As a school district superintendent and a junior and high school principal, Dr. David Harnish had a lot on his plate. But when the summer vacation came along, he didn’t spend his time off relaxing. On the contrary: Harnish instead worked 90-hour weeks in order to achieve something incredible.
In 2014 Harnish had moved to the Martin Public Schools district with his wife, Kelley, after he had landed the job of superintendent and high school principal there. He had previously worked for 11 years as a curriculum director and principal of the state’s New Lothrop Area Public Schools.
The experienced educator had also accepted a $100,000-a-year salary and signed a contract binding him to three years in his new positions. He asked for the added responsibility of being the junior high principal, too. And at the time, Harnish revealed his excitement at getting started and having the opportunity to make a difference.
Harnish said in a statement, “I’m really looking forward to being an active participant in the community. The demographics of the area are very similar to where I grew up – a rural community and small school where everyone knows one another.” He added, “This is my golden opportunity to use my education and take my career to the next level.”
By the time that school was finishing up for summer 2018, then, Harnish had worked for Martin Public Schools for almost four years. And in that time, he had made changes. He had given the part-time woodwork teacher a permanent position, for example; he had also proposed a complete re-evaluation of the syllabus.
But what the principal did during that summer also made an impact. The Martin schools had not been renovated in a long time – since 2001, in fact. As a result, they all desperately needed a fresh coat of paint.
However, it was going to cost an estimated $150,000 to hire professionals to complete the job – which, of course, is a substantial amount of money. “That’s about three teachers’ salaries,” Harnish told Michigan’s WWMT in August 2018. “We’re a 625-student district, so $150,000 really is significant.”
And the superintendent didn’t think that shelling out so much cash was a good use of the district’s resources. “That $150,000 would have taken away from [the] kids or the potential for us to take care of our staff,” Harnish explained to Fox17 in Michigan. So, the hardworking principal came up with an unusual solution.
As it turns out, an $18-million bond was passed to provide the district with new facilities, including an auditorium and gym. However, the buildings needed new paintwork to match. And Harnish wanted to prove to his employees that he wouldn’t expect them to complete a task that he wasn’t willing to take on himself. As a consequence, then, he decided to paint the schools himself over the summer break.
Naturally, though, the renovations weren’t quick to complete, and so Harnish worked long, grueling hours to get the job done. “It’s been pretty much seven days a week,” he revealed to WWMT. “Between cleaning and painting, it’s been about 90 hours a week.”
Harnish clearly worked hard over the summer, putting in the effort and hours. And when he was finished, each and every classroom and all of the hallways for every grade within the district had been repainted. “I’m a servant leader. I think that’s important,” the principal told WWMT.
But the superintendent wasn’t doing it alone. He worked with part-time laborers as well as students that were still in school and some recent graduates. “It’s neat to be able to give these seniors [the] opportunity to do some summer work, too,” Harnish explained to Fox17.
And although the whole undertaking has been a huge one for Harnish, he simply wanted to do what was best for his students. “This was a way to save the district money and to make sure that it doesn’t take away from children,” he revealed to WWMT. Furthermore, one of the teenagers working with Harnish was happy to see the principal being so practical.
Austin Marsman, who graduated from Martin Public Schools in 2018, was one of the team that had helped with the painting, and he expressed his appreciation at seeing the superintendent getting his hands dirty. “It’s really encouraging. You think of your leadership everywhere, and you think they’re so distant,” he told WWMT. Marsman added that a lot had changed in school since he was younger thanks to Harnish.
The high school graduate continued, “I can remember as an elementary kid being like, ‘Oh that’s the principal, the superintendent.’ Now it’s like, our superintendent’s there alongside us putting in the effort to build a relationship. It’s been a really good experience.”
And Harnish went all out to prove anyone that didn’t believe he’d complete the mammoth task wrong. Members of the community were even encouraged to go and see the finished paint job – as well as the other new facilities – before school started again. A ribbon-cutting ceremony also took place in August 2018.
What’s more, Harnish hopes that all the students involved in the project will remember this for years to come. “As a Martin alumnus, they’ll come back and say, ‘Listen, I was part of that year when we painted the entire facility [and] saved money for the kids, for the school [and] for the community. And we made a difference,’” he said.
And after Harnish’s story made its way online and to the local news, his commitment to the schools blew people away. “Thank you for setting a fine example for teachers, staff and students of what dedication and sacrifice look like! May he inspire others!” Diana Wiltse Yope shared on Facebook.
However, some claimed that while Harnish is indeed an inspiration, his efforts prove that education needs more government funding. “This is an awesome story, and the district should be very proud to have him as their superintendent. But it’s sad that he had to spend his summer doing something that the government should be doing,” Nickolas Futrell commented.
Yet while Harnish’s dedication to making his school district a better place has impressed many people, the humble principal has insisted that it was simply his way of seeing the project through to completion. Indeed, he later told Fox17 that if he hadn’t taken the initiative himself, he “would have been retired by the time [the painting] got done.”