the district, with one each at Ferndale High School, Ferndale Middle School and Kennedy Elementary School.
Why do you want to be on the School Board?
First, public schools are a foundation of American democracy, where they prepare educated, informed, thoughtful citizens ready to engage the world. Local elected school boards help initiate that cycle by providing democratic control of governance and policy-making for citizens’ own local schools. Schools are fundamentally accountable to citizens: both parents and non-parents. I have a constructive contribution to make toward the necessary governance, policy-making and accountability for our schools.
Ferndale Public Schools and its leaders are at a crossroads. One road leads to active engagement by the School Board and better schools for our children. The other road is the path we are on, one of complacency and no clear direction.
I am running for a position on the Ferndale School Board because I choose the first road for my district and my children. I choose to face and acknowledge our challenges as a community. I choose to engage others within the District in my search for solutions. I choose to work to make Ferndale Schools a district everyone in the community can be proud of, a district that attracts families to relocate to Ferndale, Pleasant Ridge, Oak Park and Royal Oak Township to take advantage of all we have to offer school age children.
Finally, I want to see the school board engaged in more planning, in order set specific, measurable, time-limited goals that will build on what the district does well and stretches us to improve what we need to do better.
Why should people vote for you?
My professional background is in financial management and strategic planning, where I have 22 years of experience in healthcare and non-profit administration. I am a Certified Management Accountant and a Certified Financial Manager. I have experience in governing through my service on the library board. I have hired professionals and held them accountable, helped to develop and implement budgets in tough times, which have preserved vital services. I pledge to always ask tough questions and to seek constructive, active partners wherever we can find them, to act on well-prepared and well-planned information, and always deliberate with an assertive and respectful mindset. I have a passion for this community and our public schools. I want to see our schools live up to the full potential of our thriving community. If the voters decide to elect me to the school board, I will work effectively to promote schools that are excellent, inclusive and a stronger asset to our community.
What do you think are the top responsibilities of the School Board?
First, the board is responsible for setting a strategic direction for the school district that will inspire the community, parents, students, teachers and staff. Second, the board must work with administrators and the school community to set concrete SMART goals, objectives and strategies to fulfill the strategic direction.
Also, the board is responsible for hiring and supporting a superintendent who has day-to-day responsibility for implementing the board’s governing decisions and policies. Supporting the superintendent includes providing the policies, guidance and resources necessary to fulfill administrators’ and educators’ responsibilities. Support also includes constructive questions, critiques, and guidance where needed to sharpen implementation of the board’s decisions.
The board enacts many other policies that have a profound influence on the school community of teachers, staff, students and parents, in addition to approving many routine administrator-generated or legally required reports. The board acts as boosters and supporters of the district’s success stories and I look forward to continuing the fine legacy we have in our district to rewarding success and achievement.
Are there any school board decisions or policies that you disagree with, and why?
I disagreed with the May 2011 decision to enter into a purchase agreement for the Hayes-Lemmerz property at Pinecrest and Eight Mile road. It was a known environmental mess that the board spent almost $100,000 to validate public documentation of lead and other contamination. There should be no surprise that the former research labs of the Ethyl (Lead) Corporation had contamination. They also proceeded without seeing a business plan or running discounted cash flow analyses, both of which are standard practices for major capital purchases (this would have cost about $8.5 million in total).
I disagreed with the decision to extend the superintendent’s contract, when he had several years remaining on the current contract. There was no reason to rush and disregard a board member’s motion to table for one month. Certainly, many people in the community did not support the rush to commit to an expensive long-term contract only months after the board’s decision to extend their own terms to six years and eliminate the elections scheduled for May 2011 or November 2011.
I am disappointed that the board has not taken more initiative to publish materials supporting their own decision-making, to engage with the community frequently, and to avoid the issue of requesting substantive voluntary disclosure for outside consulting work done by administrators.
Do you think parents sending their students out of district is an issue, and if so what would you do about it?
It is most definitely an issue for the district and for me. I don’t judge the parents on this decision, but we should recognize the scale of this problem as a tear in the fabric of our community. We need to make every effort to understand why parents make their decisions and to fix any issues that the district has influence over. I support making the issue of retaining resident families a key strategic priority over the next six years. Until we understand the root causes of the problems, we can’t be fully prescriptive about the solutions. However, immediate steps include setting an inspiring and effective strategic direction and expecting first-rate marketing that links new parents to current district parents and the school community. Of course, making substantial improvements in test scores are also key to keeping more families in our district.
