School board divided over superintendent’s departure, process to select interim superintendent

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published September 5, 2023


GROSSE POINTE WOODS — The Grosse Pointe Board of Education says Grosse Pointe Public School System Superintendent Jon Dean is the one who decided to step down from his role and into a consulting position for the new school year.

But given contentious board meetings and the recent exodus of many of the top school officials in the central office, more than a few parents and residents aren’t buying this.

“Just a few days ago our Superintendent retired, but we all know it was a resignation,” Grosse Pointe Park parent Daniel Verlinde said by email Aug. 30.

During a special Grosse Pointe Board of Education meeting Aug. 23 at Barnes Elementary School, the board voted 4-2 in favor of Dean’s retirement agreement — which took effect Sept. 1 — with board President Ahmed Ismail and board members Sean Cotton, Virginia “Ginny” Jeup and Lisa Papas voting in favor while board members Colleen Worden and Valarie St. John voted against it. Board member David Brumbaugh was out of town on a family vacation and wasn’t at the meeting. The vote came after a closed session that ran nearly four hours.

“I am vehemently opposed to this separation agreement,” Worden told the board. “I think it’s highly irresponsible for this board to let a highly effective and amazing superintendent who has served this district with grace and intelligence and dedication for 12 years, to let him go like that, to be driven out. And I’m absolutely opposed to it. Especially two weeks before school. I just can’t imagine the irresponsibility of this board. I also think it’s fiscally irresponsible to pay a superintendent to leave when he has been deemed highly effective in each and every one of his ratings. He’s well loved by teachers, administrators, students. He’s been quite a fixture in this community. And I’m devastated to see him leave after everything he’s given to this district.”

Ismail said the cost to the district’s fund balance to sign this agreement with Dean — who’ll be serving as a consultant until June 30, 2024 — is “probably in the $200,000 range, I would guess.”

“We could have given this (money) to our teachers,” Worden said. “That’s what makes me the maddest.”

St. John cited a study that academic achievement has been shown to fall for two years following a superintendent transition.

“I agree that it’s fiscally irresponsible to pay a superintendent to leave and also have to pay potentially an external candidate to be our superintendent,” St. John said. “There were a lot of other options we could have pursued. We could have tried to work with our superintendent more and we chose not to. So, I’m very disappointed.”

For his part, Dean can’t talk about the reason he’s leaving — this was discussed during the closed-door session with the board Aug. 23.

Dean did, however, send out an emailed statement to parents and others in the district Aug. 23 that reads, in part: “I am writing to you to share that I have made the difficult decision to retire. … This place will always be the highlight of my professional career. … I will always be grateful for our GPPSS teachers and administrators. They have made this place special for me and my children and will continue to make this a special place for all our students.”

A statement issued by Ismail Aug. 23 reads, in part: “On behalf of the Grosse Pointe Public School System Board of Education, I want to extend our sincere appreciation for his dedicated service. Dr. Dean has been an instrumental force in steering our school system towards academic excellence, innovation, and a student-centric approach to education. His commitment to the betterment of our school system has been unwavering.”

The board also voted to name Christian Fenton, the district’s retired deputy superintendent for business and operations, as the interim superintendent starting Sept. 1. As Ismail noted, Fenton is “a logical candidate” because he still lives in the district — he’s a Grosse pointe Woods resident — and “knows the system,” as well as its finances. The vote was again split, with Ismail, Cotton, Jeup and Papas voting in favor of the agreement with Fenton, while Worden and St. John voted against it.

“I think we would be very lucky to have Chris Fenton,” Papas said. “There’s nobody we could get on a moment’s notice with that much institutional knowledge. … We need to have somebody on the ground (as superintendent) Sept. 1 — that’s state law.”

Papas also called Fenton “a gentleman, a kind man” and someone who “puts students first.”

In an email to Ismail dated Aug. 23, Fenton wrote, “I am committed to assisting the Board in its’ search for a qualified and visionary leader for the District. I have been intricately involved in two previous superintendent searches including meeting with staff and community members to gain their input. An objective would be to work closely with the Board to provide steadfast leadership that ensures the effective functioning of the District while the search for a permanent superintendent takes place.”

Fenton said in his email that he would step down from his roles as a Full Circle Foundation board member and Grosse Pointe Woods Planning Commission member if named the interim superintendent.

Fenton is himself a former student of the district, and he worked as an administrator for more than 37 years.

Worden said she wasn’t opposed to Fenton — who she called “a great guy” — but the process, which she alleged took place behind closed doors and without input from everyone on the board or from the community.

St. John agreed.

“My issue is with the process … and that you chose to communicate (only) with certain board members,” St. John told Ismail.

Ismail said the topic of a possible interim superintendent came up when he was out with Brumbaugh and Cotton. He said he didn’t consider naming any internal candidates as interim superintendent, which he said would be too disruptive to the district if, for example, they pulled a principal from one of the schools.

Despite the presence of more than a dozen residents, who waited through the closed session to reenter the meeting, the school board didn’t allow another session of public comment after the votes took place. Worden had moved in favor of allowing the public to speak again at the end of the meeting and St. John seconded her motion, but Cotton, Jeup and Papas voted against it. Ismail didn’t vote on the public comment question.

Residents who spoke in the meeting’s only public comment period, before any board votes and before the closed session, expressed dismay with the board.

“I am very concerned,” said Maria Simon, of Grosse Pointe Farms, who has grandchildren in the GPPSS. “Our students are starting school in less than two weeks, our staff less than one, and it sounds like we have no secondary curriculum director, no communications department at all, no finance director, no interim director for student services because there was no qualified candidate for this critical position, and now, rumor has it, no superintendent. … Losing all your top leadership and so many experienced teachers is such a big loss, and I know it will impact our staff and our students. And it is your fault. Your chaos is hurting our community and our kids.”

The district lost more than 50 teachers over the summer as contract talks dragged on and teachers accepted positions elsewhere. In addition, the district has seen the recent departures of Deputy Superintendent for Business and Finance Amanda Matheson; Director of Secondary Instruction Dan Hartley; Community Relations Specialist Rebecca Fannon, the sole remaining member of the communications department after budget cuts that took effect this summer; and Director of Student Services Stephanie Hayes, who oversaw special education. Remaining administrators include Deputy Superintendent for Educational Services Roy Bishop, Director of Elementary Instruction Keith Howell, Director of Instructional Technology Chris Stanley and Director of Human Resources Nicole Pilgrim.

“If we don’t have strong educators, if we don’t have expert administrators and staff who have the knowledge, who have the passion, who have the institutional knowledge to keep our schools strong, then we all lose,” said LaKeytria Felder, of Grosse Pointe Park.

Park resident Daniel Verlinde fought tears as he voiced his anger and frustration.

“I moved my family here right after we got married 20 years ago for the school district,” Verlinde said Aug. 23. “And I spent this afternoon with my wife looking for other districts. What’s happening here is not a local story or a regional story — it’s a national story. … This has to stop, and I will not stop until it stops. All of you guys, it’s on your heads. It’s your responsibility. You need to turn it around now or it’s going to be a national story. I know what’s happening. Everybody I talk to is leaving this district because of you.”