Column: Honor the teacherSAN DIEGO — In my line of work, I’ve met individuals who are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And yet the richest man I know is an educator and public servant.
By: Ruben Navarrette, Worthington Daily Globe
SAN DIEGO — In my line of work, I’ve met individuals who are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And yet the richest man I know is an educator and public servant.
I’ve known Larry Powell for 27 years. Back then, I was an inquisitive high school senior who couldn’t wait to run away from home, and Larry was my government teacher.
Having spent his entire career in our native Central California, Larry climbed the educational ladder from teacher to principal to deputy superintendent to Fresno County school superintendent. He supervises 325 schools and 35 school districts serving about 195,000 students.
Now, thanks to a heroic and heartwarming gesture, the 63-year-old educator has become a national celebrity. It’s a role that my friend never sought and probably detests.
It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the 2,000 emails he has received and the 5,000 messages on Facebook. He does. Powell especially liked the note he got from a senior at a local school, telling him he had restored the student’s “confidence in elected officials.” And it must be nice to get a phone call from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who thanked Powell and, in a statement, called his leadership an “absolute inspiration.”
Still, even before I got my friend on the phone, I could have guessed that he was uncomfortable with the attention. Powell would prefer that the focus not be on him and what he’s giving up but rather on the schools he serves and what they’ll be able to do with the retirement present that he is giving them.
Larry is returning $288,241 in salary and benefits for the remaining three and a half years of his term. He retired — for one day — and then came back to work for about $31,000 a year with no benefits. And, he has also said he plans to donate the new lower salary to charity.
Total savings for the schools: about $830,000 that Larry plans to steer to programs he cares about — anti-bullying campaigns, the arts and preschool — to make them bullet proof to budget cuts. The money will help save between eight to 15 jobs, he estimates, while creating another dozen.
Total cost for my friend: $200,000 over the next three and a half years plus another $120,000 for the salary he’s donating. And, because technically he retired early without finishing his term, he’ll give up another $28,000 per year in pension benefits every year of his retirement.
That’s quite a hefty tab. Now you know why you don’t hear stories like this very often.
Most people in this country treat life like a board game where the objective is to grab as much wealth as possible — and then spend it all. This is the message programmed into us by Madison Avenue and television commercials urging us to buy that brand new car whether we can afford it or not. After all, we deserve it.
The giveaway also represents a sacrifice for Larry. But good luck convincing him of that. The way he sees it, this is just a natural expression of the Christian values by which he has lived his life.
“My faith is the basis for this,” he told me. “I don’t judge people, because one day I’ll be judged. But I try to give encouragement to others to do what they can. You don’t have to be wealthy to make a positive impact in people’s lives.”
Besides, he said, he and his wife have sufficient retirement funds. They have a grown daughter who is out of college and on her own. No need to stash away more money.
“It’s OK to enjoy bountiful benefits and resources,” he said. “But you have to learn what goes along with that. What are you doing with those resources to help people?”
Always the teacher, Larry has one last lesson to share. And it’s an important one.
“Money does not lead to happiness,” he said. “Are you healthy? Are your kids doing well? That’s what really matters. What’s your legacy going to be?”
Take it from me. Larry Powell’s legacy is secure. This is a good man who did a remarkable thing that is, ironically, for those of us who know and respect him, not all that remarkable.
Ruben Navarrette’s e-mail address is email@example.com.