Discovering Connie Calloway 

In media interviews, board meetings and a few other public appearances since she arrived in Detroit last summer, Calloway has described questionable accounting methods that she says she is bringing into line with accepted practices. She has appeared to be honest and forthcoming about the district's situation, discussing deficits, dropouts, plans for academic changes, and the expense of building closures. She has professed a willingness to work with the prosecutor's office if malfeasance is found involving past or current employees. She has introduced her new executives, people whom she trusted and came from outside Detroit in some cases to do the top jobs with her. She seems to be cleaning up and continuing to meet the terms of the state-mandated deficit reduction plan from 2004, but she refused to close schools or lay off staff last year, decisions that some board members now say are contributing to a growing budget shortfall.

She has wondered aloud about the "culture" of Detroit education that partially blames the "victims" — the children who don't learn — instead of the adults who are paid to instruct them.

"You want a scapegoat and a figurehead so you can put a name and face on the failure," she told a community group in April. "Detroit Public Schools has got to have a standard for who we hire or how we hold them accountable and for how they meet the needs of our children."

And Calloway has challenged the community to help her face a school board that is Detroit's first such elected body since 1998, when the mayor and the state began choosing who filled board seats. The return to a popularly elected board in 2006 affects the dynamics of the relationship between the superintendent and the members, who have to face voters every two years (if they are among the seven members elected to represent a specific area of the city) or four years (if they are among the four members elected at large).

"I can't have 11 bosses. I need to be free to do the job I was hired to do," she said in an April speech at Wayne State University. "Every day I wake up and I do the best I can for the children of Detroit Public Schools. The hardest part of my job is keeping adults focusing on children. I make many decisions that adults don't like and are unpopular."

But in the last several weeks, Calloway's honeymoon with Detroit has been showing signs it's ending, with board members becoming more critical of her leadership and bigger, future problems filling the headlines and agendas. She faces further declining enrollment, massive budgetary shortfalls, waning support from some school board members, constant competition from charter schools, unions trying to protect district jobs, citizens opposed to school closures in their neighborhoods and students dropping out of high school at an appalling pace. The rest of June may indicate whether she'll last until the end of her contract.

Calloway has publicly sparred with board members about who's responsible for a budget shortfall in an account used to pay employees' salaries and benefits. The district's $1.4 billion budget must be balanced and adopted by July 1. She has faced scrutiny from national media reporting about the district's dropout rate — just 24 percent of high school students graduate in Detroit, according to one study that found about 50 percent of students in other large urban districts earned diplomas. Calloway puts Detroit's rate at 38 percent, noting that it's still unacceptable. And the board of education is in the midst of evaluating her performance for the first time — hundreds of surveys have been distributed to district staff and administrators as well as people in the community. The board will review them and then do its own evaluation of Calloway in a closed session this summer.

Nearly a year into her superintendency, Detroit and Calloway are discovering each other and negotiating the district's future. She's been praised for being honest about the district's state, but questioned for being too outspoken as well.

She's offered some hope but she's also sparked controversial questions: Does this signal the beginning of the common Detroit superintendent's slide into bad relations with the board, the community and the district's 33 unions? Will it lead to her eventual ineffectiveness and departure? When will her "discovery" days be over? At what point will she take ownership of the system and stop blaming those who came before her?

Whether she'll stay through her five-year contract and be able to make some needed improvements to the district's academic and financial situation is a question being quietly asked throughout the district.

"I'm still in a wait-and-see posture," says board member Jimmy Womack. "I have hopeful expectations that things will work out the best for our kids."

Calloway declined numerous interview requests from Metro Times during the last several weeks. Through her public relations director, she asked to meet for afternoon tea, then failed to show up.

Still, her speeches, her public statements at board meetings, her record and the opinions of those who work with her help form a picture of a determined educator facing huge challenges and trying to effect systemic change.

WAIT AND SEE

Womack was president of the new 11-member board of education when then-CEO William Coleman's one-year contract expired in June 2006. Coleman had been interim leader for a year, then signed on for 12 months as the "permanent" CEO.

