I had been sports editor at the Albion Evening Recorder for three years and really didn’t have a lot of desire to take the job in August 1979, especially because staff writer C. Michael LaNoue was actively campaigning for it. I found out that the owner and departing editor, David G. Moore, were not keen on his editorship.
With some encouragement, I reluctantly took the post and almost immediately wished I hadn’t. Albion was in the middle of serious controversy with the school district and the staff at the newspaper was engaging in lots of back stabbing. LaNoue, an outspoken critic of Superintendent James Rynearson, agreed to take over for me as sports editor, so I took over coverage of the school board. I had a lot of fence mending to do with school officials, who despised LaNoue.
I slowly began to win their cooperation, but I found myself agreeing with LaNoue’s assessment of Rynearson as an arrogant bully. Things were made easier by the presence of new assistant Superintendent for Finance Mike Bitar, whom I found to be a very competent straight shooter and spoke eloquently at meetings about the growing financial crisis plaguing schools.
Albion was like the canary in coal mine. It was suffering through a teachers’ strike. The school board was finding it would have to lay off about a dozen and a half teachers because declining enrollment meant fewer state dollars and looming ahead was threat of closing one of the elementary schools.
The teachers’ strike finally was settled in the fall of 1979, but the layoff notices were to come soon afterward, and one of the victims was a guy I grew to like a lot, Spanish teacher Fausto Martinez. The fight over closing Crowell School was racially charged because its principal was black, and there was an expected angry backlash.
Then one Saturday night I learned at a bar from someone in the know that all-state basketball player Dean Hopson was transferring to Ann Arbor for his senior year. The following Monday morning, LaNoue said he didn’t have time to do the story, so I did it in a hurry on deadline. Stop the presses!
It seemed like the community, the school district and the newspaper was exploding in a blur of screaming, shouting, anger. I had to go to school board meetings several nights a week because of the troubles. Then I learned the Recorder’s society editor was egging on LaNoue to commit sedition.
Within two months of accepting the editor’s post I had come to believe I was a good example of the Peter Principle — the theory that everybody rises up through the employment ladder until they hit a level where they’re incompetent, and that’s where they stay because going back down is humiliating and less money. I had been promoted for being a good sports editor, but I thought I was overmatched at this level.
Making matters worse was that the Iran hostage crisis hit not long afterward. I honestly didn’t think I could survive so much so quickly.
I decided to fire the society editor for making so much trouble for me and found some new enemies as a result. The newspaper owner backed me, but still felt very shaky in my position.
I got a good look at political intrigue on the school board just weeks later. The superintendent, under a lot of pressure caused by bad public relations, announced at a school board meeting that he would actively seek other employment, just before he was about get a really nasty public evaluation. As soon as he spoke, the board moved and agreed unanimously to dispense with the evaluation. What a coincidence!
The community also was calling for the head of one school administrator, and it was Director of Personnel Bruce Smith, a black man who had a serious credibility problem and was widely thought to have bungled the teachers’ strike. The board quietly behind the scenes finally got together a majority to discharge Smith, but I heard from undisclosed sources that Smith became deeply religious and started to regularly attend the same church as the board member who was the swing vote needed for his dismissal.
There were two meetings in which board members kept glancing at the door, awaiting the arrival of the swing voter, but she did not show. No such vote was taken. But Smith, the board and perhaps the school district, got a reprieve in that he later was hired by a school district in Illinois.
When I called him, he declared, “God intervened on my behalf.” He added, “This is the administrative cut the school board has been waiting for.”
But the schools still were in trouble because they couldn’t pass a millage request in three tries. So further cutbacks were a possibility. And the high school principal, also under heavy fire, resigned at the end of the school year.
Rynearson finally got a job with the Melvindale School District, the board smartly hired Mike Bitar to take his place, also the result of a lot of behind the scenes talk and negotiations. Albion in September finally passed a millage, but opponents said it was because Albion College students were recruited to register and vote in Albion.
Things finally began to settle down. But I learned in that first year the interesting but painful lesson that public meetings often can be just dog and pony shows, formalities that give a false facade to the people that the board is in agreement about making decisions in the best interests of our precious children.
And some wonder how I got to be so cynical and sarcastic.