Detroit Schools boss: 'Focus on educating kids'

After only about a month as top boss of Detroit Public Schools, Roy Roberts, a 72-year-old former General Motors executive and private equity firm founder, is well aware that some people already want him gone.

The district's new financial manager said he's OK with that reality, adding that differing opinions have value. His only request: Stay out of the way as he tries to turn around one of the nation's worst public school systems.

"I don't care what people think about me, really ... because I know what parents are going to think," Roberts told The Associated Press during an interview in his Detroit Midtown office. "They're going to love it because I'm trying to do the right thing for their children, and you won't find a parent that doesn't want that. I'm simply going to look at a system and say 'What is the best system we can put in place to educate these kids?' I don't care about the politics."

What concerns him, he said, is a massive budget deficit and students who either don't receive a legitimate education or flee the district in search of one. Those mountainous challenges form the ridge that for decades has left the 74,000-student district on the shadowy side of progress.

Armed with unique authority thanks to a new state law signed earlier this year that allows state-appointed financial managers to restructure contracts without union consent and eliminate elected school boards and city councils, Roberts has wasted little time shaping the future. A budget posted last week on the district's website would slice 10 percent from teacher and staff salaries, reduce expenses by about $230 million, cut 853 jobs and use bond sales to skim $200 million off a $327 million budget deficit.

Teachers and the elected school board were not told in advance about the proposed cuts. Roberts made no apologies.

The rank-and-file "don't like the idea of an emergency financial manager having the authority," Detroit Federation of Teachers President Keith Johnson said. "It doesn't matter if it's Robert Bobb, Roy Roberts or Roy Rogers."

Bobb, appointed by ex-Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, spent the past two years aiming for similar progress. He made progress in improving academics, but very little headway on cutting the deficit.

Roberts said debt reduction is not his main goal.

He said Snyder told him when he was appointed in May: "We want you to go in and educate the kids first. That's your No. 1 challenge. Your No. 2 challenge is to stop the bleeding ... and we're going to figure out a way to reverse that over time."

Roberts expects to eliminate the budget deficit in about five years. Changing the district's education culture may take much longer.

That's because many Detroit schools are among the poorest academically performing in the state. Only about six of 10 high school seniors graduate — up from recent years. One in five students drop out and the district typically ranks at or near the bottom in Michigan on standardized tests.

Meanwhile, Detroit is rapidly losing students. Enrollment has dropped from 104,000 in 2007 to 74,000 this past school year and could number 66,360 in the fall. The bottom is projected in the next few years: 56,000 students.

"There are 45,000 students today in the city of Detroit that go to schools outside the city of Detroit, and it's not for academic reasons. It's for safety reasons," Roberts said. "The challenge we face today is the same as some of the auto companies faced three years ago. It's 50 years of accumulation of stuff and I think people were not paying attention to the most important thing, and that was, 'How do you focus on educating kids?'"

Brianna Pannell's parents kept her in the district, but allowed the 16-year-old Pershing High School student to participate in a program that involves weekend and summer study at Cranbrook, a prestigious private college prep boarding school north of Detroit in affluent Bloomfield Hills.

"At DPS, it's either you do it or you don't do it. It's either you get the 'A' or the 'F' with some of the teachers," said Pannell, who will be a senior in the fall. "At Cranbrook, they want you to learn and they are on your back to do it — even on your free time."

That attention to learning also will become the norm in Detroit, Roberts said.

Last week, he and Snyder announced that the district would be splitting into two school systems in 2012. The poorest performing schools, which Roberts estimates could be 60 to 65 percent of the district, will be run by a public-private authority. Leadership and responsibility will be entrusted with principals, teachers and parents rather than a central office.

"I look at those as the patients that are doing well," Roberts said of the higher achieving schools. "And I've talked to them about their diet and tell them that if they got good sleep they'd probably live a longer and better life.

"And then we have (schools that) need more help, and they're in the hospital. And we have to give them lots of self-help to make sure they're well and healthy. Those are the underperforming schools."

School Board President Anthony Adams said the elected board should not be shut out of the process. He said there's been no real dialogue between the board and Roberts.

"I believe the district is going to move forward in a positive manner, but you can't do that if the people aren't involved." Adams said. "He needs to engage the people. He has more authority, but authority should exercise restraint."