Restructuring, Equity Part of Legacy as Jim O’Donnell Resigns from Ferndale School Board
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Aug. 16, 2021)
Ferndale, MI – When Jim O’Donnell first joined the Ferndale School Board in 2013, the District had been struggling with low test scores, racial and economic divisions, students living in the district and attending school elsewhere, and a superintendent with a focus on his own financial side dealing.
O’Donnell joined the board as part of a slate of “BOLD” candidates – Amy Butters, Jim O’Donnell, Raylon Leaks-May, and Kevin Deegan-Krause who campaigned on a promise of change.
And as O’Donnell prepares to resign effective Sept. 1, there is plenty of progress to look back on.
Questioning the district’s leadership and exposing the side-dealings of former Superintendent Gary Meier was the first grand effort to change the culture and practices in the district. Meier had been using Ferndale Schools’ time and resources to build his own charter school company. Removing Meier meant not only exposing his double-dealings, but also changing policies and procedures to make clear that Meier and future superintendents are focusing on the needs of Ferndale students. When Meier resigned, the board took care to hire Blake Prewitt to infuse new life and energy into the district, followed by current Superintendent Dania Bazzi who takes a hands on approach to making education fun and meaningful for the students and staff.
It’s not uncommon for public bodies to remove problematic leaders in a quiet manner. This can help save face as well as money on attorney fees. However, in Ferndale, doing the right thing was important. “You have to move forward with what you think is right. The District had been wronged and the Board is doing what is right,” Prewitt said at the time. The $25,000 judgement was not the only reward. Holding Meier accountable and making his misdeeds part of the public record was part of demonstrating the need to stand up to those doing wrong. It also ushered in a new era of transparency and public involvement.
In addition to making sure the district’s top spot is filled by someone with a passion for progress, Ferndale Schools needed thoughtful decision-making in order to right-size the district, as well as to end perceived racial and economic disparities. District properties were examined, and classes and offices were moved around to create efficiencies.
The restructuring looked at the maintenance needs of each building, as well as the capacities. Several buildings were not being used efficiently, with many operating at only 50% capacity. Restructuring also gave the district a chance to address disparity by combining once divided school groups. In particular was the difference between Kennedy Elementary, Roosevelt and Coolidge. At the time Roosevelt had 65% of students considered economically disadvantaged. Coolidge had 60%. But in Kennedy just 25% of students fell into this category. The result was often hard feelings among parents that didn’t get accepted to Kennedy, as well as challenges when the students came together at the middle and high school level. Also of issue was inequity at the high school level. Ferndale Schools provided a traditional high school experience at FHS, but students at University High School, which had many students coming from out of district, particularly Detroit, lacked features of a full high school, including activities and athletics. Through tackling tough issues like race, education style, and the ever-difficult process of change – the District kept discussions public and went out of their way to seek engagement and parent feedback. Buildings were consolidated and programs were evaluated. Students at UHS gained sports as well as more options to bring those educational opportunities up to higher standards. And eventually the elementary schools were consolidated so that every student has the same opportunities, and has a chance to interact with students from all the districts’ communities – Ferndale, Pleasant Ridge, Oak Park, and Royal Oak Township.
Economically, the district has also improved. Ten years ago Ferndale Schools was on the cusp of deficit spending. With consolidation and a strategic look at expenses, the district now has a fund balance of $20 million. One effort was the adoption of an Energy Bond, which allows for the installation of energy efficient lights and systems throughout the district which is then paid for by energy savings. A sinking fund initiative also helped, as it gives the district the resources it needs to invest in keeping buildings well-maintained and up to date.
“I have been deeply honored to serve our Ferndale Schools community and all of my board colleagues since joining the Board in January 2013. The community entrusts the care and leadership of our schools to the Board, and I hope that I have lived up to that trust over the years. Through many tough situations and difficult decisions, I have been joined by colleagues in always putting the needs of students first, while always keeping the needs of the community close to my heart. I have admired the way that board members and Dr. Bazzi have maintained that perspective and trust, particularly around issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, which began with our strategic planning in 2013, and really served as a bridge back to the coalition in the 1970s that fought to end segregation,” said O’Donnell.
“The public should know how deeply grateful I am for their support of the schools. Since 2013, Ferndale Schools has chosen a strategic path of excellent schools centered in equity,” he said. “The community has supported that direction, and the schools have delivered on their promises. I am grateful for the engagement of the community, including parents and caregivers of our students, throughout that journey. While every individual decision that the board makes may not enjoy widespread agreement, our overall strategy and direction is working and does have very broad support. That only happens because members of the public engage with their schools and elected leaders.”
When asked why he’s stepping down, O’Donnell told Oakland County Times “I have a schedule conflict with evening classes in a graduate program that I am enrolled in (on Monday, Tuesdays, and Thursdays in the fall semester at Wayne State. I believe that if I can’t contribute fully to the role of board member and the work of the school board, then it is time to turn the role over to another community member.”
He plans to remain active. “To the extent that my schedule permits it, I plan to remain engaged through volunteering in the schools, particularly in the social studies classes, tutoring or guest teaching. I will also remain engaged in local campaigns that demonstrate support for advancing racial equity in the schools and city.”
Ferndale Schools will soon be accepting applications for those interested in the Trustee position. More info will be posted when that process begins. Positions are voluntary. In the event of a vacancy, the board will select a Trustee, though normally they are selected through public election.
When asked what his advice would be for the next Trustee, O’Donnell said “One must think strategically, listen to community members and all school stakeholders, and approach issues with a perspective of serving students above all else. Also, we have to avoid the depths of school operations and remain engaged and questioning at the level of strategy, policy and governance. Remaining in the appropriate lane is often a challenge, but it is important to stick to governance and let the teachers, staff and administrators that we’ve hired to execute the details.”
Board President Mike Davisson said of O’Donnell, “Personally, I admired Jim’s board service from a distance prior to joining the board. He has been a tremendous example and mentored me to understand what the role entails and the responsibility that is entrusted to board members by the community. I cannot be more grateful to have served and collaborated with Jim over the past years to advance the district in achievement, equity, and sustainability.”
Ferndale Schools Superintendent Dr. Dania Bazzi added, “Having served with Jim since joining Ferndale Schools in 2017 I am very sad to see his departure from the Board. His leadership and constant focus on ensuring the needs of our students were at the forefront of every decision was unmatched. Truly, the impact that Jim’s leadership has left on Ferndale Schools will be felt for decades to come.”
Learn more about Ferndale Schools, including the latest on filling the board vacancy, at https://www.ferndaleschools.org/.