Roy Roberts Takes Over Indebted Detroit Public Schools

Former GM executive Roy Roberts took over as the emergency manager of Detroit's public schools yesterday. And so far, he doesn't seem intent on bulldozing anything -- yet.

Governor Rick Snyder (R) appointed the former GM vice president to the one-year position May 5. Roberts said he would carry out many of the already planned emergency measures, such as closing 14 schools and converting up to 45 traditional schools into charter schools. And though he has the power to do so -- thanks to Michigan's wide-ranging emergency manager law -- he said, according to the Detroit Free Press, that he has no plans to reconstitute the school board or cancel union contracts. For now, he wants to staff up and make sure students have "choices and changes."

As school districts around the country face crippling budget shortfalls, Detroit's schools have been hit especially hard with staggering debt, pink-slipped teachers, school closures, high absenteeism, low college readiness and an uncertain future.

Roberts inherits a system with low graduation rates and an estimated $327 million in debt. He will also have to decide how many of the districts' more than 5,400 teachers to retain next school year.

"I understand there's a feeling of uncertainty, and changes will surely be necessary," Roberts wrote in a letter to the school system's staff on Monday. "I soon will be taking a deep dive into all areas of this organization to determine cost efficiencies and organizational needs."

The U.S. Department of Education has placed low-performing, urban school districts like Detroit at the center of its reform prescriptions. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the city "ground zero" for U.S. education reform in May 2009.

"It is an urban school district, and it has undergone various forms of urban school reform: decentralization, recentralization and now, the new prescription for urban school reform, is to become a charter school," said Marytza Gawlik, who teaches in Wayne State University's Education Leadership & Policy Studies Department, in Detroit. Gawlik said the district is "joining the national movement that you see in urban schools to become a charter school."

While charterization may be a favored approach of education reformers like Duncan, Gawlik said the shift toward charter schools boils down to money: "The district can also sell buildings to charter schools, or have contractors come in," she said. "It's not about innovative curricula or autonomy. This is about the dollar sign. That's the bottom line."

The question of school turnaround in Detroit is two-fold: reformers must simultaneously tackle deep financial woes and low performance.

"It creates a tension because the district is strapped for resources," Gawlik said. "When you're talking about instructional strategies, all of that requires funding, money and resources. On the other hand, on the financial side, there's a huge accounting issue."

Some say the financial problems can detract from a focus on improving education itself. "A central problem in Detroit is organizing to support good instruction for students, because it can fall off the radar," said Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education.

On the bright side, Michigan's tax revenue is up $429 million more than expected, state economists found yesterday. Officials have signaled that some of that money will be routed toward education.

Roberts succeeds Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb, whose contract expires at the end of June. Bobb said he plans to remain while Roberts transitions into the job.

Bobb was appointed by former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and has held the role since 2009. Over the course of his tenure, the district's high school graduation rates have increased slightly.

Bobb considered but decided not to file for bankruptcy on behalf of the schools. He did file a deficit elimination plan, which said shutting down half of Detroit's 142 schools and increasing class size to 60 would expunge the deficit. He later revised the plan, and the district will now shutter 14 schools this year and convert as many as 45 to charters.

Roberts wrote in his letter to staff that he aims to continue implementing Bobb's plan. "To make immediate changes would harm students, and I will not do that," he wrote. "Instead, we will continue to focus on educating students to the highest possible standards, and we will elevate what we are doing."

Roberts kicked off his tenure with two school visits and meetings with the district's staff. In his first public appearance in his new job, Roberts said his first step will be to hire four senior staffers, including a superintendent. He also has a draft budget due to the state on May 30.

Roberts comes to Detroit Public Schools from a slew of prestigious corporate positions, including working as group vice president for North American Vehicle Sales, Service and Marketing of General Motors Corporation. After retiring from GM, he served as managing director of Reliant Equity Investors. But his experience in the education sector is limited to serving on the Board of Trustees at Western Michigan University and as president of the national board of directors of the Boy Scouts of America.

"The fact that [Roberts] comes from a managerial background raises the question of his ideological perspective in education," Gawlik said. "Does he understand the culture of leadership in urban schools? It's not to say he can't manage a school district by the books and the numbers, but I would raise caution as to there being a concerted effort to understand the fundamentals and foundation of education and schooling and core leadership functions."

A spokesman for Roberts did not immediately return request for comment.