Detroit’s Emergency Manager Will Step Down

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — May 02, 2013 3 min read
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Roy Roberts, the emergency manager of the 50,000-student public school system in Detroit, will step down from his position on May 16. Roberts, who is 74, is retiring after two years in the position.

In a letter to the school district’s staff, Roberts says that the responsibilities of William Aldridge, the district’s chief financial officer, will be expanded to include top administrative duties. Aldridge has held multiple positions in the Detroit public schools. Roberts’ successor will be appointed by the state.

“I have made a recommendation to Governor [Rick] Snyder, but it is clearly his decision,” Roberts writes.

Both Roberts and the governor said that while the district faces challenges, it is improving. Roberts says his two years as emergency manager have been the most rewarding of his career.

Roberts was appointed in May 2011. He succeeded Robert Bobb as state-appointed emergency manager. He was an executive in several automobile companies before coming to Detroit’s school system.

In a video statement, Gov. Snyder gives no hints as to who might be the next emergency manager, but says he is focusing on continuity and stability for the districts and hopes to have someone in place as soon as possible. “We’re going to have a great school system in Detroit and have success with wonderful students,” Snyder said.

Roberts’ authority as emergency manager was just restored in March: He had been the district’s emergency financial manager for much of this school year while one state law involving emergency managers was dismantled and then another one was put in place.

Along with his letter to employees, Roberts released a progress report on his tenure as emergency manager.

He cites several financial and academic accomplishments, including an improved graduation rate and a reduction in the district’s deficit from $327 million to about $72 million. He says that the district still needs to improve student achievement, attendance, policies, and procedures—and “customer service at all touch points.”

In a recent meeting, according to district spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski, officials from the Michigan state department of education indicated that the district would soon come out of its “high-risk” status due to “across-the-board improvement.” The status has not yet been lifted. The district had been deemed high-risk about five years ago due to financial mismanagement and poor academic performance.

Roberts’ contract would have expired on the 16th, Zdrodowski said.

The report Roberts released lays out his initial goals as emergency manager:

  • Fix an ineffective and inefficient school system in order to properly educate students;
  • Eliminate a crippling deficit; and
  • Make a difference in the lives of Detroit’s school children.

But the Detroit Free Press is also reporting that Roberts apparently told a closed meeting of union and school board members that his instructions upon appointment had been to “blow up” the school district. From the Free Press:

When he said, 'I'm stepping down,' all of our mouths just dropped," [said Keith Johnson, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers]. "I can't say it's a bad day. I can't say it's a good day, because we don't know who's coming next." Roberts also told those gathered that when he arrived at the school system, he was told to "blow up" the district and dismantle it, Johnson said. "Blow it up—those were his exact words," Detroit School Board member Tawanna Simpson confirmed. At a news conference today, Roberts said the governor never instructed him to dismantle the DPS, but factions from Lansing to Detroit, from community members to educators, had wanted him to make wholesale changes in the system and "blow it up," figuratively speaking. "They had totally given up," Roberts said. "But we can make it work."

That’s loaded language in a district where the lack of local control, the future of the public school system, and just how well (or poorly) the schools are doing have been points of contention. The growth of the charter school sector and a new state-run district, the Education Achievement Authority, that runs 15 schools in Detroit have exacerbated concerns about the lack of local say in schools. The city’s schools have been notoriously low-performing.

The school district announced a new strategic plan last month that focuses on community-based schools and avoids shutting down two dozen schools.

Photo: Detroit schools emergency manager Roy Roberts is interviewed in Detroit in 2011. The state-appointed emergency manager plans to step down when his contract expires this month.
--Carlos Osorio/AP

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