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Lessons not learned 

With their latest posturing at a hearing last week before State Superintendent Mike Flanagan, the so-called leaders of Detroit Public Schools are shamelessly losing what little face the district still has.

There are a couple issues.

First, the district doesn't want a financial manager that the state wants to install. And, second, the district wants the opportunity to further challenge the decision to install the manager. As usual, the students, who will suffer the most, are lacking much consideration in any of this.

Let's review: The school board chose Superintendent Connie Calloway in March 2007 from a pool of candidates that could be charitably described as weak. Calloway led a 5,700-student district in Missouri, a far cry from the Detroit situation's finances, administration and certainly the politics.

Calloway came in sounding not so bad. She negotiated a five-year contract that was viewed by some as a commitment from the board to give her enough time to make things happen. She met with members of the district's unions, community leaders and politicos. She brought in some trusted lieutenants, who set about trying to remedy decades of decline. She was at first forthright with the media — and therefore the public — about what needed to be done and how she would do it.

And then, frankly, it all went to hell in the last six months. Projections for the 2008-09 budget bounced from a surplus of $5 million in May to a deficit of more than $400 million recently. Board members complained that Calloway didn't respect them or respond to their inquiries. Enrollment skidded to about 94,000 this year, down from about 163,000 eight years ago.

A divided board fired Calloway last week, making her the district's sixth superintendent in about 15 years. Granted, Calloway wasn't perfect. She's media-shy, at best; at worst she's just plain naive about the need to be "out there" in the community to lobby for the district and herself. She chose to halt school closings and staff layoffs, which were much-needed cost-saving measures. For too long she relied on her "every day is a day of financial discovery" mantra without unveiling a specific plan for investigating and remedying the dire financial situation everyone knew preceded her.

But she faced a nearly impossible situation: a school board with many members who were unwilling to forgo their own egos, political ambitions and power grabs enough to let the superintendent lead.

Witness this week's hearings before Flanagan. After the Michigan Department of Education determined the district had failed to adhere to a deficit-reduction plan and had "serious" financial problems, the district would get a state-appointed financial manager, Flanagan decided.

When the district balked, he allowed both the Department of Education and Detroit Public Schools to make their cases in a public forum. Originally given 30 minutes each, Flanagan, to his credit, extended the time for DPS lawyers and state officials to present their information. He also asked some questions to clarify the arguments.

State officials presented a history of their attempts to work with the district to remedy the finances. But, according to the department, a deficit-reduction plan wasn't followed and a consent agreement wasn't fulfilled.

So how did the district's lawyers argue their case? They offered as evidence of the district's ability to run itself the assertion that academics are getting better. They pointed out many of the district's problems date to the "reform" board, the appointed body that ran the district during the state takeover from 1999 to 2006. They said the dire situation in the schools is just like what's going on in the city and the state because of the poor economy. And they called the state's plans to install financial overseers a violation of "due process" and constitutional rights.

Well, as U.S. Secretary of Education appointee Arne Duncan says, education is a civil right. And he's talking about the rights of children to attend safe, clean schools with qualified teachers, adequate supplies and an atmosphere where they can learn. That includes the obligation of adults — educated, elected, professional adults — to lead. And here we'd amend that to lead, follow or get out of the way.

Detroit is a district that should be taking all the help it can get. Instead of spending district money — which, by the way, is in quite short supply, with a $400 million deficit by one analysis — on hearings, memos and time arguing for process and procedure, why not put it toward what's best for the education of children?

Instead, they want to challenge the state's authority to take control of the district's finances by "cross-examining" state officials. Flanagan ended last week's hearing by saying he'll have some sort of decision by the end of the year.

What they really need to do is consider completely overhauling the organization of the district to cope with plummeting enrollment — down 42 percent in eight years. If the state wants to administer the financial end, well, why not lessen the burden on the local administrators and board members? (Of course, protecting an oversized administration and board is one of the underlying points of contention here.)

After all, the board will be busy hiring a new superintendent. And finding someone willing to come into this mess might take some doing. The next pool of candidates might be even weaker than the one that produced Calloway.

News Hits was written by Sandra Svoboda. Contact her at or

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