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Ten-Term Board Member: Never Underestimate the Power of a Committed School Board

Larry Kutella

By Hilary “Larry” Kutella

DashBoard, Jan. 17, 2018

Fitzgerald’s Hilary ‘Larry’ Kutella tells board members to aim high and never give up

In 1971, my wife and I were raising our young family in south Warren during turbulent times. In those days, tensions were high as several southeast Michigan school districts participated in a court-mandated busing integration plan.

As a concerned parent, I started attending Fitzgerald Public Schools Board of Education meetings. Like any young upstart, I concluded I could do better than the people on the board, so I ran and I won.

That was the easy part.

Once on the board, I learned what every effective board member must learn—board service takes hard work, a humble willingness to learn, thick skin, a tender heart and the ability to put your own agenda aside so you can truly serve all children.

Those core lessons remain as true today as they were in the early 1970s. Over my 44 years of board service, I saw that well-trained boards make a difference for every child in Michigan.

But be warned—a deep commitment to all children may require you to put yourself on the line.

In 1980, our board believed that the state was not funding special education at the levels required by the state Constitution. The school district couldn’t initiate a lawsuit unless individuals who lived in the school district were also willing to be plaintiffs. Consequently, all seven of us on the board became plaintiffs—and we would have been responsible for the legal bill if we had lost.

That initial lawsuit eventually became known statewide as Durant v. State of Michigan, with Durant being Donald Durant, our board president. That lawsuit changed history. After 17 grueling years, we and the 83 other school districts that eventually joined us prevailed, and nearly $850 million was disbursed to every school district in the state for special education costs. The settlement also established a minimum requirement for state special education funding that exists to this day.

We did the right thing and every child in Michigan benefited. We did it every year that we decided to continue the lawsuit, even if the legal bill meant fewer textbooks for our own students. We also initiated two more similar lawsuits that also won funding for Michigan children with settlements reached in 2007 and 2013.

We also led the way on pilot initiatives that spread statewide. These included pushing our administrators to be early adopters of data-driven instructional improvements before it was the standard and public-private partnerships to develop in-house career technical programs before it was the latest trend. We pushed for innovations through steep recessions and relentless competition for students. We did it even though we are a small school district surrounded by the largest districts in the state.

We were equipped to lead with vision because our board was committed to Michigan Association of School Boards’ training and sound governance standards. Our commitment to good governance inspired community trust and support. Without that trust, we would not have gained voter support for numerous facility improvements and the construction of our automotive and pre-engineering campus. We also would not have secured a sinking fund to maintain our facilities.

If a 2,600-student district like Fitzgerald can do it, think of what your own board can achieve through training, commitment and persistence.

I can boil down my 44 years of service to these key principles:

  • Don’t doubt what you can accomplish.
  • Keep children at the forefront of your mind and dig in.
  • Serve with kindness and generosity.
  • Hold your board to high standards.
  • Have the courage to put yourself on the line.

And don’t ever give up. 

Hilary “Larry” Kutella served 10 terms for a total of 44 years on the Fitzgerald Public Schools Board of Education, retiring in December 2016. He served through court-ordered busing integration policies of the 1970s, the 17-year-long Durant lawsuit against the state, several building and technology campaigns, the turnaround of a priority high school, and the creation of the district’s automotive and pre-engineering campus. He served several years on the MASB Board of Directors and several years as a Legislative Liaison for the Macomb County School Board Association. His MASB transcript is six pages long, and he earned the MASB President’s Level 7 Award of Recognition.

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