In Farmington Voice exit interviews, we talk with departing city and school officials about their background, experiences, and advice for those will walk next in their shoes.
Howard Wallach hadn’t considered seeking a position on the Farmington Public Schools Board of Education, but when someone asked, he said yes.
Thirteen years later, Wallach looks back on a career that began in the eye a storm: outrage over an International Affairs course that drew deep criticism from a group organized under the name Farmington Public Education Network, or F-PEN. He became involved with the issue in his capacity as chair of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
“One of our board members who was a teacher in Bloomfield Hills brought it to our attention,” said Wallach, who is a partner with the Foley and Mansfield law firm. “The ADL has a wonderful education department, and we decided we could make more of an impact by offering to assist with development of the class.”
Once that issue was resolved, then-superintendent Bob Maxfield asked Wallach to help with a few others. And then one evening, trustee Priscilla Brouillette approached him to ask whether he would apply for an open board position.
“I never in my wildest dreams had the goal or desire of being a school board member, being a board officer or president,” Wallach said. “I never set out to be president of the JCC (Jewish Community Council) or ADL. When people asked if I was willing to do it, I said yes.”
After he was chosen from a field of 10 candidates in February of 2004, Wallach told the Farmington Observer, “I look forward to the opportunity to serve the community and do what’s best for our kids and education.”
‘What’s best for kids and the community’
Those first years, he said, were about learning – attending Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB) training and meetings, developing relationships with board members from other districts, getting to know Farmington Schools staff, students, and parents, and attending as many events and activities as possible. Communication has also been a critical part of the job; board members share what they hear as people approach them at school events or out in the community.
Wallach has stepped into the position of board president on more than one occasion, through building closures, layoffs, and outsourcing. He said the role involves talking with fellow trustees and “taking the board’s temperature,” and communicating with the superintendent. Especially in difficult situations, the president stays in touch with board members to make sure they have all the information they need to make a decision.
Having served with three superintendents – Maxfield, Sue Zurvalec, and now George Heitsch – Wallach described each as having “different skill levels and expertise”, but all have been “committed to the district and kids.” He said he has to laugh when someone accuses the board of being a “rubber stamp” for the administration. Trustees receive thick packets of background information before board meetings and, individually, may sit down with administrators to talk about what will work and what clearly won’t.
“We never had the feeling that you have to have 7-0 votes. It’s okay to have respectful discourse and disagreement,” he said. “I never once tried to persuade a board member to vote in one way or another…At the end of the day, if you keep your focus on what’s best for kids and the community, you’ll be able to sleep at night, knowing you made the right decision.”
‘On the upswing’
The most challenging issue he faced, Wallach said, was outsourcing. While the district dodged that bullet several years ago, board members this spring voted to hire a private firm for custodial services.
“You know you’re affecting things on both sides of the coin, you’re taking jobs away from people who live in our community, who went to our schools, people you know,” he said. “That’s really tough stuff.”
But Wallach believes Farmington Public Schools is “seriously on the upswing,” with a clear direction. The work of downsizing a district built for 12,500 students to its current 10,000-student population has been arduous, “but had to be done, because of forces beyond our control.” Losing students isn’t just a Farmington problem. Wallach said when he first took office, Michigan had around 1.8 million school-aged children, and now there are 1.2 million. Districts have also struggled with changes in funding and student testing, which are governed by the state.
“Lansing isn’t helping,” he said. “We’re operating in 2016 on the same budget we had in 2002-2003.”
Board members also face frustrated parents who have watched the reduction of resources and services they were accustomed to having. While some have become “very negative,” Wallach said, the climate today is not much different the one he faced in 2004. He said Heitsch has done “a tremendous job of shouldering most of the burden of being the face of the district.”
Wallach worries that the more virulent verbal attacks will eventually discourage people from wanting to serve. But along with the bad, he said, there’s plenty of good in being a school board member. He is particularly proud of the district’s growing International Baccalaureate program, which this spring celebrated its first 40 graduates, and sent them off to college with $4 million in scholarships.
“It can be very, very rewarding. You will be involved in helping change the lives of some kids, and making your community a better place,” he said.