Instead of hiring an outside firm to lead a national search as many large districts do, the Detroit board opted to save some costs and handle the selection itself. A committee and its advisory group said they wanted "a team player, a risk taker and a leader who can push teachers, parents and students. The person must be able to achieve new academic heights while pulling in more students and cash. The superintendent must be able to navigate Detroit's racially charged political minefield and close dozens of schools — while simultaneously gaining the favor of parents," the Detroit Free Press reported in August 2006.

Calloway applied along with Coleman, who wanted to keep his job, David Snead, who had led the district in the 1990s, and 14 other applicants. Board members said they were "unimpressed" by the pool. But a handful of finalists, including Calloway, came for public interviews.

A native of Alabama, Calloway has a doctorate in administration and curriculum from Ohio University, a master's degree in reading from Harvard University and a bachelor's of science from Sarah Lawrence College. She came to Detroit after being superintendent in Normandy, Mo., since 2004. As one of several districts in St. Louis, Normandy has just 5,700 students compared to Detroit's then roughly 117,000 students.

She was selected in March 2007 for the $280,000-a-year Detroit job and started July 1. Her first month was a whirlwind of open houses, meetings and community gatherings where she met literally thousands of people.

One of them was Carol Goss, president of the Skillman Foundation. The foundation has given direct grants totaling $30 million to the district since 1985 and about $3.6 million — mainly to individual schools — since Calloway arrived. Skillman is one of the city's leading funders of children's programs with grants to nonprofits and schools.

"The first time I met Dr. Calloway, I thought she was a very strong personality, but I was at that time impressed and continue to be impressed by two things. One, her decisions are really data-driven. She talks about, show me the data, the evidence that something is working or not working," Goss says. "The second thing is that she really does understand teaching and learning. ... I think that she's learning how to navigate the political waters that are inherent here in this kind of position, but she will not compromise what's in the best interest of children, and I really respect that."

Two weeks into Calloway's tenure, the Detroit Federation of Teachers hosted an open house where union president Virginia Cantrell remembers a positive beginning for Calloway and the union.

"This was to welcome her and to let her know that we would like to have a working relationship with her and the district. If we don't all roll up our sleeves and work together right now, we're in trouble," Cantrell says.

Hundreds of teachers came to the event at the DFT's New Center headquarters and heard Calloway introduce herself and her goals.

"I thought she stated quite well to the teachers who were there, 'I know what a hard job you're having. I know the conditions of some of the schools, and we will be working together to try to correct and make the classroom what it ought to be,'" Cantrell recalls Calloway as saying.

But Cantrell says Calloway's districtwide honeymoon was over just a few weeks after the whirlwind welcome. "I think that when you sit down and you start looking at the books and when you start meeting with the people who are out in the audience at the board meetings and they are not always pleasant, I think that the welcome mat was jerked in," she says.

The women talk or meet almost weekly, according to Cantrell, and have mutual concerns about how to keep class sizes small, ensure books and supplies are available the first scheduled day of school, Sept. 2, and maintain clean and safe schools.

"My intention is that, at this point in time, instead of having an adversarial working relationship, I see us rolling up our sleeves, sitting down and having conversations," Cantrell says.

What might be most telling is that the DFT has publicly opposed Calloway's biggest announced academic improvement: her intention to create smaller schools within five existing high schools to focus on career-related training or an academic specialty.

The teachers' union held a demonstration against the smaller schools plan — and other policies and conditions including potential layoffs, oversized classes, violence at schools, lack of books and supplies and poor building maintenance — outside of the district's headquarters April 17.

"The union would like to see a plan and either be a part of putting the plan together or they can have a plan and we can sit down and modify and have input. We know there need to be some changes," Cantrell says.

ECONOMICS 101

Perhaps the most pressing public problem facing Calloway is how to adjust to the plummeting student population. During the 2000-2001 year, Detroit Public Schools enrollment was about 163,000 students. This year, it's about 106,000, according to the Michigan Department of Education records, down from the 117,000 students when Calloway applied for the job. With Michigan school funding tied to enrollment, any reduction in students means less state money. But predicting reduction is difficult. The district must produce a balanced budget for the 2008-2009 year at the end of this month. The official student counts that determine the amount of money the state gives to the district occur in September and January.

In addition, without an accurate count of students and their distribution by grade and school building, how to distribute teachers and other school staff is problematic. Challenges with other building and service logistics like transportation and food service follow.

