Detroit Leader Says District is the Problem, Not School Staff

By Christina A. Samuels — June 29, 2011 3 min read
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Roy Roberts, the emergency financial manager for Detroit schools, says he wants to get the dysfunctional Detroit central office out of the way of teachers and principals who have innovative ways of reaching students.

In a conversation last week, he explained that this belief is one of the reasons he supports the state’s creation of a new authority that will oversee the lowest-performing schools in the 73,000-student district, and will eventually oversee the low performing schools in the entire state.

The Educational Achievement System, which would be running by the 2012-13 school year, will allow schools the autonomy they need, he believes.

Roberts has no worries that years of dysfunction might make it difficult for schools to attract and keep talented leaders and principals. “Principals, teachers—we’re not failing because of those people,” he said. Detroit has had a revolving door of district leaders, he noted. “The HR [human resources] system is broken, the financial system is broken, we have major problems.”

Roberts, a former executive with General Motors who was appointed to the emergency financial manager position in May, made the announcement of the special district June 20. Three days later, he released a proposed 2011-12 budget that he said would eliminate more than $200 million in expenses and 853 jobs. The system, which is facing a shortfall of about $327 million, would sell bonds to refinance part of its debt, he said.

The idea of a “system of schools” within the larger school district was presented to him early in his tenure by Gov. Rick Snyder, Roberts said.

“He dropped all of that in my lap and said, ‘Directionally, I like this, but you’ve got to take this and you’ve got to own it. Do what you think is right,’ ” Roberts said.

The final result, if successful, will look like this: A leaner Detroit Public school district, under the leadership of a chief academic officer, will oversee schools in Detroit that are not the lowest performers. The Educational Achievement System, led by a separate chancellor, will serve as a sort of intensive care model for schools that need the most help, he said.

Earlier this year, Detroit announced that about 40 schools were going to be turned over to charter organizers to manage. “We slowed it down this year,” Roberts said in the interview. In a Detroit Free Press article, he said that plan was too aggressive, but that schools will still be considered for chartering.

Detroit leaders are also planning to raise money from philanthropic and business organizations to offer two years of college to every graduate. Roberts says he hopes to bump that up soon to four years, similar to the “Kalamazoo Promise” offered to graduates of that school district 150 miles west of Detroit.

Early reports suggested that about 39 schools would be a part of the Educational Achievement System, but Roberts says now that the numbers might change. He wants to see if some schools improve their performance over the next year, while the new operating authority is in the planning stages.

“What I don’t want to do is make people dysfunctional,” he said. “I want people to do their very best job they can.”

And, though Education Secretary Arne Duncan supported the move by joining in by remote video for the announcement of the operating authority, Roberts said he’s not expecting any extra help from Washington getting the program off the ground.

“There is no commitment, and this plan is not based on anything they would do. Arne can help us facilitate, but I don’t believe he can solve our problems,” Roberts said.

Photo credit: Carlos Osorio/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.