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Wednesday, September 21,2011

Who is Shirley Rodgers?

Controversial board leader says she has no plans to resign

by Nyssa Rabinowitz



As president of the Lansing Board of
Education and chairwoman of the Ingham County Board of Road
Commissioners, Shirley Rodgers is no stranger to tough times and hard
decisions.


The focus of two organizational
controversies this year, Rodgers knows some of her views may rub people
the wrong way, but it’s a price she says she is willing to pay to stand
up for her beliefs.


“It’s tough, I’m not going to lie and
say it’s not,” Rodgers said in a three-hour interview Sunday afternoon.
“You don’t like being the center of all this scrutiny, but you know
that it comes with the territory and if you’re going to take very
strong positions on some issues, you know you’re going to meet
resistance.” 


The commissioners of the five-member
Road Commission board are appointed by the Ingham County commissioners.
The board’s job is to set policy and oversee the Road Commission, which
is in charge of over 1,200 miles of local roads and has full-time staff
of nearly 70 employees.


In February, the Road Commission at the
behest of four Republican Ingham County commissioners hired a local
consultant, Michael Goree, CEO of Growth Strategies Consulting Inc., to
investigate claims of racial bias by employees at the Road Commission.
The Road Commission paid $11,800 for the study and report. After
interviewing nearly all of the organization’s employees, Goree
concluded that there were severe trust issues between employees and
management positions. Employees also identified Rodgers as someone who
micro-managed, the report said.


Budget negotiations at the Lansing
School District also drew scrutiny as Rodgers supported a number of
unpopular cost-saving measures, including firing two administrators,
cutting the remaining administrator’s salary by 10 percent, increasing
out-of-pocket health care costs and shortening the superintendent’s
contract by one year.


Despite the scrutiny and calls to resign, Rodgers said she has no intention of stepping down from either position.


In an interview on Sunday afternoon at
the Great Lakes Chocolate & Coffee Co. in downtown, Rodgers spoke
about the views that have guided her decision-making. The interview,
originally scheduled for one hour, lasted almost three as she gradually
began to share stories about the organizations and herself.


Rodgers, 62, attended Michigan State
University starting in 1966 intending to major in education. She did
not fulfill her degree requirements after four years and took time off
to work when her parents would not pay for additional schooling. She
was hired by the Lansing School District in 1972, where she worked in a
number of different positions for about 30 years before retiring. She
went back to school in 1982 while she worked and graduated with a
degree in humanities in 1984.


Growing up during the civil rights era
created a strong sense of fairness in Rodgers. She is a firm believer
of leading by example, being open to all ideas and listening to
everyone, she said. Because of this, she questions how organizations
function to ensure that policies are fair and equal to all, she said.


“I think those are legitimate questions for a board member to ask,” Rodgers said.


Rodgers said she feels “obligated” to
ask questions on issues of hiring or advancement. While some may see
her questions as micro-managing, Rodgers said they allow her to see if
a policy set by the board is being implemented, which is within her
role as a commissioner.


“For me, micro-managing is going into
the building, sitting down in the director’s office, what are you doing
today and what is this — and I’ve never done that,” she said.


County Commissioner Don Vickers, who
requested the report, disagrees and thinks Rodgers’ actions contributed
to the lack of trust within the Road Commission. He and Commissioner
Vince Dragonetti, both Republicans, are calling for Rodgers’
resignation. Rodgers is a Democrat.


“You don’t circumvent the person in
charge and take matters into your own hands,” Vickers said. “I really
really believe that Shirley has overstepped her bounds at this time.”


Board members who serve with Rodgers said she is dedicated to her job and it would be a mistake for her to resign.


“I’ve known her for a lot of years, and
she is someone who has a very high standard of ethics and believes
everyone else should have them too,” Board of Education Secretary Myra
Ford said. “I understand why some people take issue with some of the
things she does because she’s not an apologist … and I think people
find that offensive.”


Ford said Rodgers’ matter-of-fact nature
offended initially, but after working with her, she has come to respect
Rodgers’ convictions.


Milton Scales, who serves with Rodgers
on the Road Commission, said he has seen nothing in Rodgers’ actions to
support the report’s findings.


“She knows what her job is,” Scales
said. “She sets the agenda and she runs the meetings. She doesn’t
interfere and allows the board members to discuss and debate the
issues. She holds her opinion until last so that her opinion does not
sway any board members. That’s a good chairperson.”


When Lansing School District
administrators suggesting cutting employee pay by 10 percent and
raising health insurance co-pays, Rodgers’ first question was if those
same administrators would be willing to take those cuts themselves.


“I think it’s fair that if you make
those kinds of recommendations about other employees in the district,
well, you be the first one to step up to the plate,” she added. “That’s
just how I think.”


Rodgers said her feelings about
individual employees within the district could not overshadow her
“larger responsibility for the students and the community,” and the
same principals applied at the Road Commission.


“I am advocating for policies and procedures that stand
the test of fairness for everyone,” she said. “Somebody has to be
willing to step up and try to do the job, and somehow … I find myself
struggling to say no.”



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