Perhaps longevity allowed Mike Bunitsky to challenge decisions of the 14 bosses he had as a Frederick County Public Schools administrator. As a believer in government and civic engagement, though, he also considered speaking out an inherent right.
After decades of carrying out education policy set by others, Bunitsky now wants to help make policy. He’s seeking one of three open seats on the Frederick County Board of Education.
“I’ve been listening for 40 years. I’ve been implementing regulation for 21 years that other people have made,” Bunitsky said. “I want to make those decisions. I want to be part of the voice for teachers and kids.”
Parents and the greater community recognize Bunitsky, and not just for his mane of silvery white hair, most of which he sliced off last year and donated to Locks of Love. He’s not merely an enduring presence in the school system where he has worked in since the 1980s. People know him as a guide and mentor for many more students than educators usually have.
Bunitsky exceeded his job description as a curriculum specialist for social studies classes, willingly heaping onto his plate the coordination of countywide student government, mock trial and model United Nations.
Never did he view those tasks as a burden, despite not always being compensated for large chunks of his time. He asked, rhetorically, in a recent interview: How could he turn down opportunities that afford students a voice?
Bunitsky’s parents were first-generation Americans with little schooling. His mother’s family came from Sicily. His father’s side of the family was from Belarus.
His mother dropped out at age 12 to support her family, and his father graduated from high school, with a year of junior college.
His father was a police officer who kept a loaded .38 Special on a stand at the bottom of the stairs in their home. Bunitsky shot that gun at age 5. His father taught him that guns were tools, but deliberately withheld a warning about the gun’s kickback when Bunitsky was first allowed to fire the weapon.
Bunitsky said his father believed in “learning through experience.”
His parents firmly expected that Bunitsky and his four siblings would enter college. They did, with a majority earning degrees beyond a master’s.
Growing up, Bunitsky internalized many of his father’s talks about policing and shifts in law enforcement.
His uncle was also a cop. So were his father’s best friends, who were so intertwined with the family, Bunitsky also thought of them as uncles.
Bunitsky listened as these men discussed the influence of the Miranda warning that outlined rights for criminal suspects, at a time when the related Supreme Court decision was relatively new. He listened when they talked about appropriate use of force and relations between whites and blacks, topics that remain relevant today.
He clashed with his father, even at age 9, about the Kennedy and Nixon presidencies, including the Vietnam War. Both Bunitsky and his father were happy that Bunitsky wasn’t among those drafted.
Being inserted deep into these discussions and arguments piqued Bunitsky’s interest of politics, First Amendment rights, debating and world affairs, a long-lasting passion that remained as he entered school and found his love for talking and teaching.
Training and first job
As Bunitsky pursued a bachelor’s degree at University of Maryland, College Park, in the 1970s, his first stamping ground, as a student teacher, was Wilde Lake High School in Howard County. It was a school building constructed with no walls separating classrooms — one vast space where hundreds of students would all congregate for separate lessons.
No chalkboards were mounted on the walls, no desks were arranged tidily in rows. There, Bunitsky learned how to command a class.
A typical classroom setup is somewhat militaristic, Bunitsky said. An open-space style, as it was called, requires teachers to gain students’ respect, and vice versa.
“I learned in that situation just how important your physical presence is, your body language, your ability to address kids and get kids to respect your desires. ... It has to be mutual. You have to treat kids with respect to get it back from them,” Bunitsky said.
Post-graduation, Bunitsky was hired as a teacher in 1975 in Prince George’s County, at a school in Palmer Park, a majority black neighborhood.
The difficult job was a lesson in race relations for Bunitsky, who needed to adjust to cultural nuances. He needed to learn how it felt for the sole white student in a classroom of 18 to 20 black students.
He had to understand that for some families, the grandmother was a matriarch and is the one to talk with him instead of a parent.
Rarely did Bunitsky teach all his students together. He split his classes into smaller reading groups, observed and listened in. He picked up where students had been the night before, if their parents were living at home, if students teased others about their clothes.
At his next teaching job, at Gov. Thomas Johnson High School, race relations were not so obvious, but evident just below the surface, Bunitsky said.
After Prince George’s County, TJ High “felt like a private school,” still with an eclectic and diverse mix of students, Bunitsky said. He remained at TJ until the mid-1990s, when he took a promotion as a curriculum specialist.
Bunitsky retired in February to pursue a board seat — a four-year term with an annual $10,000 stipend.
As an administrator, Bunitsky pledged never to lose perspective of classroom teachers, even when a supervisor was out of touch.
Bunitsky’s philosophy on board service and his professional style is textbook democratic. He always tries to listen to the other party, even if he disagrees, and he learns through debate, he said.
In recent months, with his retirement, Bunitsky has become a constant presence at school board meetings, diligently typing notes into the night and offering opinions on board policy during public comment periods. He has persisted, too, advocating for a vote for the student member of the school board, a personal priority that began long before his exit from the school district.
Bunitsky said he privately approached seated board members about the student vote. Several months ago, board members approved supporting that vote, a change that requires legislation by the General Assembly.
Though not wealthy, Bunitsky has continued traveling and enjoys skiing. He’s particularly fond of a mountain in New Mexico, where people stay about 8,000 feet up and zoom down a slope from 13,000 feet, he said.
He lives in downtown Frederick with his second wife, who is a pastor and therapist.
His first wife ended her life in 1999, Bunitsky said in an interview. His youngest son was 11.
He explained the tragedy frankly. He loved his wife. She was an alcoholic and an addict who developed multiple sclerosis. The illness affected her mental acuity. She died by suicide after multiple attempts.
His wife’s story and those of students he has encountered make him sensitive to the county’s drug problem, and the need to address it, particularly among students. Bunitsky recalled a recent TED Talk, in which speakers espoused the idea that the country treats addiction as a character flaw, rather than a mental illness.
“I have my wife to be a sounding board for me, that allows me to keep an even keel in life,” he said. “I’m a very blessed man.
“I never thought I would have the opportunity to fall in love again. I’m really lucky to have had that. I think that has given me the opportunity to be in a position to run for this office, and I can look forward to a real, steady life.”