And now, with enrollment poised to fall below 100,000, the district could lose its "first-class district" designation as prescribed in the state's school code originally designed to give special status to Detroit. That means the district might not qualify for certain bonding capabilities, could have some governance changed and lose some special funds.

"If we let nature take its course, I think it's fairly clear that the Detroit Public School system will dip below 100,000 students, and with that dip will come the elimination of the first-class status," says Gary Naeyaert, spokesman for the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the charter schools' statewide group.

Under current law, the number of charter schools in the district is limited, but if Detroit loses its first-class status, more charter schools could open.

"We do have people lined up if the opportunity is available," Naeyaert says

Rep. Bettie Cook Scott, D-Detroit, has introduced a bill that would lower the first-class mark to 75,000 students. It remains in committee.

Naeyaert says the district should not expect legislators from the rest of the state to maintain Detroit's "favored nation" status.

"We want to see more children with the option of attending the school that they would like to attend that provides them the best chance of academic success." In other words, an increased numbers of charter schools and increased competition for Detroit Public Schools.

As that battle awaits, the Detroit board of education and Calloway have a full schedule of meetings in the next week to put together a balanced budget for the 2008-2009 year. A nearly full-day public budget hearing is planned Thursday, followed by the regular monthly board meeting in the evening.

If recent committee meetings are any indication, there may be fireworks.

At the June meeting of the school board's Committee on Finance, Budget, Title I and Legislative Affairs, the discussion focused on the newly discovered "fallout" account that had created the gap for this year. Funding some employee salaries and benefits, the account went from having a $5 million surplus reported at the finance committee's May meeting to the $65 million projected shortfall earlier this month. Now the latest cumulative deficit is $127 million as the students, salaries, retirement funds and tax revenues are more accurately counted.

"Every day still is a day of discovery for us," Calloway said at the meeting, invoking the line she used publicly in December.

Answering questions from the committee, Calloway described the account. "The debt began accumulating in 2004," she said. "The deficit continued to mount because of not laying off staff. ... It has come to the desk of this superintendent and we must make a change for next year. We can't continue to take on debt for an overflow of staff."

Calloway blamed the overflow account on "employees who preceded me." She restated what had been in recent headlines: At her request, evaluators from the Council of Great City Schools, a group of the nation's largest school districts, came in and reviewed district financial practices. A full report is due later this month, but a preliminary report in May noted the fallout account alone would produce a $45 million deficit for the 2008-2009 budget, part of the total $127 million projection. Womack asked why he and at least one other board member hadn't received any information about the council's findings.

"I'm real troubled," he said.

Calloway said she sent it to the board office. "What happens to it once it reaches the board office, I can't say," she said.

Womack was frustrated. "The Council of Great City Schools was here for three days and uncovered something. ... I've been telling us for months that we're not reconciling our dollars," he said. "What it's saying and how it's portrayed in the media is that people were clearly not competent and somehow mismanaged."

Board vice president Joyce Hayes-Giles cautioned that the board and the administration should move forward.

"I really hate to see us getting into this blame game," she said. "We need to be looking at fixes."

"I'm not interested in laying blame. There are many systems that a board would have no idea exist," Calloway responded to board criticism during the meeting. "But I'm not going to be a scapegoat for a problem that the accounting department has said existed since 2004."

So is she a strong leader who won't be bullied by a school board worried about public appearances and votes in the next election? Or is Calloway a stubborn micromanager who only trusts and has the trust of an inner circle of administrators, not the entire district? Can she productively blend the roles of district administrator, lead educator, public relations face, legislative lobbyist, and partner with private businesses and community foundations, which are all part of the job description for an effective big city superintendent?

Or will she leave soon, making it six superintendents or CEOs for the Detroit district in less than 15 years?

"I did not come to Detroit just to be the name and face of failure," Calloway said at a Wayne State University luncheon in April. "Detroit Public Schools have been in disarray for so long. ... As one individual coming in, I felt there we so many problems with the district that I inherited. There were those people who simply wanted me to fix it, fix it, and fix it now."

THE REVOLVING DOOR

Perhaps the biggest question that follows all big city superintendents into the job isn't what they'll do, but how long they'll stay.

