GRPS supt. agreed to all-expenses-paid trip to support DeVos

School district released emails outlining superintendent's planned trip

Grand Rapids Public Schools, Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neall
Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal. (file)


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal recently broke from the education crowd when she supported President Donald Trump’s nomination of West Michigan philanthropist and activist Betsy DeVos for secretary of education.

Now, emails and correspondence obtained by Target 8 show how far the superintendent planned to go to show her support.

The correspondence shows plans for a trip to DeVos’ confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., paid for by DeVos’ nonprofit, American Federation for Children. It also included “talking points” provided by the organization.

The leader of the GRPS teachers union said the emails and correspondence raise questions about whether the superintendent is too closely tied to DeVos.

“It’s just another example of Betsy DeVos using her money to get what she wants because I’m sure it would have been real nice to have a superintendent sitting behind her at the confirmation hearing,” Grand Rapids Education Association President Mary Bouwense said.

Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos arrives before testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos arrives before testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

At Target 8’s request, GRPS released correspondence to and from the superintendent’s office about DeVos’s nomination. The documents start with a letter from the superintendent to DeVos, congratulating her.

“If there is ever anything I can do for you, do not hesitate to call me,” Weatherall Neal wrote.

Weatherall Neal refused to comment on Thursday, but praised the selection in an earlier interview.

“I thought she’d be a great pick,” she said. “She’s knowledgeable about education; she’s concerned about children. She’s been a great supporter of mine and the Grand Rapids Public Schools.”

“This is a great win for children,” she added.

TRIP DETAILS AND TALKING POINTS

DeVos’ American Federation for Children took the superintendent up on her offer, offering to send Weatherall Neal and her spokesman, John Helmholdt, to D.C. — all expenses paid — for the Jan. 11 confirmation hearing.

“Thank you for agreeing to attend Secretary of Education-designate Betsy DeVos’s hearing,” the federation wrote to the superintendent.

The email included a background summary of DeVos, her experience and “responses to some of the more outrageous attacks on Betsy’s record.”

“Each of Betsy’s guests have a unique perspective and relationship and we want to share that with the press. Don’t worry or stress, just tell your story, how you know Betsy and why you (think) she’s qualified to serve as Secretary of Education,” the email read.

The American Federation for Children planned to put them up at the Courtyard Marriott in DC. It was not clear how much the trip would have cost.

“We also ask that you be willing to give media interviews supporting her nomination following the hearing,” the federation wrote in an email to Weatherall Neal.

They told her where she and other guests would sit at the confirmation hearing — behind DeVos — and gave them talking points, including that DeVos was a “fearless champion for students.”

And, if they were stumped by a reporter’s question, they were told to say this:

“I’m proud and honored to be a guest of Secretary of Education-designate DeVos and confident she’ll be an effective, compassionate and innovative Secretary of Education.”

After the hearing and media interviews, the superintendent and other guests were invited to join Betsy and Dick DeVos for lunch at the Charlie Palmer Steakhouse in Washington.

But the trip never happened because the hearing was postponed. The superintendent couldn’t make it to the rescheduled hearing.

UNION QUESTIONS DEVOS, LEGALITY OF TRIP

Across the country, public school educators have criticized the nomination, mostly over DeVos’ support of charter and private schools.

“I think that somebody who’s in charge of education in the country ought to have some experience with education,” Bouwense said.

The Grand Rapids teachers union leader said she is trying to determine if the trip would have been legal. She said she was not surprised by the superintendent’s support.

“Disappointed, but not terribly shocked because we knew there was some connections in there,” Bouwense said.

Weatherall Neal hasn’t hidden the fact that Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick DeVos, paid for a management coach when she started as superintendent five years ago — a $67,000 tab.

GRPS SPOKESMAN: NO CONFLICT

Helmholdt, the school spokesman, said the trip would have been legal. He said the superintendent planned to use vacation time.

“She was honored for the invitation but really sensitive to ensure that no taxpayer dollars were being used for the travel or for her time there,” he said.

The trip, Weatherall Neal said, would not have made her “beholden” to DeVos.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “It was simply a means by which they were going to cover the cost of the travel to ensure there would not be taxpayer dollars involved or Teresa’s district time. It’s nothing more, nothing less.”

A Senate committee is expected to vote on DeVos’ nomination on Tuesday. She is expected to be confirmed.