What does Ferndale Schools do well as a district?
We have many strengths in Ferndale, including dynamic, talented teachers, involved parents, engaged building administrators and staff, an outstanding fine arts program, and excellent honors classes. We do a great job of engaging top students in preparation for college and in many extra-curricular activities. We are also fortunate to live in a community that generates so many excellent volunteers (parents of current students, parents of alumni, and non-parents) that keeps our music programs, sports programs. I already mentioned the teachers, but I can’t stress enough how much our teachers do for these kids. This is not just a job for them, and they deserve tremendous respect and even more support from their board and community.
What can be improved upon?
Educational Excellence – We need to excel on standardized tests for which our district is held accountable by the state and by potential district families. Our test scores are too low, and racial and economic achievement gaps are intolerably large. We also need to maintain a focus on educating the whole child with programs in the arts, music, and physical education. We need to allocate enough resources to meet the needs of students who may underachieve because of learning disabilities, poverty, difficult home situations, frequent changes of schools, or poor prior schools. To attain this excellence, the board will have to move money from administration to instruction and support. Every child in our schools deserves an excellent education that prepares them for college and other post-secondary education, good jobs, and active citizenship.
Family Retention – We must directly address the number of families that choose other school districts for their children’s education. These are caring parents who want the best for their children. They are important to me, as fellow members of our community, and we must identify and resolve their reasons for leaving. Ferndale district families who choose other schools for their children should not be criticized; they should be engaged in discussion so that we can learn from them. Keeping these students in our district would likely improve both test scores and community cohesiveness.
Transparency – We must widely share information from all board and committee meetings. The non-profit transparency organization “Sunshine Review” ranks various state and local government websites on transparency. In our state, Ann Arbor Public Schools ranks very high. Although Berkley is not ranked by Sunshine Review, their district also does a better job of informing citizens about district conditions. I will call on the board and administration to follow a similar model for schools and local government transparency. We look to website transparency produced by Ann Arbor Schools and our own Ferndale City Council. There, any citizen can view the same information that school board or council members see. They can watch meetings online in real time or on their own time. Obviously, all this must be done in compliance with laws and regulations that protect student and employee privacy. But, those limited exceptions are no reason for inaction. Furthermore, the school district must be completely transparent about enrollment numbers, residency status, financial results, building and program resources, contracts, consulting disclosures, conflict of interest disclosures and plans of all kinds.
Community Relationships – We must dramatically improve the school district’s relationships with our communities. State law allows the district to act completely independently of other local governments, but that doesn’t mean that should be the desired way of doing business! We should seek every opportunity for dialogue with municipal leaders and to align our goals with theirs. We have tremendous intellectual capital within the borders of this school district. Look around at the many non-profits, community organizations, civic clubs, city leaders and political activists. I pledge to bring all this brainpower into the decision-making and problem solving that we must do over the next few years. A truly collaborative relationship will improve our cities, our schools, our communities and our property values.
Comprehensive Strategic Planning – We must plan for success over the long-term. Community engagement is a central part of the planning process. We must also bring the district into compliance with all strategic and financial planning best practices. There are many examples from education, government, non-profits and business management that we can use to structure our planning. We should always expect well-prepared administration decision support materials that back every recommendation. We must not tolerate the fact that issues consistently come before the board at the last minute, which does not allow for proper consideration, exploration of all relevant options and the exercise of an elected official’s public duty of due care.
Anything else readers should know about you?
With your help Ferndale Public Schools will be a district that makes our residents proud and our neighbors envious of what we have. I helped achieve these things for our once sleepy, decaying library and I look forward to the challenge presented by our schools.
NOTE: Jim O’Donnell is running on the “CLEAR” PAC slate for this election along with Amy Butters, Raylon Leaks-May and Kevin Deegan-Krause. Read more about CLEAR at http://makeitclearferndale.org/. While the four are campaigning together, voting is done on an individual basis. The election will be Nov. 6, 2012. More voting information can be found at https://oaklandcounty115.com/category/voter_info/.