Who’s In Charge in Detroit’s Schools?

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — December 21, 2012 4 min read
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A new state law and a court hearing will both affect who makes academic decisions in Detroit’s public schools. Control over the schools in Detroit is quite complicated: A state-run authority (similar to those in Tennessee and Louisiana) controls 15 schools; charter schools account for an increasing number of the district’s students; and, at stake here, the district has a state-appointed financial manager who used to be an emergency manager, and an elected school board that wants to be responsible for academic decisions.

The Detroit Free Press reports that a Wayne County Circuit Courtjudge has ordered the school board and emergency financial manager Roy Roberts to appear in court today in order to determine who has authority over academic decisions in the district. The board claims that emergency financial manager Roy Roberts has overstepped his bounds as financial manager by making academic decisions; Roberts has control over payroll and contract decisions, which effectively prevents the board from having much power.

Roberts succeeded Robert Bobb as the city’s emergency manager in May 2011, and his title and responsibilities only shifted to “emergency financial manager” in August because the state’s previous emergency manager bill was suspended and then repealed. According to the Detroit News, a judge said that as emergency financial manager, Roberts must justify every decision as financial.

But all of this may become less relevant soon: The state legislature passed a “new and improved” version of the emergency manager law, which means Roberts could become emergency manager again and would have authority over academic decisions in the schools. Here’s my colleague Andrew Ujifusa reporting aboutwhat that bill might mean.

Since 1999, Detroit’s elected school board has only had authority over the city’s schools only for about three years—from January 2006 until March 2009. The board has accused Roberts of not resolving the budget crisis in order to keep the district under the state’s control.

This is all relevant to disputes over Michigan’s state-run Education Achievement Authority, which I wrote about in an article for Education Week‘s most recent issue. The authority, which runs 15 schools in Detroit, has also been a subject of disputes between Roberts and the school board (and many community activists). The school board voted to withdraw from the authority in August and again in November, but neither vote means the contract was actually dissolved.

The state-run authority has come under fire for itsunusual academic program, said Thomas Pedroni, a professor of education at Wayne State University in Detroit, but also because some say it is yet another way of disenfranchising Detroit voters by removing schools from local control. Supporters of the achievement authority say these schools needed a change, and Michigan is just one of a number of states that have created state-appointed authorities to run failing schools—in this case, the bottom 5 percent. A similar authority in Memphis faced backlash from the community this week, however, the Commercial-Appeal reports.

All of this insane political back and forth has a very human backdrop that I think we’d do well not to forget.

A terrible school tragedy has dominated national news this week. But in some of our nation’s schools, and especially the schools targeted by efforts like the Education Achievement Authority, tragedy is more than an occasional visitor. In the short time during which I was reporting my story on Detroit, two students at Denby High School, one of the 15 schools in the state-created district, died premature and violent deaths. Denby has about 980 students. Soon after the first student’s death, I spoke with Denby High School parent, Debra Bulock, about the school. She commended principal K.C. Wilbourn for reducing violence and improving the culture at the school. Bulock said the school had had its first pep rally in years—complete with a tug of war—and that she was optimistic about the school’s trajectory and its new teachers. The next day, this news story about another Denby High School student crossed my desk.

In this case, the violence wasn’t inside the schools. But it certainly affects them. Detroit has had a very violent year. Teachers and administrators working in Denby have long had to be fluent in the language of grief and in dealing with students whose academic focus may be affected by stress, grief, and environmental factors—all while adapting to constant changes in who is in charge.


The Education Achievement Authority’s chancellor, John Covington, acknowledged the back-and-forth over the district’s existence in a holiday letter to staff. The letter confirms Michigan governor Richard Snyder’s commitment to the program and says that the governor will make extending the state-run district a “major legislative priority” in the coming session. The letter also says that the state’s superintendent is recommending that the state-run district receive a special advance of $6 million to help it deal with a budget shortfall, and that it will likely receive both $4 million in grant funds for technology and another major foundation grant in the near future.

Photo: Principal K.C. Wilbourn-Snapp of Denby High School cries in her office on the afternoon of Dec. 6 after learning that one of her students was killed in a quadruple homicide two days earlier. --Brian Widdis for Education Week

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