Mike Hartigan was hoping that the Naked Gardener controversy would just quietly fade away. Instead the story was picked up by the Detroit Free Press and was then picked up across the country.
Almost all of the people looking at my blog yesterday got here from web searches on Leland+naked+gardener. So here is a little background on the story.
First of all, Leland Public School is a great school. My oldest daughter, Shelagh, graduated from Leland this year (read her Valedictorian Speech here). Liz, my second daughter will graduate next year and Anna will start 4th grade. It is a small school, about 450 students total in grades K-12. Shelagh's graduating class was 28 kids. The school staff has very little turnover, in fact Mike Hartigan was the principal when Shelagh started kindergarten, and most of Anna's teachers were also Shelagh and Liz's teachers ten years before.
In a typical high school there are a handful of kids trying to claw their way to the top of the class. At Leland I see the kids at the top of the class constantly reaching down to pull the others up. This goes all the way back to 5th and 6th grade, where the kids are taught about learning styles and study strategies, strategies that were originally developed for the "learning disabled", but that can make studying more efficient for everyone. In middle school there were tons of group projects. These were sometimes much more work that just doing it alone, but the kids learned, eventually, how to work with other people, even the ones you don't really like. Not only does the school produce some stellar scholars, exceptional school-wide scores on standardized tests, but we have had a 0% dropout rate for many years.
But Leland Public School is in Michigan, and Michigan is starving its public schools. In 1992, Michigan voters agreed via Proposal A to move from local property tax based school funding to a system where portions of the state's income tax, property taxes, and a 2% hike in the state sales tax would be earmarked for the state's school aid fund, the source of all public schools' operating budgets. The system worked for a while, but as a tax-cutting fervor overtook the state government in the late 1990s, the underpinnings of the new school funding plan were seriously eroded.
Thanks to our amazing community support, Leland School has been able to largely insulate our student population from the effects of rising costs and inadequate state funding. But insulating the kids also means insulating the parents. I first wrote of this during our regional Odyssey of the Mind competition. As dry as school funding reading is, it is just as important, if not more so, than showing up at every school event to cheer our kids on.
I found our state legislators, the people who are actually responsible for making sure our schools are funded, to be just as oblivious. My first letter to my State Senator Michelle McManus went unacknowledged, as did a phone message that I left on her answering machine. My second letter also went unanswered until I confronted her at the 4th of July parade, where she was scheduled to march directly behind the "Naked Gardener" float. Finally I got a response, but it is a far cry from the commitment to action that I was hoping for.
Meanwhile the Naked Gardener Calendar had been featured on the front page of the Leelanau Enterprise, the first time most of us had heard of it. It turns out that nude calendars are a popular (and lucrative) fundraiser across the US and in England. The controversy around our calendar is centered on Mike Hartigan, our school superintendent, even though a current school board member and two former school board members also posed.
There have been a lot of letters to the editor about the calendar and a heated online discussion. The whole thing has been an eye opener for kids like my Shelagh, who attends church of her own volition and had never understood the reason for the separation of church and state. She had never before seen the ugly side of the vocal minority attempting to impose their narrow view of morality on rest of us.
It was the students who were most fervent in their support of Mr. Hartigan. They respect him as a good and honorable man, and they have a new respect for his humility and sense of humor. As uncomfortable as most teenagers are with their bodies, posing naked is a feat that they are in awe of. Taking the flak without complaint is also awesome. But the teens don't understand a good deal of the ruckus. They say: "It's only pornography if someone likes looking at it."