"Turnover is probably not good, but given the enormous political pressure on school boards, especially elected school boards, high turnover is probably built into the system. It's not good for the kids," says David Adamany, who served as the district's chief executive officer from 1999 to 2000. "There's a long history of clashes between the superintendent and the board. Superintendents don't stay very long."

But Adamany admits he didn't have the political problem of trying to please an elected board that hired him. He was tapped to lead the Detroit Public Schools for just one year by the reform board, the state-imposed panel that ran the district from 1999 to 2006. Adamany, retired as president of Wayne State, agreed to the year. "I was really appointed under unusual circumstances. I served one year and left. That was the deal," he told Metro Times in a recent interview from Philadelphia, where he is chancellor of Temple University.

Adamany says he was able to move some programs along that could have had long-term benefit for the district.

"I had ample authority and I was able to do a series of things that I thought were an attempt to lay the groundwork for someone else to come in," he says.

All the union contracts were renegotiated, and the teachers' pact included some changes Adamany calls "helpful" in recruitment and evaluation. Contracts that were part of the school construction bond issue were reviewed, and many were closed out because of mismanagement, Adamany says. With the help of the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, parents were summoned when their children had missed 100 or more days of school. Students could not advance a grade unless they had a certain attendance level, adequate test scores and passing grades. "The kids could go to school in the summer. If they performed better, they could be promoted," Adamany says. "That was wildly unpopular and quickly fell to public pressure and wasn't continued."

That single program demonstrates one of the problems that follows the revolving door of educational leadership: long-term inconsistency and a lack of buy-in for policies district employees know will change with a new leader.

"In a year it was possible to get some things under way, but in education change needs to be sustained very much in the long term. That's the problem with turnover, of course. Educational institutions are huge, decentralized, sprawling, so change comes slowly," Adamany says. "You have to be there a while to make the changes stick. That's the problem with big city superintendents. They get exhausted, worn down. It's party because of public pressure on the school board."

Still Adamany doesn't fully believe in the system he worked in: a CEO responsible only to an advisory school board that "couldn't very well fire me because they didn't have anyone else.

"It was more like receivership and bankruptcy than the type of American governance that we could all respect," Adamany says.

After Adamany, Kenneth Burnley led the district from 2000 to 2005. He was followed by William Coleman who was CEO from 2005 until last year. Then Lamont Satchell was the interim superintendent for a few months between Coleman and Calloway.

The 1990s weren't much better. Four individuals were the superintendent between 1989 and 1999: John Porter, Deborah McGriff, David Snead and Eddie Green.

With nine different leaders in less than 20 years, Detroit turnover is greater than the average in urban districts, says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Nationally the average superintendent lasts five to six years, but in urban districts a little more than three years is the norm, Houston says. "Why? It's the politics. It's the boards. It's the unrelenting nature of challenge. The fact is that superintendents are squeezed between, frankly, boards who don't know what they're doing, union pressure, pressures from the community, inadequate resources, intractable social issues, lack of financial capital. You're also highly visible. All of those things make it difficult to be successful," he says.

Detroit's roughly two-year average for a superintendent or district CEO is even worse, but Houston calls Calloway's five-year contract a "good sign," as three- or four-year pacts have been the norm across the United States for big city districts. "What you're seeing is more, longer contracts as part of a recognition that people realize longevity is important," he says. "It's hard to get any kind of traction when you've got that kind of churn going on at the top of the organization. ... People know things aren't going to last long. It's hard for them to invest in change strategies that might get laid out because they say, 'Why should we get invested here? This person will be gone in a couple of years.'"

Calloway herself has basically told the community to get vested in her, or else.

"If you want someone who is going to keep the status quo, buy me out. If you want someone who is going to work for children, you do something about the interference that keeps coming my way. You do something about all the friction and the interference that comes from those who evaluate me. You do something about all the negativity on the air and on the TV," she said in April.

After a year of discoveries, the board and the community will begin to decide about Calloway during the next few weeks.

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or ssvoboda@metrotimes.com

More by Sandra Svoboda

Best Things to Do In Detroit

Newsletters

Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

© 2016 Detroit Metro Times

Website powered by Foundation